Monday, March 14, 2016

Lone Piñon: Getting to the heart of it

My work brings me in contact with a number of musicians who play traditional Mexican folk. Unlike pop music, which freely draws from anywhere it wants, I sometimes hear questions of authenticity with regards as who gets to play traditional Mexican music and under what conditions it is performed. There is a certain amount of wariness when it comes to perceived interlopers that borrow from traditional forms, but bend them to their own artistic purposes, something that creatively restless pop musicians often depend on for inspiration. Think Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and David Byrne, to name three that I've always admired. Yet, I've even heard criticism of groups like East LA's Las Cafeteras, who mix up folk forms like son jarocho with indie pop songwriting, traces of hip-hop and a left leaning political platform. This, despite the fact that, as Chicanos, they would seem to have a legitimate claim on Mexican roots music.

And that brings me to this past Friday night and a show at Sabor a Café Steakhouse by Lone Piñon, a trio from Santa Fe, New Mexico that plays Mexican music in a stripped down, but ultimately complex manner: a trio of fiddle, guitar and guitarrón who perform totally acoustic, standing behind a single microphone through which all amplification passes, instruments and vocals alike, resulting in a startlingly organic sound that washes over you all at once without stereo separation.

Only Noah Martinez, the guitarrón player, hails from New Mexico, and his family roots go back all the way to colonial times. The other members of the trio, fiddler / lead vocalist Jordan Wax and guitarist Greg Glassman, come to Mexican folk from other fields. Wax, a Missouri native, studied Ozark mountain fiddling, has done time in a Klezmer punk band and, while living in Quito, Ecuador, played in a Latin Ska group. Guitarist Glassman, from New York City, studied with Gnawa musicians in Morocco, drummed for experimental jazz and Irish punk outfits, and even played rockabilly and gospel before traveling to Veracruz to study son jarocho.

They've been together as Lone Piñon for only a few years, but if I had to judge from what I heard Friday night absent any other information, I'd swear they've been doing this their whole lives. They concentrate on music from Mexico's Huasteca and Tierra Caliente regions, plus the area known as El Rio Grande del Norte: Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. There are occasional forays into West Texas swing, son jarocho, corrido and even ranchera. Huapangos are the attention getters, but there are waltzes and polkas sprinkled through and even the occasional tender ballad. After a while, you start to hear the sound behind the sound, as intimations of the music's European and American folk influences simmer just below the surface. At times, it even feels a bit like gypsy jazz a la Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli.

Ultimately, you sense the band's deep respect for the music and cultures from which it emerged, honoring its integrity with the purity of their all acoustic instrumental approach. There is no updating going on, but there is a subtle blending, like a good spice mix, as they bring their diverse backgrounds to this music. New Mexico itself, you might remember, was Mexico (along with Arizona, Texas Nevada and California) until what is called on this side of the border the Mexican-American War of 1846-47, which resulted in massive U.S. expansion. It has the highest percentage of both Hispanic and Indigenous populations of any contiguous U.S. state. But it's also close to the Midwest and it of course borders Texas and Oklahoma. All of this is present in New Mexico, and it is present in the music of Lone Piñon as well.

But enough of academics! Lone Piñon are, first and foremost, crack musicians and singers, but the casualness of their presentation belies this expertise, instead conjuring the feel of a gathering of good friends. Jordan Wax kills on Huapango style vocals, and when Glassman joins in on harmonies, the effect is magic, made all the more so by their unique one microphone presentation. The interplay between fiddle and guitar, anchored by Martinez's flawless bottom on the guitarrón, will make your jaw drop, then pull it back up into a wide grin.

Lone Piñon's recorded live in the studio album Trio Nuevomexicano was just released, and I'm kicking myself that I spent all my money on cerveza on Friday, leaving nothing for the CD. But you can download it from Amazon or stream it on Spotify, and it does a pretty darn good job of capturing who they are. Nothing beats a live show, though, so check their website to find out when they're coming to a city or folk festival near you.

You wont regret it.

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