Among the many musical traditions of Mexico, the son is one of the most representative of the richness and diversity of Mexican culture. Son (or sones) is a generic term that describes both a complex of genres and the various regional subgenres that make up that complex. Son is a type of traditional music performed by small ensembles, with or without singing, and danced. It serves to entertain, but is also performed at celebratory occasions and festivals as well as in rituals. Although sones appear throughout Mexico marked by regional differences in both instrumentation and performance styles, they share common characteristics that define the genre as a whole, musically (i.e., their rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic structures), lyrically, and choreographically. Because of the particular cultural traits and sociocultural contexts that each son subgenre encompasses, it can be argued that regional sones are a powerful expression of Mexican regional musics, cultures, and social identities. Born as a hybrid genre out of the intermixing of European, American Indian, African, and Afro-Caribbean musical elements and contexts, Mexican sones have moved through time defined by many as a symbol of Mexican identity, even if the very concept of that “Mexican identity” has changed over time. What might be called the son’s “Golden Age” lasted from the 1890s until the middle of the 20th century. By the 1960s, sones were in serious decline all around Mexico: they had lost the favor of their audiences, old performers had passed away, and new generations did not engage with these musical traditions. Cultural politics contributed to selective processes through which some son subgenres faded away. Sociopolitical processes from the 1930s to the 1980s contributed to the re-contextualization of the Mexican son through modified versions of sones staged and broadcast in theatres, radio stations, and film productions. Post-revolutionary nationalism, the music industry, and folkloric ballets created these new versions and exercised an ideological control that both affected popular musical expressions and shaped musical tastes. Changes in urbanization and life conditions transformed social relationships and furthered this intense transformation. With fewer performance occasions and little support from either the government or private patrons, several regional son subgenres became thin and isolated, with minimal projection outside their regions. In the 1980s, some of the son subgenres underwent a renaissance owing to various private and official initiatives that infused new life to the music. This article provides an overview of the son, past and present, connecting the relevance of this musical style with the social history of the country.
Raquel G. Paraíso
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs. For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition of Mexico City was in between 1569 and 1820. Its task was to regulate the moral life of the society of New Spain and it was authorized to punish offenders. The crimes that were usually persecuted were acts against the Catholic faith (heresy, blasphemy, sorcery, and idolatry) or against accepted morality (indecency, bigamy, sexual harassment, homosexuality, and sedition). The Court placed limited attention to the sones de la tierra (sounds of the land) from 1766 to 1819. The sones were sung dances that were eventually considered unsuitable and were denounced for various reasons: the lyrics of the songs contained vulgar words or heretical or blasphemous concepts, the steps of dances were indecent, the choreography implied actions that parodied known acts of the Christian liturgy, or by some combination of these factors. The archive of the Inquisition of Mexico is practically the only source of information on music and street poetry in the cities and towns of the colony. The sones de la tierra are the origin of the current cultural music genre called son mexicano, the most significant part of the traditional music and poetry of the country. The sones de la tierra of the Baroque period and the current Mexican sones have three basic elements: music, poetry, and choreography. The music is based on recurrent rhythmic-harmonic patterns (ostinato) on which instrumental or vocal improvisations are made. Each determined pattern generates a son with a specific name. Thus, it is possible to speak of sones typical of the Baroque period (chacona, zarabanda, chuchumbé, and saraguandingo) or in present-day Mexico (bamba, maracumbé, petenera, and oaxacado). Some can be documented both in the 18th century and in the 21st century (matachines, fandango, panaderos, and zacamandú). The poetry of the sones is based on the active principle of the copla, a poetic form based on the octosyllabic quatrain in various modalities (seguidilla and décima). The current Mexican variants are directly related to the Spanish poetry of the Golden Age. The dance of the sones is performed mainly in couples who dance without having physical contact, using different steps whose main characteristic is the zapateado. The archive of the Inquisition of Mexico mentions some sixty sones. The complaints and interrogations of the Court provide information about the sung lyrics, the ways of dancing, the people who practiced them, their geographical distribution, and some social attitudes regarding their use. This information shows that the sones de la tierra were common throughout the territory of New Spain and were practiced by people of almost all social classes. The study of the sones de la tierra allows us to understand the existence and behavior of the different variants of the Mexican sones of today, which represent one of the fundamental elements of Mexican culture.