Ever since 1989 when educator-folklorist Eugene Rodriguez and community activist Alicia Marines came up with the idea for Los Cenzontles Mexican Traditional Arts Center, the organization has been devoted to elevating the self-esteem of the overlooked San Pablo Latino immigrant community by creating an after-school alternative for its sons and daughters -- one that brings them closer to their roots and away from the perils of the streets. Last year Marines resigned from Los Cenzontles but left it in the capable hands of Rodriguez as an established home with plenty of space in which to perform and rehearse. "The big change at the center is that kids who came out of the program are now staff people here," comments Rodriguez.
The center provides instruction to around three hundred students a week at minimal cost to parents. Its performing ensemble has produced and participated in a variety of recordings, including the Grammy-nominated children's CD by Los Lobos, Papa's Dream. Trips to Mexico have allowed students to experience traditional music firsthand, and the young players have been invited to perform around the US. Now, one of Rodriguez's ambitions is to take the center's mission to a statewide and national level. Searching for a project for Year of the Arts -- the 25th anniversary of the California Arts Council -- Rodriguez conceived of a tour that would pair the center's performing ensembles with four folkloric masters representing the diverse regionalism of Mexican traditional music.
The result is a CD -- featuring Tex-Mex conjunto, rural mariachi, the lowland sones of Michoacán, and the jarocho music of Veracruz -- and also the Saturday, August 4 "Cuatro Maestros" concert at Berkeley's Julia Morgan Center (8 p.m., 2640 College Ave., 510-845-8542).
"Pairing up Los Cenzontles with these elder folk masters made it easy to organize a tour," says Rodriguez. "It begins in Sacramento and ends in San Jose, and will include violinist Julian Gonzalez performing with a traditional rural mariachi of two violins, vihuela, guitaron, and dancers. Atilano Lopez will play vihuela and sing songs in Purepecha from Michoacán with his two sons. Our good friend, accordionist Santiago Jimenez Jr., is bringing a couple of his partners from San Antonio. And we will try to recreate a grand finale fandango with Andres Vega on jarana, with Mono Blanco from Veracruz."
The Cuatro Maestros Tour brings together generations-old musical traditions. Collaborating with young people helps reinforce the perspective that culture is something that's in your blood. And yet the limited funding for traditional arts -- at a time when Mexicans represent over 55 percent of the national Latino population -- seems a dismal representation to Rodriguez. He sees Los Cenzontles as a bridge that can help connect the American mainstream with the vernacular Mexican culture happening around them.
"What is beautiful about traditional culture is that it creates a mode of communication in this beautiful music and dance," explains Rodriguez. "We have a ten-year-old boy on this tour alongside Andres Vega, who is 71, and they are on the same stage showing that culture is a living organism, something that breathes and bonds us."
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