Tiburcio Ulibarri on violin and is brother Dionisio Ulibarri on guitar, New Mexico, early 20th century (courtesy Rob Martínez)

“In these rituals, these songs, these stories and dances, there is a world and a value system. I felt and feel strongly that this way of life, which I had known, needs to be saved and cherished. It has something for all humankind.” —Cipriano Fredrico Vigil (from exhibition label copy)

SANTA FE, New Mexico — Mimicking the organization of a traditional northern New Mexican salón de baile (dance hall), two intricately carved wooden benches, a violin, an accordion, and a guitar greet the visitor to Música Buena: Hispano Folk Music of New Mexico at the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Running through October 2021 and co-curated by Nicolasa Chavez, Curator of Latino, Hispano, and Spanish Colonial Collections at MOIFA, and musician, author, and artist Cipriano Fredrico Vigil, Música Buena takes a close look at the diverse types of intergenerational knowledge that propels Hispano music in northern New Mexico.

Chavez describes Vigil as a “master and tradition bearer” of New Mexican music. His book, New Mexican Folk Music/Cancionero del Folklor Nuevomexican: Treasures of a People, was published in 2014 and was the inspiration for the exhibition. Chavez and Vigil worked together — along with graphic designer Susan Holmes and exhibition designer Antoine Leriche — to bring the diverse stories of Hispano music into the spotlight.  Chavez told Hyperallergic that Música Buena is particularly timely because, “for the past 50 years or so, New Mexican folk music was largely seen as dying out, while other Latino musical forms were gaining popularity. But, today, New Mexican folk music is regaining its traction, though it remains the least known type of the Hispano music. Not many people know that New Mexico has its own genre of music.”

Musician, instrument maker, and guest curator Cipriano Vigil, July 2018 (photo by Jeannette Flamm)

The region’s Hispano folk traditions are the direct result of the contested, multi-layered histories of the region. Spanish colonizers in what is now New Mexico brought not only invasive systems of government, religion, and power, but foreign forms of music, art, and architecture that were themselves not only directly linked the processes of colonial rule, but already a confluence of Arabic, Celtic, and Moorish (among many other) traditions. Over the course of the past several hundred years, the musical and performative traditions of the settlers became influenced by both Mexican and Indigenous communities in the region. These unique cultural contexts, often fraught with settler colonial violence, have resulted in a variety of uniquely New Mexican dramatic traditions, performative rites of passage, and musical genres that the curators have termed música buena.

The exhibition’s first section takes a close look some of the earliest instruments in New Mexico, as well as the materiality of music production — a violin painstakingly constructed of rawhide and leather with strings of wood, floss, and copper wire is juxtaposed with a selection of bandurrias (plucked chordophones that originated in Spain). Bandurrias, requintos, mandolins, flutes, matracas (cog rattles), violins, and accordions are all displayed and contextualized within their development in the region. Together, these instruments, often constructed from found materials, ask visitors to not only appreciate the object for its visual beauty, but to image the feeling, sound, and emotion that hearing it played would evoke.

Tranquilino Serrano, Española, New Mexico, 1966 (Photo by Mansi Kern, courtesy MOIFA and Bartlett Library and Archives, Museum of International Folk Art)

Next, visitors are asked to contemplate various Hispano rites of passage — from birth and death, to marriage, to cleaning irrigation ditches. Made in 2010 by Mario Vargas in Taos, a carreta de la muerte (death cart) teaches the visitor about the entriega de los difuntos (delivery of the deceased), or departure songs. These despediminentos (farewells) are often performed by members of the Penitente brotherhood, and carefully send the deceased into the next life. Across the gallery, Chavez and Vigil brilliantly contextualize the caretaking of acequias (irrigation ditches emblematic of collective life in northern New Mexico) as a rite of passage, in which annual community cleanings create a generative, performative space of knowledge sharing. Printed lyrics in both Spanish and English accompany a monumental grain chest, ambient videos of local acequias, and Hispano irrigation tools: “Here I begin to sing / my well-sung verses / verses that were composed to let you know / what an acequia is, / where water and earth are joined. / […] During the springtime / when the world awakens, / the steward calls the workers / to do the cleaning, / the communication between the land / begins with the man with his shovel.”

This leads the visitor into the largest section of the exhibition — dramatic traditions. Ranging from holiday plays (Los Pastores) and Christmas dances (matachines), to military reenactments (Los Comanches) and New Year’s festivities (Dar los Días), it is clear that song and dance has become integral to all aspects of Hispano celebrations. During Dar los Días, community members travel door to door, singing outside of people’s homes in a symbolic killing of the old year, and a celebration of the year to come. In Música Buena, these stories are largely told through costume, bringing a more personal, individual perspective into the exhibition, and demonstrating the integration of craft and design with verbal art and performance. Similarly, the smaller “Fiestas and Community Gathering” section looks at secular community events, such as resolanas, that provide space for performance, song, and dance.

The Character of El Demonio smiling after chasing away a group of shepherds in La Gran Pastorela, or Los Pastores (The Shepherds), a holiday play performed by the Jarales Choir Group for the Our Living Hispanic Heritage Project of the Museum of New Mexico, circa 1980 (photo by Mark Nohl, courtesy Moifa Archives)

Finally, the curators introduce visitors to contemporary New Mexicans inheriting, practicing, and innovating the traditions of this place. Bands such as Lone Piñon and solo artists such as Lara Manzanares are making the genre accessible to a younger generation. These musicians — armed with their ancestral knowledge and a reinvigorated public— are bringing New Mexican music into the foreground again. A particularly poignant video in the exhibition shows two members of Lone Piñon playing with and learning from Antonia Apodaca, the so-called “Queen of the Accordion.”

Los Comanches, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, New Year’s Day, 2019. (Courtesy library and archives, Museum of International Folk Art)

Música Buena indeed educates non-New Mexicans about local music, art, and culture, but for Chavez, the biggest impact is within the Hispano community. For many locals, seeing photographs of family members, listening to familiar songs, and feeling personal connections with performers all create a distinctive sense of community within the museum space. “On the exhibition’s opening day there was an older woman watching a video and smiling. She came up to me and said, ‘my mother used to sing that song to me every day when I was a little girl.’ When I see that type of joy on someone, and know I’ve really touched them, it’s incredibly special.”

Música Buena: Hispano Folk Music of New Mexico continues at the Museum of International Folk Art (706 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe) through October 31, 2021. The exhibition was curated by Nicolasa Chavez, Curator of Latino, Hispano, and Spanish Colonial Collections at MOIFA, and musician, author, and artist Cipriano Fredrico Vigil. On February 12, 2020, the museum will host Cipriano Fredrico Vigil in concert.

Lillia McEnaney is a museum anthropologist and arts writer who lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico.