Various Artists

The Mexican Revolution

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You can't get much more specialized than this four-CD box when it comes to historical recordings, but it's an impressive accomplishment with great value for researchers into Mexican music and history. The 180-page booklet (informative social history notes, period photos, and full English-Spanish lyrics for all 59 songs) in The Mexican Revolution place the corrido as a people's newspaper (see calypso, rai) in depicting events associated with the early-20th century political developments in Mexico. The songs are mini history lessons and exercises in popular myth-making, which make them a pretty direct link to the current crop of narco-corridos released by Los Tigres del Norte and others. They were almost certainly the vehicle for the vast majority of everyday Mexicans to hear the details of major battles, or events related to the life of Pancho Villa, or the heroism of some local figures who otherwise would have passed into anonymity. The earliest track, "Jesús Leal" by Rafael Herrera Robinson, was recorded to wax cylinder in 1904 and may be the first corrido ever recorded and a second comes from 1908, so the depth of the research is obvious. The majority come from the so-called Golden Age of the '20s and '30s, with a significant minority from the '60s in what looks like a generational rediscovery. Most were initially divided into parts one and two to fit on both sides of a 78, but are very smoothly united here. It wasn't that hard given the simple structure of corridos -- just stop at the end of a verse to close part one, add a couple introductory bars of the same guitar melody to start part two, and away you go. The problem for most listeners on a musical level is that there are limits to how much of one form and general lyric theme you can take, especially since most of the artists simply tell their tales without many arrangement adornments. Arhoolie wrings the maximum possible variety out of the music via dividing the discs by themes and savvy sequencing ruled by listening flow and not chronology. Following are some thoughts should the discs be available individually.

For history freaks, "Outlaws and Revolutionaries" has the two oldest tracks and opens with the most recent one, "Ignacio Parra" from 1972 by Los Alegres de Terán. The latter is also among the distinct minority of accordion corridos on this disc, with the majority dating from the '20s and '30s and featuring acoustic guitars backing a couple of vocalists singing in harmony. "Benjamín Argumedo" (remarkably clear sounding for a 1935 recording) gets an almost 12-string guitar flavor, the fairly uptempo "Nuevo Corrido de Madero" is notable for its long, fast guitar riff, harp (not harmonica) pops in occasionally on "Valentín Mancera," and "El Cuartelazo" by Las Hermanas Mendoza is one of handful by female vocalists. The professionalism of Lydia Mendoza & Family shines at the end of the disc devoted to "The Francisco Villa Cycle," but the first half is accordion corridos. The fact they date from the '50s and '60s suggests a period shift in instrumentation, and "La Toma de Guadalajara" is doubly novel for being an example of early banda (i.e., Mexican brass band with tuba blats for bajo sexto and French horn skank) and male-female unison harmony singing. After the very lively take by Los Hermanos Chavarria backed by Trio San Antonio, there's a drop back three decades to the guitars on Hernández y Sifuentes -- but both share a common theme of taking great pride in Villa and poking fun in his escape from a U.S. Army expedition led by General Pershing, who crossed the border to capture him. Some of these songs were recorded within mere weeks or months after the event, but the older material sags -- Villa's defeat at Celaya is covered in three corridos, and none of them are particularly exciting.

"Local Revolutionary Figures" presents a strong concept and is the best single disc for performance level and stylistic variety for those interested in the music as much or more than the history. Only a handful date from the pre-World War II era and the Juanita y María Mendoza track shows the influence of being recorded in 1950s L.A., with jazz backing and mellifluous horns over strummed guitar and their vocals. Luis Pérez Meza, Los Montañeses del Alamo, and Emilio Medellín y Lupe Posada all go for a more sophisticated sound that seems geared toward the ballroom set with lush strings. They're not that good and were probably attempts to "upgrade" the style and make it palatable for the snob set, since corridos and música norteña (Tex-Mex) were traditionally despised as the music of illiterate peasants by "refined" Mexican society. But the straight-ahead simplicity of Los Hermanos Garza and old-school accordion corrido of Conjunto Tamaulipas work and Méndez y González serve up the most inventive accordion solo lines on the entire set. Dueto América tosses in trumpet flurries and strings to comment on the male-female vocals, Dueto Sandoval is very rough-hewn but affecting, and Trio Los Aguilillas is right in the pocket, distinguished by a really nice harmony blend. Hermanos Bañeulos have three excellent tracks, all distinctive in their own right -- ganja heads should be aware "Marijuana, la Soldadera" is about a female soldier/martyr for the revolutionary cause named Mary Jane, not some kind of hidden herb metaphor. The "Post Revolutionary Corridos & Narratives" are immediate post-revolution since almost all the songs date from the '20s and '30s. There's a greater female vocal presence and while it may be the best single disc of pure historical corridos, reading the lyrics is as essential as listening to the music to get what's going on here. The themes cover assorted secondary revolutions and major political figures, Catholic Church-state relations, agrarian reform related to land redistribution, and the 1938 expropriation of foreign oil companies. There's some humor, too, be it Trio Luna debunking youthful bravado or Guzmán y Rosales imagining a reunion of various dead political heroes and villains in hell.

The Mexican Revolution isn't designed for everyone and certainly isn't a box set to recommend for a casual purchase. But anyone seriously interested in Mexican music and history, especially the unique perspective that popular music brings by giving a voice to that huge percentage of the population never allowed to have one in the official history channels, will find it well worth the expense.

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