As our pickup truck kicked up a trail of dust, lurching towards the village of Cerro del Chivo in Oaxaca, I felt a world away from Mexico City. I was finally about to see the kind of musical scene that I had studied in class: a place where people sing to pass the time, and where stories are passed down across generations through verses and songs. Here, everything from festivals to funerals are filled with the oral traditions that most people in the capital only get to hear through concert-hall performances and compilation CDs.
Cerro del Chivo is part of a region called La Costa Chica (the “Little Coast”) of the state of Oaxaca. It’s suffocatingly hot, isolated by mountains and prone to deadly hurricanes. Like similarly hard-to-live-in parts of the Western Hemisphere, this is where the descendants of Mexico’s African slaves, called afro-mestizos, have lived for centuries.
Not surprisingly, the tough conditions in Cerro del Chivo have created a life of crushing poverty for its residents. These days, their answer to this problem is emigration. After jumping off the truck with my friend Phillip Quercia, a Fulbright grantee in ethnomusicology, it didn’t take long for us to notice that the young adult population was mostly gone. Kids ran around under the watch of their grandparents. The upshot was the sound of hammering nails—announcing the new, modern homes being built with U.S. dollars, which will sit vacant until their owners’ return.
But La Costa Chica is rich when it comes to music and poetry. The afro-mestizo tradition of echando versos (“throwing verses”) is a popular event at local parties. You can also hear regional corridos (songs that chronicle an event), and a passionate style of song and dance called La Chilena, named after the 19th-century Chilean goldminers who shipwrecked on the coast and left their musical mark.
Ironically, as emigration helps to build La Costa Chica’s financial wealth, it puts its musical wealth in danger. With many of the young people gone, few are learning the songs or passing them onto their kids. The youth who stay in Costa Chica, according to our host Alejandro, are too obsessed with the modern lifestyle they see in Mexican soap operas to care about preserving their own heritage.
This audio flipbook gives some examples of the musical traditions in La Costa Chica. You’ll also see one teacher’s efforts in the town of Pinotepa Nacional (the largest in the region) to ignite young people’s interest in preserving them.