A Disciple’s Journey

Don Juan Reynoso’s dog was leaning up against the blue-black wall of Juan’s house—leaning because it was too hot to stand. On an April mid-afternoon in Tierra Caliente, the heat becomes a potent force, slowing the pace of life to a crawl. One thing that hadn’t slowed at all, however, was Juan’s bow arm as sped through the dramatic final bars of don Isaías Salmerón’s overture El Célebre. A siesta was out of the questions. This was music that burned to be played—music that begged to be learned, perfected and shouted to the whole world. The tune ended, Juan’s solo violin at the conclusion finding itself suddenly part of an impromptu trio with the addition of the train-like whistle of the local water truck and the crowing of a zealous rooster anxious to get into the act, and I came back to reality with a start.DSC_0067

Here I was: a gringo who had already been transported half a world away to a sleepy little town in the heart of Old Mexico, being transported again into a whole universe of other worlds. And what worlds they were—musical landscapes as wild as anything by Dr. Seuss, borne of the imagination of Isaías and his fellow composers. And to make things even better, these world-class composers were being brought to life by the gorgeously passionate violin of the man I was now proud to call my teacher, don Juan Reynoso. What an indescribable adventure! I had traveled thousands of miles on a long and heartfelt journey and at last I had reached my gold: a little blue house at the end of a dirt road in Riva Palacio, Michoacán, just across from the river from the crossroads town of Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero.

It all started two years ago. In the summer of 1996, I had just concluded a week of teaching swing fiddle at Centrum’s Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. In celebration of the festival’s 20th anniversary, Fiddle Tunes had been doubled in length to two weeks, and the first week’s conclusion featured a concert. We had already heard all manner of fine fiddling, when an elderly man was helped onto the stage by two of his sons. He carried an ordinary black violin case, and once seated, looked out over the audience through glasses with lenses so thick that I imagined an errant beam of sunlight glinting through them could ignite a fire. Neither I nor anyone else in the audience had any idea of what to expect in the way of music from this man with his two guitar-wielding sons. From his name we surmised that the music would be Mexican, but like most Americans, we had heard little Mexican music beyond the popular accordion-driven ranchera tunes and the commercial mariachi melodies played with burnished military precision by trumpets and fiddles. Nothing we had ever heard, however, could have prepared us for the musical journey we were about to embark upon that afternoon.

The bow hit the strings and the rollercoaster took off! With loops and turns this music raced through tempos and keys like they were going out of style—one minute transporting the audience to a bullfight in Spain, the next minute pulling us into the very heart of a forsaken lover weeping in the blue moonlight. We were all on a ride into a music that, like a dead-ripe mango, dripped with passion and positively burned with power and pride and majesty. As fast as the sons’ twin guitars could throw up a set of chords, they were attacked, chewed up and hurled aside. This conflagration was disguised as a violinist daring them to pitch him something that he couldn’t dispatch in a dizzying furry of sixteenth notes. Then as quickly as it had begun, the ride was over. In ten minutes of music we had “fallen in love, been jilted, had our hearts broken, grown up, grown old, died, been reborn, seen whole civilizations rise, flourish and crumble.”*

Don Juan Reynoso had arrived.

Not since Joe Venuti had I been so moved by a player and his music. It was clear that I would have to do whatever it would take to be able to stay and to study  with don Juan during the second week of the festival. Arrangements were made, and in exchange for some additional teaching and performing on my part, I was given permission to do so. My trusty tape recorder and I absorbed as much as we possibly could during his workshops. Fortunately, these were more like mini-concerts than actual workshops, as the degree of difficulty of most of his pieces precluded the students’ learning them on the spot. The wheels of our tape recorders whirled, and the tunes—the gustos, sones, pasdobles, waltzes and foxtrots were captured for future study.

The Reynosos were scheduled to return the following year, but concerns lingered about visa problems, the international political situation and so forth, which made for some white-knuckle moments until the joyous moment when  Juan, his wife doña Esperanza and his young son Javier made a triumphant entrance into their first workshop. One of Juan’s older sons, Neyo, needed to play one last gig with his band, Grupo Onnovación, before he would arrive a day later. Once again, we all were able to immerse ourselves in the fantastic repertoire of Tierra Caliente and escape to a world filled with music achingly beautiful and so startling in its honesty and directness.


Lindajoy Fenley, the facilitator whose untiring efforts made the Reynosos’ visits possible, threw out the tantalizing teaser of a possible music festival in Mexico to be held the following spring. There had been an earlier performance in Mexico City by both don Juan’s group and members of the outstanding Cajun band, Balfa Toujours, and this festival was to be the second in what Lindajoy and the rest of us hoped would turn out to be an annual event. The collective sound of all those fingers crossing must have been heard by whoever runs the universe, because the second presentation of the Encuentro de Dos Tradiciones did indeed take place. And what a festival it was! Balfa Toujours played their hearts out during a set of beautiful Cajun pieces old and new. Wyoming’s Fireants gave us their eclectic mix of sounds from south and north of the border as filtered through the borders of their creative imaginations. El Grupo Yolotecuani (Corazón de Tigre or Heart of the Tiger) and Los Brujos de Huejutla opened the ears of those of us from the otro lado (other side of the border) by offering up masterful playing of some of the other styles that make up the remarkably varied music that is Mexico.

Too soon the festival ended and all who attended scattered to the four winds—some to beaches, others to the beautiful colonial city of Oaxaco, or Mexico City. The rest returned to the otra lado, with two exceptions. I planned to stay in Altamirano near don Juan’s home for another week. Somehow I hoped to attain proximity to the great maestro, but I really had no early idea what would actually happen.

I knew that Juan was a patient man. I’d watched him repeat the same phrase hundreds of times while helping students in his Fiddle Tunes band lab. Both he and I knew that I loved the music and his playing. What I didn’t know was what would happen once we returned to Altamirano. My safety net was slowly being pulled out from under me. No longer was I riding in an air-conditioned bus, following a pre-established itinerary with  an interpreter helping me make sense of it all. I could see a good-sized dose of culture shock lurking just over the horizon, waiting for me. Luckily I was able to enlist my bilingual friend, Ira, to help me do two things: try to establish a teacher-student relationship with Juan and attempt to assist in drawing up a contract with Neyo Reynoso. You see, I had more than one crazy dream up my sleeve. I had digitally taped Juan’s performances and workshops at Fiddle Tunes in 1997, and I hoped that my little shoestring recording label could release CDs of these intoxicatingly beautiful performances. Ira was a friend of Neyo’s and an honest and trustworthy guy, so my hopes ran high.

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Was I ever lucky! I was able to make arrangements to go over to Juan’s house the next Monday. I hung back and let Ira do the talking. “Sure,” he said after he and Juan had a few words, “the old man says it’s fine. Go ahead and get your violin out.” Well, he didn’t have to ask me twice. Out came the violins and we started hashing out the details of No Sean Tan Bobos. This pasodoble is one of Isaías Salmerón’s many compositions and the title translated into English is “Don’t Be So Silly.” Hmmm, I thought. If the shoe fits… But no, don Isaías didn’t even know me.

I shouldn’t have taken it personally, although I must have looked pretty silly trying to understand what was going on armed with my paltry vocabulary of 30 Spanish words (and that was on a good day with a tailwind). Don Juan should receive a second National Prize just for his patience with this gringo!

The next day Ira and I met with Neyo. The meeting went as smoothly  as I’d hoped, but ttruthfully I was scared to death. I had no idea whether he would run hot or cold on the idea of my Swing Cat label, which is not exactly a Fortune 500 enterprise, putting out the Calentana music played by his family. I was sure of one thing—he was extremely proud of this music. “Can his recordings do us justice,” I imagined him thinking. I knew that don Juan had been recorded by Mexico’s prestigious Corason label several times during the  20 years. I was aware too, that several companies had also issued cassettes of his playing. Visions of international contractual snarls and bureaucratic red tape danced in my head. I needn’t have worried. Once again the answer was “sure.” Neyo’s only concern was that the recordings issued be of good quality, and I assured him that my engineer and I would do our utmost to keep the quality as high as possible. We signed a contract written out by hand on a single piece of notebook paper, and as I walked out Neyo’s front door, I felt like I was walking on air.

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Ira’s last helpful favor to me came that evening, as he and his wife were preparing to depart for the cool sea breezes of the coast. He got Juan’s OK for me to begin a daily routine, wherein I would arrive at a reasonable hour in the morning and stay until exactly some time later. Our neighbors to the south often keep things loose that way, and I for one was more than happy to apply a king-sized dose of “laid back” to my normal frenzied city pace. Once the day’s work started however, it was tough, both on don Juan and on me. His repertoire is not easy, and when I became aware of the fact that he has the capability to play virtually all of the tunes he knows using double stops the whole world began to look like one big woodshed. Each day I would roll tape, and in the evening I would hit my hotel room, pull out the headphones, pencil and manuscript paper, and try to get a jump on the next day by sketching out a tune or two. My hope was that I could save the maestro some time by coming to a session prepared, bringing with me at least the skeletons of the tunes. To a large extent I think that the plan worked, as the time spent on each tune was considerably shortened. At the end of the week, I was able to gather up 40 hours of DAT tapes and the manuscript for seventeen tunes.

When my week ended, as if to ensure that this would be the trip of a lifetime, I was invited to share in two more absolutely unforgettable moments. The first was a trip to Tlapehuala, where the music was born, and a chance to meet Filiberto Salmerón, the 92-year-old nephew of Isaías Salmerón. Don Fii and I, with Lindajoy’s interpretative assistance, had an intense conversation. He picked up my violin and played a couple of tunes. Although the rust of infrequent playing was evident, one stroke of his bow arm told me that this man had been an extremely fine player in years past. He handed the violin back. “Play something you know,” he requested, and with a gleam in his eye immediately asked rhetorically, “But how could you play something you don’t know.” I played him an American fiddle breakdown and one of the tunes I had learned from Juan. Again the violin was passed to him, and he offered up an imitation of a whimpy, halfhearted player. “No!” His gravelly voice rose, “Play with passion! PLAY WITH PASSION!”

The day before I left Tierra Caliente was Sunday. Don Juan and I, along with Javier, had been asked to perform in the Altamirano Cathedral between the early and late masses. There could have been no better, more gratifying way to end such a life-changing week. Filling the cathedral with this achingly beautiful music, assisted by none other than the the Reynosos themselves, was a thrill like no other. The memory of Juan leaving the cathedral, holding his little granddaughter’s hand as they slowly walked together up the aisle and out into the blackness of the hot night, is one I will cherish as long as I live.

I would have stayed forever, but, sad as it was, the time had finally come for me to go and to bid a reluctant good-bye to some of the kindest, most loving and giving people I had ever met. But hey—don Juan! How about if I come down for a month or so this fall? Oh, by the way, Lindajoy, this is how this music will live on when Juan Reynoso goes to join the other great Calentana musicians.

And don Fili, I promise to play with passion.

*San Francisco Bay Area musician Daniel Steinberg used these worlds to describe his experience on hearing Juan’s music.

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