This article was created to accompany a text that appeared in the edited volume entitled “Music and Globalization: Critical Encounters” (Indiana University Press, 2012). For more information, visit: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/a/MUSGLP
Rarámuri violin music in a cross-border space
One of the more illuminating encounters I had during my fieldwork in Mexico took place on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas. I had been studying Raramuri Indian violin music in the Sierra Tarahumara, a mountainous region in the southern part of the state of Chihuahua.
Heading home for a break between grants, I happened to pass through El Paso when some of the Rarámuri men I knew were performing a traditional dance at a museum on the edge of town. They didn’t know that I was coming to see them, and I didn’t know, as I arrived in the morning after an arduous drive north from Chihuahua City, that they had commandeered the museum’s rest room as an impromptu backstage.
Absent-mindedly pushing open the door, I found myself surrounded by men from the hamlet of Coyachique, festooned in the bright bandanas and headdresses of the Matachin costume, jostling for space amidst the stalls and cinder block. We did a double take and broke into laughter at the strangeness of meeting in such a place, far outside the normal science context of ‘fieldwork’ that we all, in our different ways, had come to take for granted.
Rarámuris countered with their own construal of indigenous locality, but in a more subtly coded way. During the dance, the Rarámuri fiddler made prominent use of a tune called Semati Siyoname or “beautiful blue (sky).” The tune is something of an anthem for Rarámuris.
Rarámuris play the violin throughout their ritual and home life, and at times it provides an opportunity for Rarámuri men to travel and perform in southern Mexico, the US, and at times in Europe. However, Rarámuris don’t see the violin as a specifically Rarámuri tradition, but rather a subset of a shared, circulating form of music, within which they have crafted a particular style.
The violin thus has an ambivalent status in the Sierra Tarahumara, since it is considered at once an emblem of European high culture and an icon of Rarámuri particularity. Musically, it embodies intimately local, felt and lived spaces even while it circulates globally in recorded, decontextualized form.
As an object, it exists both as commodity and tool, an object in itself and a means to another end. The instrument is thus centrally important in the extent to which it links up the production of indigenous locality with transnational circuits of movement and exchange.
The sonic center of the performance was a Rarámuri violin, but it seemed ill suited to the space, its sound dwarfed by the vastness of the surrounding desert.
Meanwhile, the mixture of European and Indigenous qualities in the Matachines form – a quadrille dance with a Christian background, European costume (bandanas, boots and crowns), and music supplied by a violin and guitar – clashed with American expectations of untouched indigeneity (Iannielo 1988; Delgado 2008).
It was this resonance of the violin that underlay a plan to bring Rarámuris to Cremona, Italy, the storied birthplace of the modern violin, in order to learn the techniques of modern violin making [...] The Italians sought to integrate Rarámuri practices of playing and making the violin into a European story about the instrument and its universality. Verplancken and the Italians concurred with each other, then, in valuing the cultural wealth of the Sierra and its material embodiment in objects of art. They worked together, each one reinforcing the other’s imagined universes of value. But the expectation of commonality could also serve as a source of tension.
The Rarámuris’ use of the violin complicates the question: humiliation from one angle could like success from another. Hence in Italy, learning to make a violin was less important than the journey itself and the chance to valorize Rarámuri traditions on a world stage, both of which could be converted, on returning to the Sierra, into wider prestige and perhaps greater wealth for one’s own family.
In El Paso, Rarámuris could use the violin to make a subtle riposte to the dominant discourse of Indigeneity on display at the museum. In this sense it was part of a more pugnacious stance, which came to light as Rarámuris conflicted with Fisher over the terms of their pay.
The violin fits into an ethos of “chingando al Gringo” – in essence, playing the system to invert its terms. By redefining themselves as culturally valuable they blunt their own domination as ‘blacks’ and ‘animals’.
Rather than do away with the language of racial domination in the Sierra, Rarámuri men perhaps want only to claim it’s efficacy for themselves.