At the turn of the millennium, while the regional flavors of the United States get mashed into a transnational strip mall, it's an especially important time to survey what's left of the diverse cultures, big and small, that flourished here over the past few hundred years. Everyone knows that food in South Texas tastes markedly dissimilar from what they eat in Maine, and people in Louisiana talk a little different from people in Seattle, but if you turn on pop radio anywhere in the nation these days, you're likely to hear the same things no matter where you are. What about the music people listen to in their own kitchens, at their weddings, at county fairs?
Smithsonian/Folkways is answering that question with a series of CDs that dramatizes the striking array of folk music across the North American borderlands. Three recent releases offer a reminder of this amazing variety of sounds. As residents of Miami know, the cross-cultural fermentation that occurs on the edges of the United States has the potential to create an especially potent brew of multiethnic music. Indeed Miami's status as America's gateway to the Caribbean and Latin America (and vice versa) partly is based on this concept. This town is a vibrant example of a place where cultural mixing is happening in front of our eyes and ears. In South Texas, with its intimate connection to a large, Spanish-speaking nation, the situation might seem similar to that in South Florida. But what about stodgy, Waspy old New England, which also shares a border with a country filled with speakers of another Romance language?
Conjunto, the Mexican-American dance music of South Texas, is well-known, but even connoisseurs of world music may not be familiar with the folk songs of New England's Franco-Americans. And many listeners may not believe that the square-dance music of New Hampshire could qualify as ethnic dance music. Yet all these examples illustrate the cultural richness that hundreds of years of ethnic intermingling have produced in the United States.
Taquachito Nights features some of the Rio Grande valley's great dance bands playing live to a very appreciative audience at a festival in San Benito, Texas, last September. Listeners unfamiliar with Mexican-American rhythms may be surprised to hear that conjunto closely resembles polka. In fact much of Mexican-American dance music is polka, copied from German and Eastern-European ranchers. But driven by accordions and electric guitars and then cranked up loud, today's conjunto is no oompah. Over the years other influences have crept into the conjunto sound, including country music and Cuban danz. Conjunto, however, doesn't offer a great deal of sonic variety. Almost all its bands include only accordion, guitar, bass or bajo sexto, and drums. Moreover the basic 2/4 beat reigns supreme. What gives each band its distinctive character is the dexterity and versatility displayed by the accordion players (who have plenty of liberty to improvise), and the vocals, which in most cases are beautifully harmonized and passionately sung. It might take awhile to pick up on these subtleties, but the pleasures of conjunto are many to those willing to surrender to the sumptuous South Texas polka groove.
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Although Choose Your Partners! Contra Dance & Square Dance Music of New Hampshire is from another part of the country and sounds completely different, its priorities are similar to those on Taquachito Nights. Again this is music for dancing, not close listening, and as such, the dance groove still rules. And though it's a different groove, it's a groove that is also lifted from European sources. In this case it's Celtic music. Fiddles and pianos dominate this CD, on tunes that found their way to New England via the British Isles. Some of the tracks feature people calling out the actual dance steps, possibly allowing the listener to attempt to turn his or her rec room into a White Mountains grange hall for an evening.
Mademoiselle, Voulez-vous Danser? is another kettle of fish. There is some geographical overlap with Choose Your Partners, but Mademoiselle paints a much more varied picture of a larger musical area. Instead of focusing on a specific style, this CD embraces much of what typifies French-Canadian-American music, including singer-songwriters, kitchen sing-alongs, and fiddle tunes. Recorded and pieced together by Dartmouth College ethnomusicology students, the recordings stretch a physical area from Albany, New York, into Maine. This CD is an impressive exploration of a sprawling ethnic music that has not claimed the world's attention in the way that its Cajun cousin has.
French-Canadian music indeed resembles Cajun music in its fiddle-and-accordion-based instrumentation, but it lacks the latter's African-American-influenced washboard beat. Instead a Celtic fiddle sound is much more pronounced, offering a reminder of France's place in the trans-Celtic continuum. The main rhythmic element on this disc is actually foot stomping, which gives some of the tracks a remarkably driving beat. Other highlights include rousing antiphonal singing, some jazzed-up fiddle sawing, and a couple of charming homespun tracks recorded live in kitchens throughout New England. It's pleasing to imagine what it must be like in one of these warm stove-heated rooms on a cold winter night.
Other recent Smithsonian/Folkways releases have included examinations of the contemporary Midwestern polka scene, gospel music in Washington, D.C., and black banjo players from the Carolinas. This effort to document the traditional music that continues to thrive in the United States is a potent reminder that not all musical activity is fodder for the music industry. On these CDs musicians, dancers, and listeners are enjoying the sounds of their own communities, proof that preserving cultural diversity can be fun. Anyone interested in experiencing how some Americans let the good times roll without switching on the tube or schlepping to the mall should give them a try.