Like all true transformations, Eduardo Llerenas’s shift from biochemistry to Mexican son — a form of music with distinct regional styles played throughout Latin America — was a gradual process. It stretches back to 1967, when Llerenas began travelling from his home in Mexico City to the surrounding countryside. The original purpose of these journeys was to discover nature and people, but he soon discovered something else: a keen appreciation of folk music.
In the years that followed, Llerenas ventured out regularly on weekends and holidays to small Indian and mestizo villages, seeking out patron-saint parties that featured local musicians. "I’m always going to parties I’m not invited to," Llerenas says. This proved to be fortunate for the musicians whose work he began to collect, and whose work he eventually produced, distributed and even helped to bring live to concert audiences around the world.
Llerenas’s first recording session took place in 1969. By then he had teamed up with two friends, one a mathematics professor who took care of the electro-acoustics and one a plastics factory manager who was also a musician. The three friends decided that when they were not busy with their regular jobs, they would create an archive of Mexican traditional music. They then began a systematic musical survey of the country.
Identifying and locating the musicians in their home towns was a difficult task since the musicians were peasants who played in their spare time. As a rule, Llerenas would arrive in a village and begin by speaking with the people in the market or in the coffee shops. He would find out whether the local musicians were playing and then go to hear them. If they proved to be good enough, the team would record the group.
"We looked for virtuosity as well as the most authentic repertoire of a particular local genre," Llerenas explains. When they found it, they recorded right there in the village. Llerenas set up temporary recording sites in schools, homes, churches and bars — anywhere with good natural acoustics and where the musicians could feel at home and family and friends could listen and watch.
"I knew we couldn’t get the best quality if we recorded during the actual fiestas, so we’d all go back to a home or to some other appropriate location. There’d be lots of interruptions. Neighbours would stop by, dogs would bark, children would cry, but the result was great. If you take these kinds of musicians into a studio, they die artistically," he says.
A Relaxed Atmosphere
It was this strategy of recording in a relaxed atmosphere, combined with the best standards of equipment and recording techniques that assured the team that they were getting the truest possible reproduction of the music.
Slowly but surely the archive was built. Today it includes more than 15,000 songs by 800 different groups scattered throughout regions that make up about 60 per cent of Mexico. The purpose of the archive was twofold: Llerenas and his friends sought to build something that could be used in ethnomusical and historical studies, and they also wanted to diffuse the music in order to preserve it — both in the places where it originated and in places that had never before heard it.
At first, Llerenas was afraid traditional music was disappearing. He believed that as roads to remote villages were paved and television satellites and cables were introduced, the influence of popular culture would be devastating to traditional music. And this was unthinkable.
"There’s a great cultural value in this music. It represents five centuries. It’s the musical heritage of Mexico," he says, adding that Mexico’s music is particularly rich due to the blending of its many indigenous cultures with Spanish traditions and influences. In addition, Mexico’s mountainous topography has accentuated the individuality and variety of the music.
With preservation of this varied musical heritage uppermost in his mind, Llerenas applied for a Rolex Award for Enterprise. He hoped, in the event he was selected as a winner, to finish the archives by recording in regions of Mexico that his team had not yet explored. At that time, he never dreamed that winning the award would change his life — but it did.
"Although the prize money, exposure and contacts of the Rolex Award were all important," Llerenas says, "the real value was the stimulus it gave me to share my recordings with the public, both in Mexico and abroad."
After the Rolex Award in 1981, Llerenas and his friends received an offer from a government agency responsible for promoting popular culture to subsidise the production of materials from their archives. The result was the Anthology of Mexican Sones, a collection of six records (now three compact discs) released in 1985. Currently in its eighth edition, the anthology was a great success and, it paved the way for further unsubsidised releases.
The Rolex Award also served as a catalyst for other opportunities. Soon after receiving the prize, Llerenas was invited to lecture and share his collection with musicologists at congresses and festivals in the Caribbean, the United States, and in Europe. He also produced several radio series, including one that won a prestigious prize, the United Latin American and Caribbean Radio Award.
In 1986, Llerenas made the critical step of leaving his position as a research biochemist at the National Polytechnic Institute. It was not an easy decision to make.
"Little by little," Llerenas says, "the music was taking up more and more of my time. It slowly took over.
"For an entire year before I finally decided, I had nightmares every night. I had a very good position at the institute and I had had a rewarding career in science. But there were a number of circumstances that had come together by that time: the important impetus of the Rolex Award, the fact that we had produced and sold records, and my growing feeling that I didn’t want to be a passer-by on the music scene," he says.
The decision is one that Llerenas has never regretted. He finds his dedication to music both interesting and challenging from an intellectual point of view, and he also finds he does not miss science.
Corasón, his independent label, is doing well and finding its own niche in the world of music. "There really isn’t any label on the market like them," comments a spokesman for the company distributing Corasón’s releases in the United States. "There’s no one doing what they’re doing with Mexican music."
Sounds from the Heart
Together with his partner Mary Farquharson, Llerenas established Corasón in 1992. The name itself is a play on words; taken from the Spanish word for heart, corazón, and son. An outgrowth of an earlier label Llerenas had set up called Música Tradicional, Corasón set out to commercialise the archives as extensively as possible, and it now has over 30 titles on the market.
The company makes its products available to markets that are unfamiliar with the music, for example, internationally or in places like cosmopolitan Mexico City. It also makes a special effort to distribute to the places that produce the music.
"Although the musicians we record are the stars of their communities, very few of them have been recorded by other labels. By selling cassettes locally, we hope to keep the music alive in the region that has created it," Farquharson explains.
The desire to preserve the music, one that has motivated Llerenas since the late 1960s, has not been dimmed by the pleasant discovery over the years that the music seems safe and sound in the hands of a younger generation. "Traditional music is not, as we had feared, dying out. It remains stubbornly resistant to change and an important source of regional identity. The verses, the context and in some cases the repertoire and instrumentation are changing in the face of the cultural homogeneity promoted by the mass media, but structurally, the music remains intact," says Llerenas.
His status as director of the independent label has not meant that he has abandoned the continued expansion of the musical archive. In fact, that has become a job that Llerenas now views as unending.
"The project turned out to be much more dynamic than I’d imagined since I discovered the importance of returning to regions we had already explored in order to see how the music was evolving." In addition, Llerenas now conducts personal interviews with the musicians so that the archive includes biographical information and visual support for the sound recordings.
Outside of Mexico, Corasón has also featured sounds from the Caribbean and Central and South America and one of its releases features African-influenced music from 19 different countries. Over the years, Llerenas has recorded in Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Belize, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St Kitts, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
Key to the success of Corasón today is what distinguished Llerenas’s original winning project – quality. "This isn’t music for museums," Llerenas says. "It’s not souvenir music for tourism. It’s good music."
Published in 1997