Fa la la la la

Since 2007, residents of Mexico City get into the Christmas spirit with free ice-skating in the Zócalo
Since 2007, residents of Mexico City get into the Christmas spirit with free ice-skating in the Zócalo

Am totally beat from a day of rehearsals for the School of Mexican Music’s Concierto Navideño, the annual Christmas concert. With less than a week left to prepare, today the teachers and students alike were visibly on edge. And no one more than me, since I will be, as far as I know, the only female Michigander making her mariachi debut in Mexico City that evening.

Today we got to hear the house band for the show, a hodgepodge of musicians from various classes, come together for the first time to hammer out the accompaniment to the Christmas carols. Students lined up behind the palenque (the stage area, though it’s worth noting that this is also the word for where fatal cockfights are held), waiting for their turn to rehearse. From my spot in the chorus, I saw a kid booking it across the courtyard carrying an arpa jarocha twice his size, desperate not to miss his cue.

Students from the Arpa Jarocha workshop practice La Rama, a popular Christmas carol from Veracruz
Students from the Arpa Jarocha workshop practice "La Rama," a popular Christmas carol from Veracruz

The Concierto Navideño will feature students from over ten talleres (workshops) performing regional Mexican holiday tunes for family, friends, and faculty. Rumor has it there will also be a procession and oh yes, a piñata. After six weeks of grueling mariachi rehearsals, I’m kind of hoping it’s shaped like a guitar.

Mexico is a Catholic country, so Christmas is about as huge as a holiday gets. Long before the decorations went up in stores in the U.S., Mexico was jackhammering a hole for the giant faux Christmas tree outside Bosque de Chapultepec, and lining up generators to create enough cold air for an ice-skating rink in the Zócalo.

Around the same time, our chorus teacher handed each of us a thick stack of guiones (sheet music) to over a dozen villancicos (Hispanic Christmas carols), and told us we had a month to learn them by heart. The tunes were just as obscure to me as they were to many of my urban classmates. They were selected from old recordings and country festivals, and subsequently hand-transcribed by the School’s faculty. Each song hails from a different part of Mexico, from Oaxaca to Veracruz to Michoacán.

The villancicos are ornate and gorgeous despite their simplicity on paper. Most are sung to that familiar, winning combination of I, IV, and V chords. Our teacher divides the room into two halves – Sopranos and Tenors on one side, Altos and Basses on the other – to accomplish the simple two-voice harmony that is characteristic of many Mexican folk songs.

  • Hear an example of this two-part harmony in my class’s rendition of a villancico from San Luis Potosí called “Chilpayatito Dios” (which translates roughly to Little Baby Lord):
    [audio:http://www.mtvu.com/sitewide/promoimages/uber/fulbright/2008/katie_good/120808/Postcard_ChilpayatitoDios.mp3%5D
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