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Cancion Mixteca
By Richard Malmed 

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I have visited the coast of Oaxaca in Mexico for over 30 years. My fascination with the area, although garnished with physical and climatic beauty, centers in it's indigenous culture.

The regional music revealed itself to me as an oral history of specific events and general feelings. The songs are timeless, embraced today by grandmother and granddaughter alike, loved in church and sung around bottles of mescal. They serve as a window into the soul of the people of Oaxaca.

I first moved towards this music in an attempt to improve my Spanish language skills, the hypothesis being that in translating these lyrics into English I could learn phrases that I could incorporate into conversations with these people who I wanted to know.

The language learning motive was overtaken by the music itself. I had long been entertained with the guitar. A logical step was to try to learn how to play my list of favorite Mexican tunes on the instrument. With the help of a bilingual friend I looked towards the ever present street musicians for a teacher; a member of a roving trio appeared to be the one. We approached Alejandro Vazque Gutierez as his group was traveling from restaurant to restaurant playing tunes for pesos. The concept of teaching me for money was foreign to him but he agreed to try. A laborer in this area who picks tomatoes in the hot sun all day can expect to earn the equivalent of 5 US. dollars for that 10 hours work. I was offering him double that amount to come to my house once a week and teach me guitar for an hour. The first lesson day he brought someone with him, another member of his trio. Alejandro spoke no English and my Spanish has much room for improvement. He was shy - almost subservient - but by the end of our first meeting we had found a place to start and a relationship that is into it's fifth year had begun.

We approached Alejandro Vazque Gutierez as his group was traveling from restaurant to restaurant playing tunes for pesos.

Alejandro Vazque Gutierez


That which I had first interpreted as shyness and subservience began to reveal itself as elegance. Every gesture this man made was dance like. He was totally respectful of me and I was awed by him. We did not speak the same language, neither one of us read music. In Mexico, the chords and notes C F G are referred to as DO, FA, SOL etc. Alejandro played all over the neck but labeled the chords by their first position Spanish names. All this was tough enough but what was most taxing on me in trying to follow him was that he capoed his guitar at the first fret but tuned it at that point as if there were no capo. At the end of an hour lesson, I was exhausted.

This man knew thousands of Mexican and Spanish Language songs. His voicing was deeply textured and he sang in soulful baritone . My previous belief in importance of the quality of the guitar to the result of the music quickly evaporated. His strings were tied in square knots above the nut. It was a guitar but it was very rough. Together the man and the instrument made beautiful music.

I asked my teacher if we could video him playing a few tunes he agreed. Watching that tape, I understood why he capoed the guitar as I described. In the duration of the tune, his instrument went out of tune a step and a half. As these gaps appeared he followed the tuning with his voice but at appropriate points he would slide the capo down a fret to re-tune all the strings.

On lesson days I would tell Alejandro what tune I wanted to work on. He would play it, than play it slower. I would write what he was playing in notation and tape record it. We would do the rhythm and the melody of the tune as different parts and we would play them together. The process took time, he was patient, I was entertained. I was careful in picking my tunes. I could write them down in one lesson but it took me weeks to learn them. As we developed our relationship, we would have about three songs working at a time: a new one, a "figuring out" one, and one that was almost music. The next tune in line would be festering in me until we got it on paper.

One day, while relaxing on my porch, I heard a guitar being played. It was offering a local dance song, one that I had worked on with my teacher, one that I had tracked down and had listened to every version that I could find, a dance that I had seen a hundred times in small local villages. It was a chilena titled "Pinotepa". The tune coming from this guitar was different. It was deeper, it was fantastic. A new neighbor was sitting in the shade playing his instrument and I was blown away. We began a conversation that focused on the Mexican music that we shared a love of. I told him of Alejandro and he was eager to meet him. That week, for the first time, my teacher did not show, the next week he did not show again. I went looking for him and was told that he was ill and had to go to Mexico City for an operation, he would be gone for a few months. I now looked at this man as a friend and the thought of his illness was upsetting. Quite secondarily, I was marooned with this tune in me. I had anticipated it as our next lesson and I could not get it out.

Talk about when the student is ready, the teacher appears! My new neighbor was Tim Sparks. I played him a recording of Alejandro singing and playing this tune and he too was captured by it. Tim stepped into my void and in his manner transcribed "Cancion Mixteca". Alejandro is now recovering and I have a tune that will entertain me for a long time.

I often ask these people of Oaxaca what is their favorite song. A large percentage respond "Cancion Mixteca". I asked how old is this song. They see it as old as time. The lyrical message of "Cancion Mixteca" was in the heart of the Mexican people long before the song was penned. The feeling of this song is probably repeated in all cultures that have known both song and absence from home. "Cancion Mixteca" was authored in 1934 by José López Alavés, a Mixtec Indian from Oaxaca. He studied at the National Conservatory in Mexico City.

How far I am from the land where I was born
Immense sadness fills my thoughts
I see myself so alone and so sad
Like a leaf in the wind
I would like to cry I would like to die
From the feeling
Land of the sun
I long to see you
Now that I live so far from your light, without love
I see myself so alone and so sad
Like a leaf in the wind.

Sunset

Tim Sparks is sharing this tune with the world community via his web page. Should you be so fortunate as to spend some time with it, please take a moment to think of the poem and think of the thousands of Mexican people who have left their land of the sun, Left their families to venture north out of economic necessity. When you play this song, think of their lives. I believe that if those who embrace "Cancion Mixteca" respect it in such a way it would please Tim Sparks. Tim Sparks deserves pleasing, he has given you as well as me a gift.


Canción Mixteca
Autor: José López Alavés


¡Qué lejos estoy del suelo donde he nacido!
inmensa nostalgia invade mi pensamiento
y al verme tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento
quisiera llorar, quisiera morir
de sentimiento.

¡Oh tierra del sol,
suspiro por verte!
ahora que lejos
yo vivo sin luz, sin amor

y al verme tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento
quisiera llorar, quisiera morir
de sentimiento.



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