Son Translations in Alba Londres 06: Contemporary Mexican Poetry

Alba Londres 06 cover art by Tilda Rodríguez Past
Alba Londres 06 cover art by Tilda Rodríguez Past
Alba Londres 06 cover art by Tilda Rodríguez Past

Three of my Son Translations, of Mexican folk songs in the Son Jarocho and Son Huasteco genres, are included in the most recent edition of Alba Londres 06: Contemporary Mexican Poetry. The subtitle itself makes me uneasy about my contributions, as in one sense they are neither ‘contemporary’, nor even ‘poetry’ as narrowly defined, being new interpretations of old songs. Moreover, they are not designed to be encountered in digital fixity but sung, and so listened to. These genres are subject to the pressures bearing on ‘folk’ music in this century, and for most of the last, in that the matter of authenticity, the sense of a connection to a ‘real’, lived culture, is very much desired and very much elusive. What you’re listening to is invariably a mediated and commodified impression of an idea of that ‘culture’, which has never existed in the form in which it is presented to you. This is doubly the case if the listener is non-Mexican, as it extends the discomfort of cultural voyeurism to encompass nation as well. Nonetheless, I really like this music, and value its elliptical combination of narrative/balladic and lyrical structures, the way it blends magical sea-sirens with bawdy metaphors for sex (the green chile is hot and burns, just like my love, etc.)

Son Jarocho is a Mexican Son genre from Veracruz that evolved over the last two and a half centuries along the coastal portions of southern Tamaulipas and Veracruz state, hence the term jarocho, a colloquial term for people or things from the port city of Veracruz. It represents a fusion of indigenous (primarily Huastecan), Spanish and African musical elements, reflecting the shifting make-up of the region’s population since Cortés made landfall in ‘Villa de la Veracruz’ (Town of the true cross) in 1519. So it is in no way a ‘pure’ style, but one that owes its hybridity to the ramifications of political conquest and economic imperialism.

Lyrics include humorous verses and subjects such as love, nature, sailors, and cattle breeding, which now appear, through the distortions of this historical lens, to provide access to something of life in colonial and nineteenth-century Mexico. Verses are often shared with the wider Mexican and Hispanic Caribbean repertoire and some have even been borrowed from famous works by writers of the Siglo de Oro, blending traditional coplas with their high-art counterparts in Spanish Renaissance lyric and drama. The principle instrument is the jarana, sung and played in a conjunto, or fandango, with tap-danced percussion. There’s a counterpoint element as several singers exchange improvised verses called décimas, often with humorous, lewd or offensive content. A chiasmatic structure is often employed, where a singer will take the syntax of the previous verse and invert it (for example, in ‘Los Chiles Verdes’/’The Green Chiles’: ‘Dicen que el chile madurdo tiene dulce corazón’ / Tiene dulce corazón dicen el chile maduro’). Son Huasteco is a related genre but heavier on the fiddle, sung in a Trio Huasteco in a distinctive, very high pitch. This is a different version of ‘La Petenera’ to the one I translated, but similar enough to get a sense of it:

Given my concerns about the projection of one set of values onto another, the problematic portrayal of ‘traditional’ Mexico in these songs anyway, and the intractable problem of cultural voyeurism, I decided to translate the songs into a folk idiom I know well, with comparable political issues: that of British folk music. Not itself a homogenous genre, but with a fundamental division along Celtic/Saxon lines, and underpinned along those fractures by a fair amount of historical imperialism, British folk was itself processed into ‘culture’ by the antiquarians and folk-collectors of the eighteenth-century Ballad Revival, which fixed oral culture in tomes (tombs?), such as Percy’s enormously influential Reliques. A comparable linguistic tension exists between the supposed naivety of a customary world, in which metaphor and fantastical narrative serve as the unremarkable fabric of quotidian life, and the awareness of the lurking presence of the culture industry that has made such a language available, and in doing so irrevocably altered its nature. Other than that, British folk seemed to possess similar syntactical features, such as line-end inversions, especially with the verb, and doing so also allowed liberties in trying to keep to the rhyme scheme (considerably more exacting in English than in Spanish)–although I had to resort to some half-rhymes.

A good example of this problem arises in the translation of ‘Los Chiles Verdes’, with the repeated line ‘Ahora si, china del alma‘. The ‘China Poblana’ is a ‘traditional’ style of dress for Mexican women that was very popular in the central and south-eastern parts of Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century. The style constituted a kind of heightening and exaggeration of a peasant, and so implicitly indigenous, ‘look’. It was only actually worn in a few urban centres in those regions (principally the elegant colonial city of Puebla, which the name denotes), but it claimed a relation to popular, agrarian culture. The ‘china; would often also be portrayed as sexually promiscuous — there was outrage in nineteenth-century polite society about their dresses being too provocative — and so the representation combines racial and gendered oppressions. There is no specific equivalent in English, but in the end I went for the archaic ‘maid’, which connotes a rose-tinted, and implicitly permissive, idea of the country lass and carries roughly comparable political problematics. Yet it seems, in the song’s voice, to be a po-faced declaration of ardour and Marvellian, carpe diem urgency (‘And now, maid of my soul the time for rest is over / cutting the green chilies while they’re still in flower‘). In conclusion: it’s always difficult to write about ‘oral’ culture from the standpoint of print/digital/inscribed culture without valorising it in a problematic way, and it ought to feel uncomfortable, but that does not necessarily mean it shouldn’t be done.

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