‘Written to move’
Latin music gives voice to passion of culture and life
Although Susan Welk-Valdez couldn’t understand the words, she was drawn to Latin music years ago while traveling in Mexico with girlfriends.
Then, she met Acapulco, Mexico, native Martin Valdez Gonzalez and all those mysterious lyrics set to beautiful melodies and rhythms made sense.
“The thing that drew me to music in Spanish really was the ballads,” Welk-Valdez said. “You can’t find anything in English, or at least not very much, that’s as incredibly passionate or romantic as music written in Spanish.”
Valdez Gonzalez and Welk-Valdez, Delta County residents and owners of La Voz del Pueblo Spanish-language newspaper, have been married for 22 years and their enthusiasm for Latin music — Valdez Gonzalez’s father, Martin Valdez Lopez, is a Mexican composer and musician — has them excited for two upcoming events featuring Latin music.
The Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra will host esteemed band Mariachi Champaña Nevin in a concert on Saturday, Feb. 8, marking the first time the symphony will perform with a touring Latin musical group, said symphony marketing director Jeremy Herigstad.
Then, on Wednesday, Feb. 12, Latin musician and Colorado Mesa University guitar instructor Javier de los Santos will play during the Western Colorado Latino Chamber of Commerce’s anniversary party.
Both events will give Latin music lovers and people unfamiliar with the genre a taste of Latin music’s unique flavor.
“I think people are curious” about the genre, said Welk-Valdez, secretary for the Western Colorado Latino Chamber, who plans to attend the Mariachi Champaña Nevin concert with her husband.
Some of those curious people may have a passing familiarity with Mexican mariachi or traditional guitar tunes, but Latin music goes beyond those.
“Latin music is not a strolling group of mariachis in an old Hollywood Western. It is not ‘Conga,’ or ‘La Bamba.’ It is not Carmen Miranda. It is all of those things — the various musical anomalies most familiar to mainstream America — and much, much more,” penned pop music writer James Sullivan in a September 2001 San Francisco Chronicle story about Latin music.
Just as the United States has regions where certain musical genres are more popular than others — country music in Texas, jazz in New Orleans — Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America have regional musical preferences with by different instruments, rhythms and styles.
In northern Mexico, norteño is popular and songs often feature a stringed bajo sexto or accordion with polka or waltz rhythms, thanks to Bohemian immigrants to that area.
Norteño might be the most commonly heard style of Latin music in western Colorado because many local Latinos have ties to northern Mexico, said de los Santos, a native of Zacatecas in the north central Mexico.
In Zacatecas, where de los Santos grew up and began formal guitar performance studies at Unidad Académica de Música de la Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, mariachi music is popular.
Mariachi music is played by brass and stringed instruments such as violins, guitars, the large six-string guitarron and ukulele-sized vilhuela. Sometimes, harps or marimbas are used, and mariachi performers wear traditional ornamented suits, large sombreros and bow ties.
Mariachi music is quintessentially Mexican, said de los Santos, who will perform with the Grand Valley group Mariachi San Jose to open the symphony’s Saturday concert.
However, the coastal regions of Mexico were influenced by African beats, which can be heard in “son,” a type of Latin folk music with a related dance. And as one heads south of Mexico, Cumbia, Tango, Merengue and Salsa are popular.
Musicians in the different regions also have taken the most traditional song types and put their own spins on them and then the “people make it special,” de los Santos said.
But Salsa is probably the most popular Latin music style in the world, he said.
“If you can learn how to Salsa or Cumbia you will understand Latin music without knowing the words,” Welk-Valdez said.
“That’s the most dangerous part,” said her husband with a smirk.
What Latin music has in common no matter the region, however, is how important it is to people, said de los Santos, Welk-Valdez and Valdez Gonzalez.
“I would say it’s far more a part of everyone’s life there than here,” Welk-Valdez said.
“Everyone has their radio on,” Valdez Gonzalez said. “Everyone. It’s part of your life. It’s part of your culture because music, where I’m from, was written to move.”