Collections: John McDowell - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Music, Song, and Dance on Mexico's Costa Chica (1989-1996)

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Members of musical group Los Dinamicos, Acapulco, 1996. Image © Patricia Glushko.

This collection is focused on the wonderful song, dance, and music of Mexico's Costa Chica, a coastal region running south and east of Acapulco along the Pacific Ocean and inland to the foothills of the Sierra. This region is distinctive for its Afro-mestizo population, and the traditions depicted here are drawn largely from masculine arenas.

At the heart of this musical culture are two genres: the corrido, a ballad form with both epical and lyrical components; and the chilena, found only on the Costa Chica and adjacent locations, a lively dance rhythm for instrumental and sung compositions. Present but of lesser importance are other performance genres such as the colombiana, the bambuco, as well as the familiar bolero, cumbia, and ranchera.

A few overarching themes run through these materials. The most inclusive is the power of live music performance in this region. Song and instrumental music are interwoven in all aspects of life in Costa Chica communities, from the most private and informal to cultural performances that draw crowds of people and accomplish society's business. The important role of brass-band music—at social gatherings, festivals, and ceremonial occasions—is emblematic of the centrality of performed music in these settings.

The songtexts of Costa Chica music, taken collectively, reflect on social relations in this community, treating issues of gender, class consciousness, and political abuse, but most often in metaphorical and indirect terms. Looking specifically at the corpus of heroic narrative song—the corridos—we see this song tradition as a vehicle for encoding local history by local witnesses, as an arena for commemorating the transcendent deeds and figures of the region, and as a forum for thinking through the consequences of violent actions and bringing about a measure of healing in their aftermath.

Overall, the collection offers a vivid portrait of a distinctive and impressive regional music, with performances both polished and rustic, carried out by men and women across a range of genres, with special attention to the corrido and chilena. These performances are supplemented by interviews with singers and composers, camera shots of the landscape and built environment, and other contextualizing sequences. Here and there you will catch a glimpse of the researchers swept away into the dancing, and of McDowell exchanging songs with Costa Chica musicians.

This collection is peer reviewed and available online in the EVIA Project Archive.

Image © Patricia Glushko

John McDowell was born in Washington, D.C. on September 24, 1946, and raised in the suburbs of that city until his high-school years, which he spent in New York City. He studied music and literature at Swarthmore College, and completed his PhD in Anthropology (Folklore) at the University of Texas in 1975. He has since been employed at Indiana University's Folklore Institute, and has served twice there as chair of the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. Patricia Glushko, John's wife and research assistant, was born in Dayton, Ohio, and raised in southern California and northern New York. A graduate of Indiana University, she specializes in visual communication, including photography and ethnographic videography. Patricia has exhibited her Mexican photographs at UCLA and at the Lotus Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.

McDowell's research interests center on verbal and musical traditions of Latin America, and how performances in these expressive forms play into larger systems of thought and action. His primary research sites are the Sibundoy Valley of southwestern Colombia, Mexico's Costa Chica, and more recently, Imbabura province in northern Ecuador. Other research projects have focused on Chicano children, tradition bearers in Ghana, West Africa, wood carvers in New Mexico, and musicians in Veracruz, Mexico and in Cuba. (You are invited to refer to his website at the URL below.)

Themes of ludic improvisation, folk commemoration, and folklorization are prominently addressed in McDowell's research. In the present materials, corridos figure as a powerful medium of folk commemoration, celebrating the heroes of the Costa Chica in narrative song. Folklorization enters in the staged dances presented for school children in Acapulco's ampitheater. And the playful, ludic element can be found in some of the conversational interludes surrounding the singing of songs.

McDowell has published on the topic of corridos one book, Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico's Costa Chica (University of Illinois, 2000), and several articles. John and Patricia together have edited and produced three video documentaries on these Mexican materials: "Que Me Troven un Corrido" (Write Me a Corrido), "Brass Bands of Guerrero," and "La Pasíon de Cristo."

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