The music of Tierra Caliente encompasses many disparate styles. Serious students will encounter sones, gustos, pasodobles, marches, waltzes, foxtrots, funeral pieces, danzones, boleros, tangos, a few polkas, rancheros and corridos, “suin” (pronounced “sween”—Tierra Caliente’s version of swing music) and even an overture or two. However, without a doubt the two styles most commonly associated with Tierra Caliente are the son calentano and the gusto calentano.
The son calentano features alternating bars with 3/4 and 6/8 feels. While melodies to the sones general acknowledge this alteration of 3/4 and 6/8, there are two ways of accompanying them.
During one of my last lessons with the late violinist, bandleader, teacher, actor and music historian Ángel Tavira, he told me that the accompaniment style traditionally played in the state of Guerrero used the same strum in each bar. As I can describe it without resorting to music notation, the strum plays a bass not on beat 1, rests on beat 2 and then strums on beats 3, 4 and 5, resting on beat 6. “Boom, fra-pa-pa” is kind of how it sounds.
Juan Reynoso preferred his accompanists to use the style traditionally used in the state of Michoacán. This style alternates two types of strums, as you will hear on the recordings from which these transcriptions are drawn. I put it into words as “boom chick chick, pock-e-ta, pock-e-ta,” with “boom chick chick” representing the ¾ bar and “pock-e-ta, pock-e-ta” representing the 6/8 bar.
However, whether or not the rhythm guitarists acknowledge the alternation of 3/4 and 6/8 feels, this alternation of rhythmic ‘feels’ is clearly evident in the melodies of the sones. Generally, the melodies doggedly alternate the rhythmic feels. In some cases, though, we encounter sones cruzados, or crossed sones, that sometimes have phrase lengths of five or seven bars. As each phrase is repeated, the alternation of rhythmic strums used in the Michoacano accompaniment style allows these crossed melodies to right themselves prior to their second sections, which are generally not crossed. These sones cruzados are probably of Guerrerense origin, because if they are accompanied Guerrerense style, in which each bar uses the same accompaniment pattern, the phrases with odd numbers of bars will not stand out, whereas if sones cruzados are accompanied in Michoacano style, a clash is set up between the melodies and the alternating 3/4 and 6/8 accompaniment style.
In transcribing the sones that Juan plays on the CDs, I chose a notation system in which the beginning of each two-bar section is delineated by either a double bar (the beginning of each melodic section) or a heavy bar line. Following these special bar lines, the first bar is beamed as if in 3/4 (three groups of two eighth notes) and the second bar is beamed as if in 6/8 (two groups of three eighth notes).
Sones calentanos begin with a melody consisting of two repeated eight-bar sections in AABB form. If like most sones, the son is instrumental (a “son mudo” or “deaf son”), and this AABB form will normally be played twice. After the statement of the melody, in the space where a jazz musician would improvise a solo over the chords to a piece, the Calentano violinist will instead play a series of “adornos,” or adornments. Adornos are short (usually 4 to 16 bars) melodic fragments, each of which is commonly played twice. Each adorno has its own accompanying chord progression and many of the region’s violinists select their adornos ‘on the fly,’ giving the guitar accompanists a difficult job. They simply must know the chords to hundreds of adornos by heart and be prepared to guess the correct chords for those they don’t know. Adornos range from simple and sweet to mysterious and minor, from hell-bent-for-leather virtuoso showpieces to dead-on imitations of birds and burros. In the hands of a maestro, adornos are masterfully strung together to create an emotional tapestry. Generally, after some time spent playing adornos, the violinist returns to the melody of the son, playing it once, returning to adornos and culminating with a stylized descending run.
The gusto calentano is in 6/8 time. It does not present as strong a feel of alternating time signatures as the son, although at times the melodies seem to imply the reverse of the son rhythm, with a bar of 6/8 time followed by one in 3/4 The guitar’s manico (rhythmic strum) is consistent and does not change from bar to bar as it does in the sones on these recordings.
Most gustos are vocal, although the Calentano repertoire includes some excellent instrumental gustos exist as well. The melodies of gustos generally follow a 32-bar AABB form, often with a four-bar tag added at the end of the second B section. One of two stylized triplet figures is used to transition from instrumental to vocal sections. As with the sones, the space between the statements of the melody is filled with a series of adornos. Gusto adornos, however, are different from son adornos, and woe be the neophyte violinist who plays a son adorno during the performance of a gusto or vice versa. He or she will be sure to hear about it from the maestro at the next lesson.
While some well-known adornos are played by almost all Calentano violinists, each violinist seems to have their own assortment of unique adornos as well. The very competitive nature of these musicians drove them to develop ever more complex and dazzling adornos to one-up one another.