The Music of Mexico’s Tierra Caliente

S-502 balsas photo

Tierra Caliente del Balsas is found where the Mexican states of Michoacán and Guerrero meet in the valley of the Rio Balsas.

The traditional music from this region has drawn from wide-ranging sources. As with the music of many other parts of Mexico, there is a heavy Spanish influence. We hear this influence in the melodic minor scales often heard in the region’s pasodobles and in the frequent appearance of what’s called an Andalusian cadence (1 major or minor, b7 major, b6 major, 5 seventh). The manicos, or guitar strums, played in the region also show strong Spanish influences. Two common 6/8 dance music styles, the son Calentano and the gusto Calentano, are also clearly derived from Spanish styles.

African slaves who were brought to the region to work the mines and cattle ranches around Huetamo, Michoacán in the early part of the 19th century are credited with introducing complex syncopations to the 6/8 dance music forms and also with introducing a small drum known as the tamborita to the music.

Strong European roots can be heard in the complex, four-sectioned valses composed in Tierra Caliente, which could have just as easily been written in Vienna. The polka is another style that came from central Europe and was embraced by the folks of Tierra Caliente.

As the French ruled Mexico for a time, they left their musical stamp on the region as well, giving a strong European flavor to the marchas played as dance music and to minuets still used today as funeral music.

From Cuba came the danzón and bolero, and Argentina contributed the tango. Musicians of the Hot Lands learned tunes from these countries and composed pieces in these styles as well.

US dance bands of the 1920s and ’30s provided the musical inspiration for the foxtrot and the interesting musical hybrid known as ‘swing de Tierra Caliente’, which features ragtime-esque syncopations and swing chord progressions while using a straight-eighth note feel in place of the swing-eighth note feel heard in American swing.

photo S-296Naturally, the musicians of Tierra Caliente played popular pieces which were also played by Mariachi bands and the romantic vocal trios heard in Mexico City. As professional musicians, they also needed to play requests — tunes from other regions of Mexico and even American popular songs.

The bulk of the music of Tierra Caliente, however, consists of hundreds of regional folk tunes as well as many composed tunes and songs which are unique to the region. Some of these pieces were composed over a 150 years ago, while others were created more recently.

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