The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is a realm where indigenous culture continues to thrive in the 21st century. Rather than closing themselves off to outside currents, the Mixtecs, Zapotecs and other peoples of the region are constantly integrating new information, evolution that’s evident in Pasatono Orquesta, a fascinating nine-piece ensemble that makes its Bay Area debut at Freight & Salvage on Wednesday on a double bill with Cascada de Flores.
Championed by artists like vocalist Lila Downs, the intermittently Oaxaca-raised daughter of Mixtec cabaret singer Anita Sanchez, the band has compiled a vivid repertoire of tunes played by the Mixeteca orchestras that traveled the region in the middle decades of the 20th century. Sounds infiltrated from the north and south, and often hung around in Oaxaca long after they went out of fashion elsewhere, like the jaunty Charleston which figures in some Pasatono pieces. But Pasatono’s latest album, Maroma, is something of a departure. Drawing on the music that accompanies Oaxacan circuses, it’s an intoxicating mix of influences such as jazz, polka, chilena and cumbia.
“The circus tradition is very much alive in Oaxaca,” says Betto Arcos, the host of KPFK’s Global Village show and a frequent contributor to NPR. “There’s no tent and no animals. It’s an indigenous circus with tight rope, trapeze, acrobats and that’s it. They were costumes and the bands play popular tunes from Oaxacan music.”
Turned onto Pasatono about a decade ago by Lila Downs, Arcos has become close with the band’s three founders: musical director Rubén Luengas Pérez, who plays the 10-string bajoquinto and bajorequinto; his wife Patricia García López, who plays violin, mandolin, bandolón, and banjo mixteco; and vocalist/percussionist Edgar Serralde Mayer.
“They really started as students and they didn’t think they were going to be a band,” Arcos says. “They were going to school to write papers and research. They come from small towns where music is a very important part of their upbringing. They grew up listening to music live at plazas, baptisms and weddings. What I love about Rubén is that even when a song isn’t directly connected to him, he makes it sound like his own tune.”
Arcos has arranged numerous concerts for Pasatono in recent years, including events connecting the band with Oaxacan communities in Southern California. But it was a very different kind of concert at the Getty Center in Los Angeles two years ago to which he invited Ry Cooder. At that point, Pasatono had just one circus tune in the mix.
“When I called Ry to ask him what he thought a few weeks later he said I really think they ought to concentrate on the circus stuff,” Arcos recalls. “He also said they should include a trumpet. That’s Fellini. The horn is very visual and playful, with a great tragic quality. I translated the comments to Rubén and he laughed, saying I can’t believe we’re on the same page. He said the only reason we didn’t include trumpet is because of the budget, but I’ve seen photos of Oaxacan circus band where there’s trumpet. Everything came together.”
The fact that Luengas only added the trumpet because there was a precedent reflects his background as an ethnomusicologist. Pasatono grew out of the Escuela Nacional de Música de México in Mexico City, where he and García were studying the music of their roots. That’s where Cascada de Flores guitarist Jorge Liceaga first met the couple nearly three decades ago.
“Jorge was 30 and Rubén was 14 and they still call each other Padre and Hijo,” says Cascade de Flores vocalist Arwen Lawrence. “He and his wife and Edgar were originally a trio, and then Rubén went back to Oaxaca and learned to make the 10-string bajoquinto.
“We’ve worked with them in Oaxaca before, and for our set we might grab a couple of them,” Arwen continues. “We’ve learned chilenas from Oaxaca, and we’ll play some with them. Rubén got very excited about Jorge singing more now. We’ve been learning a lot of chilenas to sing in duets. They’re a lot like son, but with different swing to them. They have a lot of influence from Peru and Chile, hence the name, and they use cajon,” the box-like percussion instrument often used in Peruvian music.
While firmly grounded in the Oaxacan soil, the band easily gathers influences from further a field than South America. As part of the tour that brings Pasatono to the Freight on Wednesday, they group is also performing at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, the Southland’s leading Jewish cultural showcase. As part of the program, they agreed to put a Oaxacan spin on several Hanukah songs. They’ve also collaborated with the New York klezmer combo Golem (self-described as an Eastern European folk-punk band) in Mexico City.
“Pasatono isn’t just an essential part of the music scene in Oaxaca, but in Mexico City too,” Arcos says. “Last week the band played supporting the rock band Caifanes in Mexico City. This is music that was forgotten, that nobody cared for, and they’ve brought it back into the light. They pick up on everything around them.”
Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
For more events in and around Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events there — the calendar is free and self-serve.