Small guitars, big sound; Rochester couple plays, teaches Mexican music
To dance "La Bamba," all you need is a little grace. And to play it, all you need are three chords, a little rhythm and a small guitar-like instrument.
That's where Cadence Nelson, a Rochester native, and her husband, Israel Vega, who is from Mexico City, come in.
After traveling the world studying and playing son jarocho, a style of music from Veracruz, Mexico, that produced the crossover hit "La Bamba," sung by Ritchie Valens, the couple recently settled in Rochester, where they will perform and teach the traditional rhythms.
They will start with a didactic concert on Sunday at Crossings in Zumbrota that will explain the music, its history and instruments.
"We want to get people interested in the music," Nelson said.
From there, anyone who wants to learn to play can sign up for an eight-week course that Nelson and Vega will teach at Crossings this spring, or for individual lessons.
Most of the songs are in 6/8 or 2/4 time and are built on three chords — C, F and G, she said. So if you know three chords you know 100 songs, Nelson said.
Beyond the base rhythm everything else, including the call-and-response style lyrics, is improvised, Vega said.
The improvisational style is part of the music's roots, he said.
Even the instruments were improvised by the indigenous people of Mexico, who copied the guitars brought over by gypsies with the Spanish conquistadors, he said. They also use the jawbones of donkeys and dancers stomping on wooden boxes as percussion, he said.
Vega has been performing son jarocho with various groups throughout Mexico for the past decade and studied instrument-building in Veracruz.
Nelson, who graduated from Mayo High School in 2006, came into the music about three years ago while studying mariachi music at at La Casa de la Musica Mexicana in Mexico City. That is also where she met Vega, who was an instructor at the folkloric music school.
Together, they and a group of friends traveled to Spain to play the music in the streets, bars, cafes, and house parties, she said.
While Nelson then turned her attention to studying documentary filmmaking in Prague for the past year, the music has remained a constant in her life. She returned to Rochester in September to help at her parents farm for a year. Vega arrived in Rochester from Mexico City about four weeks ago.
Here they hope to connect with other musicians for their group, Casa Sin Dueño, and to travel across the country to perform.
Joining them for Sunday's concert will be percussionist Martial Haugbe, of Rochester, and possibly some other musicians.
That's also part of the improvisational spirit of the music.
Groups can fluctuate from 2 to 20 musicians, Vega said, noting that at the Fandango Fiesta in Veracruz, upwards of 200 musicians play together.
And while getting more people here to learn and appreciate the music, the couple is also working to support musicians and artists throughout the world. In addition to being their band name, Casa Sin Dueño will also serve as a network to help connect artists with the resources they need, he said.