Latin American music from classical to traditional is in the spotlight at three upcoming events

Ahmed Anzaldúa's life has been one of crossing borders.

His father was Mexican, his mother was an Egyptian immigrant to Mexico. He grew up in Muslim and Catholic households in northern Mexico, learned music, and left for Spain to study piano. 

Then he found himself in Kalamazoo, at Western Michigan University, earning two masters in piano performance and choral conducting from 2012 to 2016.

At his time at WMU, it struck Anzaldúa that Latin American song was almost non-existent in the choral world. So in 2017 he went to the Twin Cities of Minnesota, where he formed Border CrosSings, a choral group dedicated to a modest repertoire of 500 years of Latin American song.

The group promises to cover five centuries of song when they perform in Kalamazoo Jan. 24? He laughs, and says "We'll try!" 

They also will perform in Battle Creek Jan. 22. And Anzaldúa will hold a community sing at Kalamazoo's El Concilio Jan. 23.


Second Wave: Is Latin American song a blind spot in the world of choral music?

Anzaldúa: "Yeah, it tends to be erased from performance and education. That's the reason we started the group. What's true of Latin American music is true of a wide variety of cultures -- it's not just Latin American (cultures that are ignored), but that's our starting point."

"We try to get past the single-story narrative that's out there about Latin American music. Sometimes I'll ask the students or audience members... to say the first thing that pops up in their mind when we talk about Latin American music. Usually, we get answers like salsa, mariachi, Shakira, 'La Cucaracha,' stuff like that. So, being able to present classical music or folk music from traditions people don't know about from Latin America, or early music, or music by Native American composers, that sort of thing, just helps bridge that gap in understanding. It opens people's minds a little bit to what might be out there beyond that single story that they might have about what Latin American music is -- or Latin American culture, or Latin American people." 

SW: I'm not a choral person, but the only song with Latin American roots I can remember being taught was "Don Gato," in elementary school.

Anzaldúa: "The Cat! Yeah. Here in the Twin Cities there's a very active choral community. It's one of those hubs for choral music world-wide, and even here lots of singers who are of Latin American descent had never sung anything in their native language or culture, even though they've been singing in choir since they were in elementary school. So there's a need for it, I think."

SW: Also, is your founding of Border CrosSings a response to the current political climate, where people and cultures south of the U.S. border are put in a negative light, sometimes even demonized?

Anzaldúa: "That's a worldwide phenomenon. People are reacting and it's so complicated. But there's a mistrust of the outsider, and people try to get into their cliques, what they know, it could be all manner of things contributing to that. But yeah, the rhetoric and the politics in the United States regarding Latin American people, Latin American immigration, and the outsider and the refugee, all of that, is certainly something that strongly influenced starting this group and the sorts of programming that we do."

SW: Your mission statement for Border CrosSing says it's "an organization dedicated to integrating historically-segregated audiences, repertoire, and musicians through the performance of choral music."  It might be a lot to ask, but how can you fight -- or 'fight' might be the wrong word -- how can you heal this segregation with music, with song?

Anzaldúa: "That's a complicated question, but a lot of times I think that music in particular -- it's really hard to present a concert, and come up and say 'this concert is about this one thing,' because music a lot of times isn't necessarily about something, and it means different things to the different people listening and what they connect with it. 

"The best that we can do is represent these cultures in different ways that might not be part of the mainstream discourse, and let the listener make those connections for themselves. I do believe when someone listens to a piece of music, and enjoys it, and finds some sort of emotional connection or cultural connection or anything, that that translates into a greater appreciation for the culture where that music came from, or more curiosity to try to find out more. I think just, in general, having more information, more viewpoints, that's all a net positive. I think most of these sorts of problems that are plaguing society right now are just based on ignorance, based on a lack of exposure. So I think just that in itself can be -- well, the word that you used was healing, which I think is a good one for this."

SW: Just present the beauty of the songs, no major lectures needed. One standout of CrosSings' Youtube clips I've found is "Hanacpachap Cussicuinin." I'm totally ignorant of it, but it sounds ancient, like something from the Andes, you on tom drum and a member strumming a small, many-stringed guitar (charango). 

Anzaldúa: "But that's a good example. When we present the song, people will react to the way it sounds. It has that ancient, sort of archaic sort of sound, it also has these attractive instruments, the voices are singing in harmony. And also the history of the song is quite attractive. It's by a Native American composer/writer from the 17th century, so a lot of the time that just makes the students a bit more curious to realize that someone was out there in Peru writing music like this. 

"It really is just about that. That's a piece I enjoy presenting to audiences who've never heard of it. One thinks 16th, 17th-century music, one thinks Bach, Vivaldi, Palestrina, that sort of thing. So when you present them with a composer who is not European, nor white, nor writing in Latin or German, that immediately just changes a lot of preconceptions. 

"A lot of our programs alternate between early music such as 'Hanacpachap,' folk music that's a little bit more modern, classical music by Latin American composers, and we just try to create those connections."

SW: Five-hundred years of music is a lot of stuff, but do you, or the group, have any favorites? 

Anzaldúa: "The answer just changes every time." He goes on to say the latest standouts for CrosSings include, 'Tleytantimo Thoquilia,' a late 16th-century piece from Mexico, very lively and changes from a Native American language from Mexico and Spanish," and "an arrangement of an Argentine song from the 1950s, 'Alfonsina y el mar.' That is a song a lot of Latin American people would recognize from their childhood, it's a song that a certain generation would know," he says.

"I try to program music that I feel very strongly about, so they're all my favorites." 

SW: What kind of audience are you hoping to get for your concert in Kalamazoo?

Anzaldúa: "When I was at Western, when I was in Kalamazoo, none of this music we're doing was ever performed in that area. And a couple of them are pieces I first performed as a student at Western when I was running one of the ensembles there. I started introducing these pieces there as a student. And I do think that the program we'll be performing, that people who'd normally go to a Gilmore concert would really enjoy, and pieces that somebody who's never been to a choral concert before would also really enjoy it."

Anzaldúa hopes to appeal "to the widest variety of viewpoints and backgrounds as possible. I'm very excited to go back to Kalamazoo as a performer, to perform for old friends and family."

The details

Ahmed Anzaldúa's Border CrosSing will be presented by the Gilmore Keyboard Festival at Kellogg Community College's Davidson Visual and Performing Arts Center,  450 North Ave, Battle Creek. Jan. 22, 7 p.m. The event is free, but reservations encouraged. For more information visit here. 

Ahmed Anzaldúa will lead the El Concilio Community Sing, with Justice Choir Kalamazoo and Danza Folklórico, at El Concilio in Kalamazoo, 930 Lake Street, Kalamazoo, Jan. 23, 5:30 p.m. The event is free, but reservations encouraged. For more information visit here.  

Ahmed Anzaldúa's Border CrosSing will be in concert at the First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo, 321 W. South Street, Jan. 24, 7 p.m. The event is free, but reservations are encouraged. For more information visit here.  

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.
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