Festival of American Fiddle Tunes/Paul Conklin


Fall 1998



  • The Practicing Fiddler, by Jack Tuttle
  • Old Time Tunes, by John Hartford
  • Bluegrass Fiddling, by Paul Shelasky
  • Cross-Tuning Workshop Part Eight: AEAD, by Jody Stecher
  • The Irish Fiddler, by Donna Maurer
  • Writing Tunes, by Peter Anick
  • Fiddle Care, by Steven Beekman
  • And more!


  • Ninfa, by Juan Reynoso
  • Texas Dance Band, by Buddy Spicher
  • Forever Young Waltz, by George Wilson
  • Indian Squaw (Old Time Tunes column)
  • Pistol Packin' Mama (Bluegrass Fiddling column)
  • The Glen Road to Carrick (The Irish Fiddler column)
  • Bienvenue aux Saintes Maries (Writing Tunes column)



Juan Reynoso: Hotlands Legend Carries on Dying Tradition

By Lindajoy Fenley

Juan Reynoso's bowing is as good as ever, his hearing is sharper than a cactus thorn, and his musical memory is completely intact. This Mexican fiddle virtuoso says he feels like a teenager when he plays. Even so, at 86 he worries about what will happen to his music when he is gone.

Reynoso, a living legend known as the Paganini of the Hotlands, stands alone as the pillar of Calentana (Hotlands) music, carrying on a dying tradition with his incredibly extensive repertoire of sones, gustos, foxtrots, pasodobles, waltzes and marches, all of them only inside his head. He has never written down any of his compositions. In fact, he does not know how to read musical notation at all. Self-taught in every aspect of life and without any formal schooling, he learned to read words once he was an adult.


The Joy of Complex Harmonies

While most other Calentana groups include two fiddles, don Juan rarely plays with other fiddlers. Gallardo was an exception. He taught don Juan classical pieces like Czardas in exchange for learning the Calentana repertoire. Gallardo would play the first while Juan's fingers would dance above and below the melody line, harmonizing with his violin.

Just because Juan can't read or write music does not mean he doesn't understand musical theory. His understanding is innate; it isn't intellectualized. He simply enjoys creating complex harmonies when given the chance. When his is the only fiddle, he double stops practically every note. He can play harmony on his instrument while singing melody. He also works out the harmonies his sons play on their guitars when they accompany him.

In the first half of the century, don Juan's type of music was extremely popular throughout Tierra Caliente. There were string bands of four and five musicians playing sones and gustos with violins, guitars and tamboritas, and orchestras with both stringed and wind instruments. These groups were in demand for weddings, baptisms, wakes and all other sorts of social and political gatherings. Today, there are just a few groups that play música de arrastre or música de cuerda as the regional style is sometimes called locally. But led by "the Paganini of the Hotlands," the Conjunto de Juan Reynoso is undoubtedly the best. Oldtimers remember people used to say, "It's going to be a good wedding; Juan Reynoso is going to play!"


In the old days, rivalries between musicians ­ though known to turn violent ­ were usually battled out with fiddle and bow. When different groups played in the same place, each group would take turns playing one piece at a time. The fiddler would have to always reply to the previous piece by staying in the same key and style. For example, if the last piece was a son in D or a waltz in B-flat, the next piece would have to be the same. Disgrace came when the musicians had to switch to a new genre or key.

As an old man, don Juan gets a warm welcome in nearby Tlapehuala, the town that considers itself the cradle of Calentana music. He tips his hat and shouts good day to many on drives through the hot streets. People invite him into their cool adobe homes and offer him his beverage of choice, a simple glass of water.

However, when he gets to reminiscing about the old days, he chuckles about death threats he received during the annual Tlapehuala fiesta one August years ago.

"I went to play with the Taviras and I was only playing guitar," he recalls. "But then Felix Tavira said, 'put down that guitar and play the violin.' I didn't want to. But in those days I used to drink. I had some mescaland so I played. People started to cheer: "Viva Juan El Guache!' (Long live Juan the Kid!) That did not set well with El Bravito. He didn't like it and he came right over to where I was and said, 'you don't even know how to hold the violin.'

"We were hot with mescal and I said, 'What's it to you that I don't know how to hold the violin.' And he answered, "What is important is that you know how to play a bit.' Then Bardominano (El Bravito) said, 'This is the first and last time you will set foot in Tlapehuala.'"

Referring to Tlapehuala's other claim to fame ­ its penchant for brujeria ­ Juan retorted that the witchcraft of Tlapehuala didn't scare him a bit. He believed in God and not brujeria and they couldn't do anything to harm him even if they made a doll out of his very own kerchief. Juan avoided Tlapehuala for a while.

However, before El Bravito died, the two great fiddlers became good friends.

"Once we met up in Bejucos (state of Mexico) and El Bravito said, 'I see your violin is one you can't depend on.'" The Tlapehuala fiddler told Juan that he had three good violins he could choose from. "Just take this note to my wife or daughter and they will show you my violins at the house. Choose one and pay me at the San Lucas Fair two months from now."

Juan picked a fiddle and made good on his debt at the February 2 fair in honor of the Virgin de la Candalaria.


Don Juan likes to play his violin more than anything else. He also enjoys making up nicknames for people and talking in the sayings country people use to describe their world. He makes up his own sayings or at least finds a new use for ones he has heard in another context.

The first year he went to the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes [in Port Townsend, Washington], he was amazed to see so many musicians gathered in one place, making music inside the buildings and outside on the lawns, day and night. He also remarked about the "unusual" number of female musicians, which would not be common in Mexico. "You throw out a lasso and wherever it falls, it lands on a musician," he told people back home.

At Fiddle Tunes, don Juan simplified several gustos and a waltz, successfully teaching them to a group of his many admirers who ended the week playing them in public. The experience was much more satisfying than when he tried to teach music at the University of Guerrero many years ago and to his dismay no one learned to play.

Far more fulfilling, he admits unabashedly, was the week Seattle fiddler Paul Anastasio studied with him last April. Despite the language barrier, the two musicians spent hours together day after day. Juan, the teacher, played and replayed each piece they worked on and then checked to make sure Paul had transcribed it accurately. Paul, the student, played, recorded and transcribed before returning to his stuffy hotel room to review his progress. At the end of the week, the master fiddler screwed up his face and practically spit out his words, saying that it was a chinga, a tough week to say the least from morning to afternoon going over the same pieces and often ending up with a headache. Asked if he regretted working so hard, he lightened up immediately. Of course he loved it he said as he flashed a smile at the musician he now calls his "disciple."

None of don Juan's numerous children have taken up the fiddle although he has taught at least four sons to accompany him on the guitar. While he is proud of their talent, he likes to boast that he has more joie de vivre than all of them put together. "Next to me, my sons are a couple of old grandfathers," he says every now and then.


Today he lives a much more secure life than his father might have ever dreamed of, relaxing in a hammock in the back room of his blue concrete block house on a dirt street outside of Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero. The simple, but comfortable abode on the Michoacán side of the river is home for Juan, wife, a few of his many children and several grandchildren. They get by fairly well with the help of a son who plays popular Mexican music in small towns of the region, as well as on a Mexican circuit in the United States.

Although don Juan lurches to the right because a painful leg forces him to take slow, measured steps, he still likes to hike into town and play in bars and restaurants with a faithful accompanist, Cástulo Benitez de la Paz. When he tires, he sometimes stops inside the Altamirano Cathedral to cool off from the 100-degree heat. There, in the empty sanctuary and in the quiet of the afternoon, he opens his fiddle case and plays for a special audience. He plays for God and the saints.

He is one of the very few musicians to play inside the main church that way. But he has plenty of company in a chapel across town every November 22 when musicians gather to play for their patron saint, Santa Cecilia. At these and other gatherings, as well as when he is alone, don Juan plays because the music transports him. The music he plays keeps him young; it keeps him alive.

The question is: how will this music live on once El Maestro Juan has joined the other great musicians he likes to reminisce about?

[Lindajoy Fenley, a transplanted Californian living in Mexico City for the past ten years, looked up Juan Reynoso four years ago after falling in love with the music on a cassette she bought at a downtown music store. Since then, she has become a close friend of Juan and his family. She has taken him to the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, three times and organized concerts for his group in Mexico. She currently is planning the Third Encounter of Two Musical Traditions that will be held in Mexico City and Cd. Altamirano, Guerrero, in late February, 1999. Aimed at reviving traditional music and culture in Tierra Caliente, the Encuentro features Don Juan plus musicians from other regions of Mexico as well as the United States. E-mail: lindajoy@ laneta.apc.org.]

Laura Sobrino: Queen of the Mariachi Violin

By Michael Simmons

Laura Sobrino's life as a mariachi violinist began when she asked her mother for clarinet lessons. To her shock, her mother said, "Absolutely not. If you are going to take up anything it will be violin."

Laura remembers that day with a laugh. "I started crying. All my friends were taking clarinet and that is what I wanted to do, too. Then my mother offered an arrangement. She said I had to take violin lessons and learn the Ave Maria. Then, after I played the Ave Maria for her, if I still didn't like it I could take up any other instrument I wanted. That sounded easy to me. I went to school the next day with a permission slip for the violin thinking that I was going to beat my mother at this game. I would quickly learn the Ave Maria and go back to playing clarinet. But the first moment I held a violin I knew this was the instrument I was meant to play."

Laura turned that childhood challenge into a career as a professional mariachi, a teacher (she holds a master teacher certificate from the National Endowment for the Arts) and a publisher of some of the first accurate transcriptions of mariachi music.

Although she makes her living playing and teaching a Mexican folk style, she started as a classical violinist. After she began her lessons in school at the age of eight, one of her teachers recognized her talent and she was soon in private lessons. She progressed rapidly and was able to get into the University of California at Santa Cruz on a music scholarship where she encountered an unexpected culture shock. "I was just coming to terms with the fact I was Mexican. My parents didn't let me speak Spanish when I was growing up and there were a lot Hispanics at UC Santa Cruz from the Fresno area and they all spoke Spanish. That was the first time I felt uncomfortable because I didn't speak Spanish. I grew up in Watsonville and I went to a surfer high school. My brother and I thought we were surfers."

At the end of her freshman year Laura decided to take a year off, move to Mexico City and learn to speak Spanish. After she returned to Santa Cruz, she found she missed Mexico. "I started signing up for music theory classes and stuff like that when I noticed a class called the Music of Mexico and my heart made a big ping." Laura went the first day to audit the class and wound up the star student. Part of the class was learning to play some of the instruments used in various Mexican folk styles. She learned to play norteño button accordion, the jarana jarocho, the requinto, the guitarron and the harp. Because she was a classically trained violinist, it fell to her to teach some of the other students the parts in the class mariachi. That was the beginning of her teaching and the end of her classical violin lessons.

It was during her sophomore year that she began her professional life as a mariachi. She joined a student group and started playing weddings and restaurants. She decided to write her senior thesis on mariachi violin and went to Los Angeles to study with a band led by a friend of one of her professors. This was where her education really began. "I thought I was really hot because I knew forty or fifty songs. This band could play anything. I learned that a good mariachi must know hundreds of songs." She also discovered that her classical training could sometimes be a hindrance. "I was used to reading the music from a page. I needed the notes in front of my eyes. In our first student performance the teacher said we were going to have to perform from memory. In my first performance I was still so insecure that I hid the music under my Mariachi jacket and when he wasn't looking I put the music at my feet, but he caught me. He came over with his dirty boots and stomped all over the pages. He looked at me and said, 'That is the last time you are going to use notes when you play this music.'"

When she was in Los Angeles she met José Hernandez, the leader of the popular Mariachi Sol del Mexico. She became the first woman to join the band and it was during her tenure that she had finally began to understand the music. "I was playing six nights a week for three months when I finally figured out what they were doing that made them sound mariachi. The other musicians teased me about the night it clicked. I made a gasp into the microphone and my eyes got huge. After the show they asked me what was that all about. And I said I finally understood how to play mariachi. If they played an unfamiliar song I knew how they were going to bow, how they were going to phrase it. At the next break I started writing down the bowings. That was the start of Mariachi Publishing."

It was around this time that she started to study the work of some of the older players from the '30s and '40s. Mario Santiago, a violinist who played with Mariachi Vargas in the '40s, mentioned that when the band made records they cut out sections of the old songs to make them fit within the three minute time span of 78s. This spurred Laura to get an NEA grant to document older versions of some of the standard songs. She studied the playing of Esteban Hernandez, the father of José Hernandez, and recorded dozens of tunes that have never been written down.

Laura still plays in mariachis but these days she is devoting most of her time to teaching. She gives workshops at various festivals on the west coast and teaches classes in the Los Angeles area. She is proud of the fact that a number of her students have gone on to become professional mariachis. Laura is hopeful about the future of mariachi in America. She notes that in Texas and New Mexico, high school students can choose between band, orchestra or mariachi. She is also beginning to notice regional styles developing in the United States. She says that San Jose mariachis sound different from those from Los Angeles or Tucson.

She is currently applying for another grant to set up a program to teach intermediate students the mariachi style in greater depth. She hopes to introduce the students to a violinist named Jesús Rodriguez de Hijar, who is the current director of Mariachi America in Mexico City. "He was one of the musicians who set the standard for playing sones. I saw him with his band and when I heard him play I was almost in tears. After the show I went up to him and said that I thought I knew how to play sones, but after hearing him I realized that after playing for twenty four years I don't know anything."

Not too long ago, Laura Sobrino fulfilled a promise she made over thirty years ago. " I was telling my husband the story about my first violin lessons and the Ave Maria and he asked me if I ever played it for my mother and I told him I never did. My parents were planning to come over for thanksgiving so we practiced the piece. After dinner I gave my parents a glass of wine and my husband went to the piano. I told my mother that years ago I made a promise to her that I had never fulfilled and then I played the Ave Maria for her. After I was done I said, "Mom, I made up my mind. I'm going to continue to play violin."



Laura Sobrino has a web site, where you can order her mariachi transcriptions as well as get her teaching schedule. She also has a very good article on women in mariachi. http://www.mariachi-publishing.com

Fiesta del Mariachi is a web page put together by Sally Vega. It has sections on artists, history, concert listings and lots of links. This is great place to start if you are interested in mariachi. http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/2626/


How to Play Mariachi Violin, by Lawrence Sanders

Fuge Imaginea, P.O. Box 2027 Santa Monica CA 90406

Mariachi Publishing. Orders: (213) 727-0783; Fax: 213-278-9945


There are hundreds of CDs of mariachis available but it is difficult to find specific recordings by particular groups in the U.S. The best place to start is with recordings by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. Jonathan Clark recommends El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo, Fiesta en Jalisco, and Sones de Jalisco on RCA/BMG and Fiesta del Mariachi and En Concierto on Polygram. More than any other group they define what mariachi is. You can buy just about anything by them and it will be good. Other groups to look out for are Mariachi Cobre and Mariachi America de Jesus Rodriguez de Hijar.

Arhoolie (510-525-7471) has released a series of CDs of early mariachi recordings that is worth checking out:

  • Mariachi Coculense 1926-1936 (Arhoolie CD 7011)
  • Mariachi Tapatio de Jose Marmolejo (Arhoolie CD 7012)
  • Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan (Arhoolie CD 7015)
  • Cuarteto Coculense 1908-1909 (Arhoolie CD 7036)

Corason (dist. by Rounder, 800-443-4727) has a fine recording of a group called Mariachi Reyes del Aserradero. They are from Jalisco, the region where mariachi was born.

Mariachi Reyes del Aserradero, Sones from Jalisco (Corason COCD 108)

[Michael Simmons plays guitar, is Fiddler Magazine's Review Editor, and also writes for Acoustic Guitar magazine.]


Ingredients of Fiddle Tunes

By Dudley Laufman

After several years of teaching and playing at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, Marc Savoy, accordion maker and player, said he did not want to return. "Why not?" said Frank Ferrel. "Because it is tough to bring the bayou climate, the smells, the architecture, the language, the landscape, up here to the cool and relatively new Pacific Northwest. I can bring the music, but without those other ingredients, it is incomplete. Now you take Dudley, all he has to do is describe a New Hampshire winter, and everything else is pretty much in place. Oh, the houses are a little funny here, and maybe the trees taller, but mostly it is like the coast of Maine." "Well," said Frank, "we can fix that. We have an old bakery here on the fort with a big cauldron in the middle. We'll shut the windows, turn on a humidifier, crank up the cauldron and have a gumbo going in it, and some black coffee at hand. You can have your classes in there." He did and it worked.

He was right, though, about the ingredients. Anita Best, folklorist from Newfoundland, says in the Rufus Guinchard film, "It's great that you can play your own musicthat you don't always have to be playing American stuff, or Canadian stuff or French stuff. You can say I got that from here. This belongs here. The particular combination of geography, culture, and weather that produces Newfoundlandersthe spirit of Newfoundlanders, it belongs here and is reflected in the music."

A talented person could stay in the confines of Harvard Square, never leave, and, on several instruments and the help of recordings, play music from many culturessound bitessurfing. But the "ingredients" would be missing. Unless you traveled and/or lived in the various places, the sound bite would be minus the "ingredients."

Somebody says to me that they are an Irish musician. I say are you from Ireland. No, I am from Franklin. Have you ever smelled peat smoke. No, should I? They should get on an Aer Lingus to Shannon, and stay there for a bit. You don't have to be Irish. Just experience the ingredients.

Meet an old friend on the street, say haven't seen you at dances in awhile, miss you. He says, Oh I don't play that New Hampshire stuff anymore. I'm into southern mountain music. See him a year later, how's the southern music going. Oh, I don't do that now, I'm into Cajun.

This being "into" indicates a need to search for some music we can identify with, maybe even yearning for something buried deep in our roots. Or maybe it is simply dabblinginstant gratification and onto something else. All of it is possible today.

Look at me. On my father's side Swiss-German. I do not have the slightest interest in that folk music. My mother's side is English. Loyalists who went to the Eastern Townships of Québec. I am drawn to that music. I am also steeped in the music of rural central New HampshireGolden Slippers, Red Wing, St. Anne's Reel, Soldier's Joy, Old Zip Coon, Irish Washerwoman, Up River, Roaring Jelly, Rosin the Beautunes that go for the local social dancesPortland Fancy, Paul Jones, and various Virginia reels. They fit this place.

I love Cape Breton music. When I hear it I want to dance the sets that go with that music. Not contra dancing of any sort. Too much like mustard and ice cream. Lots of folks do enjoy contra dancing to Cape Breton music. For many that is all they know. And that is okay. But not for me. Or dancing contras to Irish pipes. Same thing.

The Global Communitythe Multi-Cultural Experiencethe sharing of traditions, etc.how much can we absorb? And why? At Port Townsend I was doing a class on New England dances and music. A student came rushing in, plunked a tape recorder in front of us, turned it on and left. She had three other tape recorders slung over her shoulder, and I heard later that she dropped them off at three other classes. Getting the music but not the dances, let alone the other ingredients.

As our world grows smaller, it is more possible to share or import traditions. In Minnesota the polka, schottische, and old time "square dance" are the local traditions. The contra dance and its music have to be imported. They don't always use New England music, sometimes going with southern mountain music. What a cultural mix. New stuff. Don't have to tell them anything about weather.

I can understand about being excited about a certain music without being of that culture, nor knowing or even caring about the other ingredients. I am enamored of Scandinavian fiddle music. I would love to play some walking tunes and hambos with a bunch of Scandi fiddlers. Sometime maybe. Lack of time and talent keeps me from pursuing it. I do know about their weather.

We (Two Fiddles) are fortunate that the other cultural music we love, French Canadian, is available here at our doorstep. New Hampshire has a large Franco-American population, and Québec itself is just up the road, two and a half hours to the border. We go up there all the time. Much of the old time New Hampshire music and dance is the same as or interchangeable with, or adapted from, the French CanadianGolden Slippers Golden Stairs, St. Anne's Reel, Glise Sherbrooke, The Paul Jones, Virginia Reel (Brandy Sherbrooke), Sir Roger de Coverly (La Contredanse), and many of the quadrilles. And our weather is the same.

Talking about sound bites brings to mind the possible can of worms subject of MEDLEYS. Ralph Page never used medleys for his dances in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire. If a tune is good enough to start a dance then it's good enough for the whole thing, he said. Al Quigley of Nelson, New Hampshire, used a three tune medley (the same three each time) for Lady Walpole's Reel. But that was the only time. An old Irish accordion player from Boston told me that when he was growing up, one tune was used for each dance. No medleys. Most of the Irish, Scottish and French-Canadian 78 rpm recordings would have only one tune per side. The medley business came as a result of radio and pleasing the listening audience.

We do not do much with medleys. We both play fiddles and call the dances at the same time. It is enough just to do that, let alone manage the floor, and other musicians if we have some with us. Doing all this and trying to remember tune changes can be too much. There is the Henry Ford version of the Virginia Reel that uses three tunes repeatedly through the dance. We do that enough so it comes easily. Occasionally when Jacqueline is calling, I can change tunes if that is all I have to think about. Most of the folks we play for ­­ kids, weddings, house dances ­­ are not sophisticated enough to be aware of the "impact" of tune change. It would be lost on most of them, thank God.

A young fiddler sat in with us once. She had Cole's 1000 Jigs and Reels with her. Started on the first page, played each tune once and turned the page. I said hold on, you hardly know the first tune. I'm bored with it, she said. I said bored is not in our vocabulary. You probably should put your fiddle away and go out on the floor to dance. I wasn't very nice.

So I haven't figured out if folks do medleys because they get bored, or because they are showing offlook how many tunes I knowor is it like the bumper sticker saysSo many tunes, So little time. Maybe a combination of all three. I carry that sticker on my car. But I guess I am not interested in playing all the tunes. 150 or so plus maybe a new one once a year is fine with me.

John Kirkpatrick wrote a great essay, "Medley Mania," published in English Folk Dance and Song. He says, "These tunes were built for constant repetition. You have to play it twenty times before you can really get inside it" "If a tune is worth playing once, it's worth playing a hundred times. Try it and see."

Recently had a request from a school wanting us to present a multi-cultural program of dances from Colonial New England, Africa, Indonesia, Native America, and Latin America. This was to be for 400 students in the gym, grades 1-5, in one day. A global sound bite. I said no.

[Dudley Laufman performs with his wife Jacqueline as "Two Fiddles." One of the pioneers of the contradance revival in New England, Dudley is a former member of the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. For information on his many recordings and books, contact him at P.O. Box 61, Canterbury, NH 03224, (603) 783-4719.]

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