Abel Rocha and his ‘songs of the people’
Years ago, I walked into a waterside club for a taco and a margarita, and found myself spellbound by the music of a two-person Latin folk band called Correo Aereo (“Air Mail”). The magic was due, in part, to musicians Abel Rocha and Madeleine Sosin’s repertoire of Latin American folk music that I had never heard before, and the variety of instruments they used.
But it was Abel Rocha’s voice that really grabbed me, just like it struck longtime collaborator Sosin in the early ‘90s, shortly before they teamed up to form Correo Aereo.
“He has this warm, deep, soulful mid-range,” said Sosin, “and then this cry on top of it — that way of using falsetto, I'd never heard that before and it just cut right through me.”
Rocha’s voice and musicianship are matched by a deep knowledge of the songs and cultures of the Americas. Correo Aereo’s repertoire, from Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile, uses traditional instruments like folk harps, cuatro (a small Venezuelan guitar), maracas and jaranas (small drums), as well as violin and guitar.
It is musica popular — songs of the people.
Abel Rocha, who is Mexican, was a student in Mexico City in the 1970s and ‘80s. He was influenced by the musicians and composers who found in the city a creative refuge after being persecuted by a wave of dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and other countries.
Some of the music was nueva canción, songs that protested oppression and championed human and labor rights. But much of it was the traditional songs of workers, be they sung in a factory or about the hard life of the farmworker.
Seattle-based musician, educator and producer Antonio Gómez says Rocha knows the songs of the farmer — the worker. “Whether it's working in a mechanics shop in a city in South America or if it's working in an agricultural region, this is the music that creates a soundtrack to life in Latinoamerica.”
“Seattle doesn’t even know that it has this cultural treasure in Abel Rocha,” says Gómez, adding that Rocha is “literally someone who’s a caretaker of the folklore traditions of Mexico, way beyond mariachi.”
Much of the music has deep ties to the land and to nature, and to the uncertainties of life itself.
One song in the repertoire is Milonga del Péon de Campo, by Argentinian composer Atahualpa Yupanqui. A worker on a ranch has an imaginary dialogue with his landlord, the estanciero:
I never owned my own herd
I've always ridden on the back of a horse owned by someone else
Once I had a zaino horse, so good that it flew over the grass.
I have a simple life, like the worker in the fields is.
Beat up by endless mornings
Having to get up before dawn
in the midst of rain, sleet or cold wind
Sometimes it hits hard the liver and the kidneys
Another, Zamba de Lozano, describes a place in northern Argentina where the hills are stripped by the colors of minerals, and the longing for love with the arrival of Carnaval and the changing of seasons.
“One same song can express the pain, the struggle, the lamento,” explains Rocha.
He continues. “They are rage. Songs are dreams, too. Songs are desires not met in life.”
“Songs are many things,” Rocha says. “And I shall never stop learning what they are.”