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Live! In the Archive: an Interview with Lone Piñon

A woman plays double bass and a man plays violin and sings, in an office setting, while other people watch.

Tanya Nuñez and Jordan Wax of Lone Piñon perform in the Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress on January 29, 2020, while AFC staff members Thea Austen, John Fenn, Jesse Hocking, and Valda Morris look on. Photo by Stephen Winick.

On January 29th, the AFC launched the Live! In the Archive concert series, where artists are invited to perform selections from the Center’s collections live in its reading room. The first artists featured in this new concert series were Lone Piñon, who have previously played in the Homegrown Concert Series as well as the Archive Challenge at Folk Alliance International. The video of their Live! In the Archive concert is embedded at the end of this blog post–you can scroll down to see it. But please also read this interview, in which I was fortunate to talk with Jordan Wax (JW) and Tanya Nuñez (TFN) of Lone Piñon.

MS: Thank you for making our first Live! In the Archive concert so special! I think it’s safe to speak for all at the AFC and say that it exceeded expectations, and we aim to do many more. So, backing up a little, my first question is: who is Lone Piñon?

JW: Lone Piñon is a collective of musicians dedicated to the roots music of New Mexico. There’s a rich landscape of traditional styles that are deeply rooted in New Mexico, and working as musicians these past seven years has given us the chance to explore many of those repertoires, which are distinct styles, but that intersect and weave into each other. For instance, there are corridos and rancheras that have been flowing up the Camino Real for centuries, Western Swing streaming in from Oklahoma radio waves, a connection to Tohono O’odham fiddling from Arizona, conjunto circuits reaching from Texas, and pre-conjunto Borderlands fiddling, Época de Oro music from Central Mexico that was planted by commercial radio in the 1940s. And at the center of that tapestry of styles is a very special style of music that is unique to Northern New Mexico: a repertoire of dance music that has been shaped by the contributions of past generations of musicians that left it with medieval Spanish, Mexican, Anglo-American, Indigenous, and Scandinavian accents. This regional style has flourished for centuries, enlivening house dances, weddings, and ditchbanks (cottonwood-shaded irrigation channels, part of an ancient acequia system that crisscrosses many New Mexican communities), but by the time we started our group in 2013, it had almost disappeared from daily life, as part of the cultural disruption that New Mexico suffered in its assimilation into the mainstream U.S. economy. Luckily, we’ve had the chance to work with a few elders in our grandparents’ generation – Tomas Maes and Mariano Romero of Santa Fe and Antonia Apodaca of Rociada – who grew up immersed in the Spanish-speaking agricultural communities where this music thrived, and musicians of our parents’ generation, Ken Keppeler and Jeannie MacClearie of Silver City, who have a lifetime of experience learning from elders. These musicians, after hearing our first steps, went out of their way to connect us to the traditions they’ve inherited, and they have encouraged us to do what we can in our circles to continue the vitality of that musical style, and to make new opportunities for it to thrive again.

A man plays violin and sings, in an office setting.

Jordan Wax of Lone Piñon performs in the Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress on January 29, 2020.

MS: In terms of ‘cultural disruption’, as you say, I know you all have been working to revitalize these traditions, and reinvigorate these repertoires, helping to sustain them for the future and, yet, allow for change. I am wondering how you approach these processes, and what are some of the challenges that you face?

JW: The continuity of this musical tradition has suffered a lot of disruption, which is the root of many of our challenges. I think any experience of intergenerational music can put you in touch with a wider perception of time and history – you can’t help but feel all the places a tune has been, and the lives it has been a part of before ours. There’s a lot of potential in what it can mean to relate to a tradition like this, something so full of the fingerprints of ancestors…It’s like an open door that different people can learn different things from. Our aim has been to keep that door from closing, and to make it available to more people in New Mexico and wherever else we play.

A big part of how we’ve approached that is through performance. New Mexican music, like many folk traditions, was always something that thrived in a participatory context. While other North American styles adapted to new performance and professionalization opportunities in the mid-20th century (think of bluegrass, early country, mariachi, and huapango huasteco), New Mexican roots music was socially discouraged and didn’t really have that opportunity. As a result, other professionalized performance styles have come to occupy that niche in our region. Many young musicians here don’t realize that there is a unique New Mexican musical legacy, or they’ve been led to believe that it’s a simplistic, unprofessional style that they shouldn’t waste their time with.

That myth – that the music is simplistic or lacks potential, and that the worthwhile stuff all comes from somewhere and someone else – is something we come across all the time, among people of all ethnicities here. It’s a painful legacy of colonialism in New Mexico, seeded by many generations of systematic oppression and ignorance. It’s a lie, an insult to our ancestors, and functions to disconnect people from the wealth of their inheritance so that they can become consumers of a substitute. Creating a professional performance ensemble around this style is a big step in showing that it doesn’t have to be that way, and that this music is worthy of the same attention, scholarship, and celebration as other regional treasures.

A woman holds a double bass as if about to play it, in an office setting.

Tanya Nuñez of Lone Piñon performs in the Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress on January 29, 2020.

Our project started at a difficult, but pivotal time. A lot of repertoire and musicianship has been lost in the generation gaps, and the number of active culture-bearers who recreate the music on a daily basis is tiny compared to other regions and styles. Yet, we still have elders who can connect us to what it means to be a participant in the tradition. Their examples and guidance, along with all the technological resources we have now, give us an unprecedented opportunity to re-expand what has collapsed, and re-connect repertoires that were broken.

Archives can play an amazing role in that process. The recordings at the American Folklife Center have let us go back in time to hear for ourselves what our elders have tried to describe, and to bring those pieces back into our work. Once they rejoin the others and start to play a part in dances, performances, and communications with ears and feet, they start to grow again, and become available for another generation as a living inheritance.

MS: Very well put. This past year, you were awarded an AFC Gerald E. and Corinne L. Parsons Award Fund to conduct research in our collections, particularly with respect to the traditions (and the reasons) you describe. What sorts of materials did you come across that stood out? 

TFN: On one of the reel-to-reels [from the Jack Loeffler and Katherine Strain collection of folk music of New Mexico collection, AFC 1979/082], we came across a recording of the Torres family in Costilla, New Mexico in 1985, singing a song called “Acaramba”, a piece we would call an indita. The word indita can refer to several different musical genres in Northern New Mexico: narrative ballads, dance pieces for figure-dance that echo Native social dances, pieces about Natives or from the perspective of captive Natives incorporated into Hispanic society. “Acaramba” seemed to be authentically channeling the two cultures, musically, at a level I had never heard before. Other inditas seem to be speaking at or to the indigenous people, but on this field recording you could hear a much closer tie than that, and you could really feel a significant difference: the presence of two cultures. It’s weird to say ‘two cultures’, because it’s really not two – the story is so much more complex. Having access to this music opens the possibility that more people will have an opportunity to understand our history better. Every day we’re making history and writing our stories, so even new arrivals to New Mexico are inserting themselves into that history, whether they’re conscious of what that means or not. And as we move forward, honoring place from the context of tradition adds value to everyday life.

MS: Let’s get back to the Live! In the Archive concert you recently gave. What were some of the songs that you both played?

JW:  One of the tunes we played was a varsoviana, from a recording of Nieves Anaya (violin) and his daughter Ernestina (guitar), made by Juan B. Rael in his hometown of Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico on July 30, 1940 [from the Juan B. Rael Collection, AFC 1940/002].  The varsoviana was an important genre of tunes in New Mexico, a repertoire of waltz melodies that accompanied the distinctive steps of the dance, echoing some characteristic themes. Musicians in Nieves’ time needed to know at least one of them, but often knew a handful of these tunes to play for dancers. In the 80 years since Nieves and Ernestina played this tune, the dance has survived, but the genre of tunes has collapsed into a single melody to accompany the steps, and “La Varsoviana” has gone on to mean a rich repertoire to being the name of a single piece. We love reacquainting our audiences with tunes like this – there’s something familiar, but they also offer a new discovery for anyone who might recognize the varsoviana theme. Ernestina and Nieves’ version has a unique bowing phrasing that to me suggests an Anglo-American influence, and a really fresh unpredictability, because it’s metrically more complex than most varsovianas, requiring dancers to change steps a few beats before you would expect. It takes a second to get used to when you’re dancing, but once you do it’s a lot of fun! [Hear the field recording in the player below. Hear other variations of the varsoviana at this link.]

Another tune we played was an entrega de los novios, a wedding song that was played by brothers, Adelaido and Adolfo Chavez, in Antonito, Colorado, recorded by Juan B. Rael in 1940. It’s played in a unique mode that combines major and minor scale tones, and may be a descendant of an Arabic maqam that was adopted into Spanish music, and then brought with early colonists to New Mexico. Most tunes in this mode were standardized to major keys in the generations since Adelaido and Adolfo, maybe because they didn’t fit with the simpler melodic landscape brought by radio and recordings of Mexican and American commercial music. It’s great to have such a skillful example of this element of the tradition so we can go back and repair that process of simplification, and return to celebrating something that makes our music unique and vivid. [Hear the field recording in the player below. Hear other parts of the entrega de novios at this link.]

At the end of the set, we played a piece that we just heard for the first time earlier that day at the AFC. It’s a bouncy, asymmetrical chotís that was played on the violin by Vicentito Montoya of Las Vegas, New Mexico [from the Jack Loeffler and Katherine Strain collection of folk music of New Mexico collection, AFC 1979/082]. We had learned a ‘cousin’ of the tune, a related melody that Antonia Apodaca (from Rociada, not far from Las Vegas) played on the accordion. Hearing Vicentito’s tune took a single point we had inherited from Antonia and expanded it into a diversity of possibilities. It was fun to learn, and represented for us how our visit to the archive expanded our map of the repertoire.

A record in an archive is frozen – a moment in time. Yet, that moment that it documents wasn’t static; the musicians were responding to each other, to everyone present, to the dancers if they were at a dance, to the fact that they were being recorded. When the tune comes back to practitioners, it instantly engages in that process again, and starts to grow and change in small ways. It’s always renewing and never the same, and that’s why we say that this music can never be called ‘old’. When we played it at Live! In the Archive, Vicentito’s chotís responded to the fact that I had heard Antonia’s phrasing and played it on the accordion, to the way Tanya played the guitar rhythm, to the excitement of being in Washington, DC to study this music, to the ears of everyone who was present at the filming of Live! In the Archive, to the energy they created in the room with their attention and respect. I’m glad that performance was captured – the first moments of a new chapter for an ancient tune.

MS: It was beautiful! So, thank you for taking the time to talk, as I know you’re both very busy. One last question: what’s next for Lone Piñon?

JW: We recently celebrated the life and legacy of our mentor, Antonia Apodaca (accordion and guitarist from the village of Rociada), who passed on this past January at the age of 96. There was a memorial concert for her in Las Vegas, New Mexico. As part of the celebration, we made our recordings of her tunes available for free download through our website. We’re working to expand our collective to include more collaborators, and currently looking for funding to pursue both an oral history project with the elders and a dance revitalization project. You can follow our work and get in touch at: www.lonepinon.com.

See the Live! In the Archive concert with Lone Piñon in the player below! Or find it at this link on the Library’s website, and at this link on the Library’s YouTube channel.