May-June 2010 #2

Cinco de Mayo Special:
Fiddle Tunes
from the American Southwest

Nothing celtic in this particular column, but as it is getting hot and Cinco de Mayo is coming up, here are some tunes from the American Southwest that are a lot of fun to play in jams/sessions. I have played them in sessions from a bit north of the Mexican border to a bit south of the Canadian border and many places in between. Two favorite tunes in this genre are El Churrumbé from New Mexico and Purple Lilies from Arizona, which I cover in this column.

Traditional Southwest Fiddle styles (e.g. Arizona, New Mexico) sound a lot more Mexican (or Central European) than the better known Old-Time Southeast style (e.g. Virginia, Carolinas, Kentucky). Clearly, the influences and original sources were different: Maybe Habsburg Empire rather than Highland Clearances? But in both cases, the original European sources were filtered through time and local sensibilities, resulting in a new unique style of music.

El Churrumbé is a dance tune from New Mexico and I found it on several field recordings. It is an extremely easy tune to teach and yet fun to play. The only more recent commercially available would be by Jenny Vincent, entitled Spanish American Dance Tunes of New Mexico, although she plays it a little different and very slow. However, you can listen to it as it is being played in some jam sessions on YouTube (so check them out before looking at the sheet music). Another important source of tunes from New Mexico was Cleofes Ortiz, who was born in 1910 on Pajarito Plateau near Rowe, New Mexico, and began playing for dances in his teens. He stopped playing in the 1920s until he was rediscovered 50 years later. PBS did a documentary on him entitled Violinista de Nuevo Mexico, which includes some of the tunes that are often played, and which is available as I'm writing this on YouTube. The only source to buy a CD of his playing would be Bayou Seco.

Purple Lilies is one of the best known tunes from Arizona, thanks to the efforts of Bayou Seco (Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie) of Silver City, New Mexico, who have kept that style alive and brought it to new players. You can find lots of versions of Purple Lilies on YouTube. The main source is the fiddle band music of the Tohona O'odham people of Southern Arizona. Utilizing instruments originally introduced by Spanish missionaries, the fiddle band sound is an unusual mix of polkas, two-steps, and mazurkas utilizing violins, guitar, and drums. One great CD is by the Gu-Achi Fiddlers, entitled Old Time O'odham Fiddle Music. It is not virtuosic and the fiddles are on the scratchy side, but the exuberance and more than compensate. This distinctive twin fiddle style eventually changed into a newer Native American style known as chicken scratch or waila (which replaced the fiddles with a saxophone and electric guitars).

Every spring, I teach these tunes in an afterschool class at a local school. I practice with students for a few weeks and teach them about 8-10 tunes by ear and then they perform at the Cinco de Mayo festivals and the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival. Aside from El Churrumbe and Purple Lilies, the other tunes are usually from the playing of the Gu-Achi Fiddlers and Cleofes Ortiz and they sound authentic enough for a Cinco the Mayo fiesta, especially when supplemented by a classic like Cielito Lindo. So, yes, maybe it is cheating a bit, but that way students learn an authentic traditional fiddle style.

You can hear more of this in the Eucalyptus Grove at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival on May 16.

El Churrumbe

 Purple Lilies


Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and leads the monthly Celtic sessions at CTMS. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


All Columns by Roland Sturm