15 YEARS AGO, when Juan Diés founded the Grammy-nominated progressive folk group Sones de México, he and his bandmates were infinitely more concerned with making sure their take on traditional Mexican music was authentic and entertaining than whether or not the ensemble sent a message of any sort through their songs.
Now, a decade and a half later, Diés admits that changing times have led many in the group’s ever-growing fanbase —and within the band itself— to find deeper inferences, if not outright statements of position, in some of their material. On some level, this was unavoidable, says the multi-instrumentalist and musicologist.
- Sones de Mexico's Juan Dies
“15 years ago, we lived in a different, more innocent America,” he muses. “People and the media were concerned about political ‘correctness.’ Now the same ‘correctness’ is viewed as undesirable.”
Diés and his fellow musicians now accept that aspect of their image, in light of the current dialogue on immigration. It’s also at the root of the decision to name their most recent CD Esta Tierra es Tuya, or This Land Is Your Land.
Taken from the title of Woody Guthrie’s famed 1940 broadside, but sung in both Spanish and English, it’s a provocative recasting of that iconic sing-along that is sparking debate and eliciting wry smiles on both sides of the issue. Diés cites the song’s little-known origin as “a protest song on two counts.”
“It’s both a reactionary retooling of the patriotic song ‘God Bless America,’ and a criticism of the treatment of migrant Okies rejected from Ca. field working jobs during the Dust Bowl Era,” he explains.
The timeliness of Guthrie’s initial motivation resonated with Diés. “Singing it in Spanish felt like it exposed this incongruent, double-standard of patriotism,” he says, adding that he finds no provocative message in the song itself. Rather, “that comes from the subtext created by it’s sung in the times in which we’re now living.”
If this type of interpretation sounds at least as academic as it does populist, that’s because Diés moved to Chicago to join the staff of the famed Old Town School of Folk Music — a landmark institution launched in 1957 to help preserve and promote international brotherhood, artistic expression and self discovery through folk music traditions worldwide. In fact, he worked there for 13 years, helping to diversify the scope of the school’s outreach program.
It was there, in the midst of Chicago’s surprisingly huge Latino (mostly Mexican) population —second only to L.A. in the USA— that he and the group’s musical director Victor Pichardo became intrigued with the notion of forming a band conversant in the eclectic, region-specific style of Mexican music known as “son”. According to Diés, back in 1994, none of the literally hundreds of acts playing Mexican music in the greater Chicago area specialized in son.
“After Victor introduced me to son, we started practicing daily with some friends, while consuming about a case of beer per rehearsal,” he recounts with a laugh.
These days, Sones de México are enjoying widespread acclaim that finds them in high demand as much for regional party gigs as for major, international concerts (e.g., they’re the sole U.S. representatives at Beijing’s World Folk Song Fest).
For this week’s free Savannah concert (sponsored by the City and AASU’s Hispanic Outreach & Leadership organization), the group will use approximately 30 different instruments (many native to Mexico) during a show that draws on tradition while pushing the boundaries of what might be expected from a son band.
“We appeal to people who like ‘world music’ and are eager to discover new sounds,” says Diés, adding, “Then again, we also appeal to people who like classical, progressive rock, salsa and other styles. They find tunes of ours that talk to them.”
“We ground ourselves in our culture, without closing ourselves up to attractive propositions in our multi-cultural surroundings.”
Read extended excerts from the complete interview here.
Sones de México
When: 8 pm, Thursday
Where: Trustees Theater
Cost: Free for ALL-AGES
Info: sonesdemexico.com, 525-5050