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October 2008 · Bimonthly

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With my last posting of Carlo(s) Curti(s)' "Tipica" I illustrated a bit of a Mexican mandolin tradition. If you'd like to hear more historical recordings of that sort I suggest you listen to "Orquestas Tipicas: Pioneer Mexican-American Dance Orchestras; Arhooly Records 7017. This fascinating small label, founded in 1960 by a man named Chris Strachwitz, specializes in all kinds of music that the major (read "commercial") companies aren't interested in. If ever you were ever hoping to encounter an example of Tejano mandolin, that's a place to go looking for it!

In this posting I'm offering my transcription of a tune from Arhoolie 7018, with the long title "Mexican-American Border Music - Volume 5. Orquestas de Cuerdas: The String Bands. The End of a Tradition. Original Historic Recordings: 1926-1938." The tune itself is called "A la Orilla de un Palomar (danzón)" and was recorded in 1930 in San Antonio, Texas, by the Trio Alegre on mandolin and two guitars. You can order that track from places like Amazon. Below you'll find a button that allows you to hear me play the tune on two mandolins and guitar.

We had already observed that spelling does not survive cross-cultural transitions very well. In the case of Mr. Curti that seems to have been intentional, in this case probably not. There's a very old Mexican folk song, entitled "a la orilla de un palmar." A man walks by the edge (orilla) of a palm grove (palmar), and finds a beautiful orphan girl who tells him of her desolate life all alone:

*Solita paso la vida
a la orilla del palmar,
solita voy y vengo
como las olas del mar.
*"Alone I spend my life at the edge of a palm grove; I come and go alone, like the waves of the sea...".

Check it out on Youtube; you'll find many different versions, by streetmusicians, by mariachi bands, even a classical arrangement for string quintet. Actually, the famous Mexican composer Manuel Ponce wrote such a beautiful arrangement, that was so often played that many actually believe he wrote the song.

How did the lovely girl with stars in her eyes end up by a pigeon loft (palomar) rather than by a palm grove (palmar)?

I surmise that someone somewhere in the Arhoolie offices in Berkeley CA was thinking about Mount Palomar, the famous mountain in San Diego County where the world famous observatory is located. Or maybe they were thinking about the Palomar Ballroom (where Mr. Trachwitz occasionally gigged -- according to the Arhoolie Website).

Although obviously still based on the Mexican folksong, the tune the Trio Alegre recorded is a lot happier and more up-tempo. It's a creative reinterpretation. They call it a "danzón," a type of dance which originated in Cuba in the second half of the 19th century, and then gained popularity in the Coastal states of Mexico (Veracruz)-- and obviously as far as San Antonio.

At any rate, its a delightful tune to play, and a rare specimen of Tejano mandolin playing the lead in the days before the two or three row accordion conquered the throne in that realm.

Click to listen to palomar.mp3.

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About the Author

Paul Oorts started his musical career in his native Belgium playing the flügelhorn in the village band of the small town in which he grew up. During the late seventies he learned to play guitar, bass, and 5-string banjo in the vibrant folk scene of Antwerp, then a magnet for buskers of all feathers. He first picked up a mandolin while living in Italy and got his first decent instrument just before he moved to the US in 86 and traded in his upright (which was rather hard to take on the plane…).

During graduate school in PA he started playing for contradances, and got interested in the hammered dulcimer, which would lead him to a lifetime friendship and collaboration with Steve Schneider (with whom he recorded an album called "Momentum") and to a marriage and musical partnership with Karen Ashbrook. Their "Celtic Café" is an exploration of the connections between Celtic and Continental music, and they perform at festivals across the country.

Moving to the DC area allowed him to explore the world of the mandolin orchestras and to become a semi-professional musician, playing in a variety of dance bands and teaching mandolin, cittern, and guitar privately. He has been on faculty at the Augusta Heritage Center (WV) the Swannanoa Gathering (NC), Common Ground on the Hill (MD), Pinewoods (MA), Hill County Acoustic Music Camp (TX), and the Volksmuziekstage in Gooik (Belgium). His most regular gig is teaching French and Italian at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

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