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Youth Service: The young musicians of Los Cenzontles specialize in the folkloric music and dance of Mexico.

Rural Soul

Traditional Tex-Mex artists stop in San Jose on six-city tour

By Jesse Chuy Varela

LISTENING TO THE sweet voices of Violeta Contreras and Lucina Rodriguez on the Tex-Mex polka "Ay, Te Dejo en San Antonio" is a heartwarming experience that--along with the squeeze-box magic of Santiago Jiménez Jr.--shows how important rural soul is to traditional music. The song is from Cuatro Maestros, a new CD by Los Cenzontles, the youth performing ensemble from Los Cenzontles Mexican Traditional Arts Center in San Pablo, Calif., which specializes in the folkloric music and dance of Mexico.

It was back in 1989 that educator-folklorist Eugene Rodriguez and community activist Alicia Marines sparked the idea for a much-needed after-school alternative for the Latino youth in the area. The idea was to verse these young people in the regional music and dance of Mexico. It caught on as parents got involved and made the center happen. "Kids that came out of the program are now staff people here," says Rodriguez from his office. "One-time students like Hugo Arroyo, who began when he was 8, are now helping run the place and allowing us to launch more ambitious projects."

This Sunday at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, Los Cenzontles collaborate with four specialists in the regional music of Mexico. Realizing the wealth of elders who have taught at the center, the people of the Mexican Arts Center asked, Why not get them all together on one stage for a statewide tour? The idea came when pondering what to propose for the Year of the Arts, the 25th anniversary of the California Arts Council.

"The performance will include violinist Julián González doing traditional rural mariachi with two violins, vihuela, guitaron and dancers," Rodrigues says. "Atilano López will play vihuela and sing songs in Purepecha [an indigenous language from Michoacan] with his two sons. Our good friend accordionist Santiago Jiménez Jr. is bringing a couple of his partners from San Antonio, Texas, and we'll close it out with a grand finale fandango with Andrés Vega on jarana and Mono Blanco from Verazcruz."

Los Cenzontles has participated in a variety of recordings, including the Grammy-nominated children's record by Los Lobos, Papa Lalo's Dream (Music for Little People). It's all part of their mission to help reinforce the idea that culture is something you're a part of, that it's in your blood. "What's beautiful about traditional culture is that it creates a mode of communication that translates in this music and dance we're doing," Rodriguez says. "We have a 10-year-old boy on this tour who shares the stage with Andrés Vega, who is 71, and there they are communicating with each other, showing that culture is a living organism that breathes and bonds us."

Cuatro Maestros Tour California takes place Sunday (Aug. 5) at 2pm at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$20. (408.928.5564)

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From the August 2-8, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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