“Our economic system does all it can to confine music to the shape of something that can be bought and sold, but that is very little of what it can be–hanging out with traditional musicians in Mexico provided a great example of how much more is possible.” —Jordan Wax of Lone Piñon
The bulk of my music listening occurs while sitting alone in a room. It’s a distant cry from the rich tradition of music history, which has been mostly communal by nature. I am more or less a reflection of modern American society, where music is a commodity that can be bought and sold, and where social interaction can often feel almost unnatural.
From headphones and portable mp3 players to solo bedroom recordings, artists and listeners now manufacture invisible barriers of separation. Even as we come together and gather for live performances, there is often an inescapable aura of detachment. On the stage, musicians appear disengaged from the audience and even from their music itself. Meanwhile a motionless crowd internalizes the energy being radiated from the performers.
When Kanye West boldly claims that his next album will be the greatest album of all time, it emphasized the fundamental shift that has occurred in the musical climate of Westernized culture. No longer is music simply about bringing people together, but rather instead a divisive competition.
The variables that enabled this shift are many, likely including the conception of radio, pursuit of the rock & roll lifestyle, suburbanization, and the emergence of social media.
Not every part of the world has succumb to this sad state of being. There are still places in which music plays a very natural and communal role in the daily lives of people. These are places in which a dedicated venue and time is not required. I have Jordan Wax of Lone Piñon for reminding me that such places still exist.
As fiddler and vocalist of Santa Fe trio Lone Piñon, Wax has embraced many of the traditional values of music that have disappeared from our own culture. The acoustic trio which also includes Greg Glassman (guitar, vocals) and Noah Martinez (guitarrón) have immersed themselves in musical roots of Mexico’s Huasteca and Tierra Caliente regions, as well as El Rio Grande del Norte (Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado). Drawn together from a variety of musical backgrounds but mutual a admiration for cultural music roots, Lone Piñon formed in 2012.
Performing frequently all over New Mexico (including Globalquerque! and Albuquerque Folk Festival), their talents have synthesized flawlessly. Following less fulfilling past pursuits, Martinez, Wax and Glassman have had an enriching if not life changing experience as Lone Piñon. The warm acoustic tones and vibrant energy of their performances burst with the natural communal joy steeped in the music’s tradition.
On Friday February 26th, Lone Piñon will celebrate the release of their debut album with a special performance at the San Miguel Mission. Tickets will be on sliding scale of $5-$20, and worth every cent.
I recently spoke with Jordan Wax of Lone Piñon about the history of the band, as well his own experiences traveling to Mexico’s Huasteca region.
ML: The three of you come from pretty different musical backgrounds. According to your bio, the three have you have sunk your teeth in everything from experimental jazz to klezmer-punk to honky tonk to orquesta tejana to rockabilly and elsewhere. Greg even played clawhammer banjo player with the Gnawa musicians of Essouira, Morroco. How did the three of you eventually come together to focus on the more traditional sounds of the El Rio Grande del Norte region?
JW: Greg and I had toured and recorded together with David Wax Museum around the East coast… We had been out of touch but discovered that we had both moved to New Mexico within a week of the other——Greg to Las Vegas and me to Santa Fe. We both had experienced, in other places, how regional roots music can change your relationship with the place you live–kind of like a dowsing rod that takes you down to what’s happening at a certain cultural layer… and that layer was a place we both needed to find in moving to New Mexico.
So in getting together to jam, in addition to enjoying the Missouri fiddling and gospel music we both brought with us, we ended up building a repertoire of Northern New Mexican dance music.
We had heard about Los Jaraneros del Valle, a son jarocho group in Albuquerque, went to see them and found Noah playing leona with them. We immediately identified each other as kindred musicians and spent the afternoon playing Northern New Mexican polkas and chotes. Noah grew up in one of the most vital agricultural pockets of the North Valley of Albuquerque, and so his ear is very attuned to how different strata of culture coexist in the same space–he had never come across the recordings of the old violinistas and their repertoire but he immediately recognized in them something he identified with.
We had all three been working as musicians in more marketable rock bands, finding ways to fit our musicianship into the framework that context entails… which for traditionally-trained or traditionally-inspired musicians, can be a little alienating. When we started playing acoustic, playing the music that is meaningful to us, playing in spaces where we could actually hear the naked sound of the instruments and voices–all of our mistakes and flaws as well as the synergy–I think we all three felt we were on the right track and wanted to build on it.
What would you say are the defining characteristics of this musical style?
It’s acoustic, it’s traditional, and as such it has a certain immediacy and visceral punch. There’s something accessible and very human about the low-tech sound of the wood, the strings, the horsehairs, and the physicality of the singing and playing. A lot of what we play is dance music, so it speaks to you from the neck down, and hits you in your body. As in a lot of traditional music, the individual voice is downplayed and a more communal voice has a chance to come out and say something. Or the voice of past generations, or a landscape, whatever we imagine that to be.
The tunes on the new album are Northern New Mexican and Mexican–mainly Mexican huapango fiddling from the Huasteca region but also a corrido and a few tunes from the Tierra Caliente region, which is around Michoacán. Each of those regions, though they’re connected to ours musically and culturally, has its own unique language, rhythm, and feel. I think we don’t feel totally comfortable with a piece until we’ve made it our own and found our own voice in that language, so there’s certainly a Lone Piñon style that weaves through the wide-ranging repertoire.
Considering your overall richly varied backgrounds in music, do you find these external stylistic ideas seeping into your music with Lone Piñon, or do you generally attempt to preserve the traditional sound?
We don’t really spend much time worrying about preserving any particular sound. As musicians, I think our biggest obligation is to be authentic to ourselves. My musical heroes are the elder musicians and traditional masters I’ve learned from, and they’ve always been open-minded, creative, opportunistic, inclusive, joyful, and pretty unencumbered by any sense of preservation. We figure that the older generations played the way they did because of who they were and the world they lived in, and we have to play according to who we are and the world we live in. To me, that’s the greatest gift we can offer to a tradition–to find our own voice in it. It’s a living language.
That being said, we’re not just making stuff up. Traditional music is a process that’s already begun, and you have a chance to join in the fun. I know I’m carrying something that was passed down to me, that is bigger than me as a musician. If I do that in a new way, good! Because all of our traditions are in danger these days and I think it’s gonna take some creative problem solving to deliver them alive and kicking to the coming generations. We might not sound very traditional to our grandpas but I guarantee we’ll sound pretty traditional to our grandchildren. We’re part of a multi-generational continuum, and in that everyone has to do their part–especially when the world is changing so quick–to learn what they can and pass it along. It’s gonna sound different at any given point of the continuum, and Lone Piñon is just one point.
You’re about to release your first album, recorded locally at Frogville Studios. Did the studio setting necessitate any changes in your approach to playing, or was it a pretty seamless transition from how you perform live?
We felt really lucky to work with Bill Palmer at Frogville–I think he understood our approach and helped us make an album that fits our approach. We recorded everything live, standing in a circle and playing together, and refrained on this one from overdubbing additional tracks or instruments. So I think we ended up with an album that sounds like our live shows, which is what we were looking for in a first album.
In celebration of the release of your debut album, you’ll be performing at San Miguel Mission. There’s promise of a bunch of guest collaborations. Could you elaborate upon who’ll be joining you on stage?
We’re really excited to have the collaboration of Santiago Romero (vihuela) and Christina Gomez (vocals) of Mariachi Sonidos del Monte, Lia Martínez (vocals), Dave Gomez (accordion) of Felix y los Gatos, Greg Butera (fiddle) of Greg Butera and the Gunsels, Ryan Little (steel guitar) of the Gunsels, Xochitl Ehrl (of Santa Fe DanceWorks), Thelma Argüello, and hopefully a few more that are yet to be confirmed. The release concert is a great excuse to get together and celebrate the thriving community of roots musicians here.
You spent 6 months in the La Huasteca region of Mexico, immersed in the local indigenous ceremonial and Huapango dance music. Could you share how that experience has further shaped the Leon Piñon?
It was great encouragement. The music and dance culture down there is awe-inspiring and fun, and my intent was to bring back at least some seed of that spirit to cultivate in our experience as a band and as a musical community here in Santa Fe… it’s very regionally-specific on the outside but there’s something at the core that is universal and that takes root wherever you plant it. We’ve started playing a lot of huapangos and canarios (ritual tunes of gratitude and celebration that are played at weddings, wakes, harvests, etc.), which have become integral to what the band does. They’re great in themselves but somehow playing them has also pervaded the way we play the rest of our repertoire. They’ve forced us to learn, to grow as a band, and have offered us a wellspring of inspiration–the master huapangueros are so good that their example always creates more space as to what you can do as a musician.
Music down there is much more a part of daily life… it was once like that where I’m from too, but it seems like around the time when the radio came out it got commodified and disappeared from so many spheres of daily culture. As musicians who want to work against that, it’s incredibly valuable to have a living example of what that intact system looks like–in one particular case, at least. We’ve played a lot more cornfields, sheep slaughters, hospices, nursing homes, and day-cares since starting up again. Our economic system does all it can to confine music to the shape of something that can be bought and sold, but that is very little of what it can be–hanging out with traditional musicians in Mexico provided a great example of how much more is possible.
In 2015, you performed at the Globalquerque! Festival. What was it like to share a stage with so many remarkable talents from all over the world?
It was incredible! I saw some life-altering performances there–it’s been four months and I’m still kind of drunk from listening to the 1200-year-old Sufi singing dynasty from Pakistan. It was also great to finally meet Los Martinez, a New Mexican music dynasty that doesn’t play out often enough. It’s a great festival.
For anyone hearing Lone Piñon for the first time but unfamiliar with the musical style, are there specific artists that you would recommend to further explore?
Yeah! On iTunes you can download Trio Chicamole’s album Huapango en Wi-Fi, Los Campers de Valles El Ave de mi Soñar, and Los Carácuaros de Serafín Ibarra’s album Música de Tierra Caliente.
On Spotify you can get Los Camalotes, Trio Xoxocapa, Juan Reynoso, Trio Chicamole, Los Camperos de Valles, Los Carácuaros de Serafín Ibarra, and El Ciego Melquiades (a 1930s fiddler from San Antonio).
For vintage Northern New Mexico fiddlers, send us a FaceBook message and we can DropBox you some mixes.
Lone Piñon plays San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe on Friday, February 26th at 7:30pm.
They’ll also be sharing their debut LP “Trio Nuevo Mexicano” with the world on February 26th.
For more on Lone Piñon, head to www.lonepinon.com
Trio Nuevo Mexicano
01. La Petenera
02. La Vaquilla
03. El Guajolote
04. Deja Que Salga La Luna
05. Polka de Pecos
06. El Gallo
07. El Paseadito Chote
08. El Tecolotito
09. Los Paisanos’ Waltz
10. Las Canastas
11. La Virgencita
13. Valse Emiliano
14. La Xochipitzahuatl