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V/A - Bats'i Son: The Music of the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico

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Artist: V/A

Album: Bats'i Son: The Music of the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico

Label: Latitude/Locust Music

Review date: Dec. 7, 2004

The debates surrounding the term "world music" and its applications are enough to make me pray for deafness so as to never have to hear or participate in such circuitous and wholly pointless dialogues ever again. Thankfully, Locust Music has eschewed the use of that term in describing the aims of their new subdivision Latitude, preferring instead the more benign classification of "international traditional music and field recordings." To inaugurate this series, Locust has resurrected a couple of old Folkways LPs Richard Alderson compiled for the label in the early to mid-1970s, documenting the songs and ritual performances of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, a region on Mexico's southern highlands. Bats'i Son, as the remastered reissue's back cover makes abundantly clear, translates as "real song," which neatly and directly underscores an examination of musics that exist not to move units or build careers, but rather to represent different facets of every day life for its creators and practitioners.

Alderson made a name for himself as an engineer of the highest avant-garde order, working with folks ranging from Albert Ayler and Sun Ra to the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders. Towards the end of the 1960s, he decided to drop out of the scene completely and head south of the border in search of different forms of unusual musical expression. That he sought to explore such sounds was not a revolutionary concept; in fact, these are the exact same types of studies that ethnomusicologists undertook in the name of field work. His methodology, however, was drastically different, contrasting with the more anthropological approach that someone like, say, Alan Lomax used in documenting folksong as a means of expanding upon his idea of Cantometrics. Alderson simply followed his ears, applying his engineer-honed listening ability to get a feeling of what was going on. His aim, simply, was to provide a picture of the music for those unfamiliar with the area or its ritual aspects.

In that measure, then, Richard Alderson was wholly successful. What The Music of the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, represents is a good outsider perspective on a multitude of sounds and styles associated with the performances of that region. Without the restrictions of academic documentation or commercial sales figures, Alderson was thus free to compile two records that, to him, represented what it was like to plunge headlong into a culture that he was not necessarily a part of.

Much of the work here is comprised of similar instrumentation – most guitars, violins, bells, drums, maracas, flutes and trumpets. Some performances, like the trio of Christmas Eve selections taken from Mitontik in Tzotzil, are as sublimely sweet and tuneful as anything in the American folk repertoire. However, Alderson earns his highest marks for documenting things such as a New Year prayer in Chalchihuitán. Comprised of two men's contrapuntal recitations, this performance is barely like anything else in Western canons. Equally wonderful are the tracks collected from the Fiesta de San Bartolo-Venustiano, from the Carranza area of Tzotzil. These two are comprised of flute, drums and slide trumpets that constitute what Alderson describes as a local jazz form, albeit with the distinct sound of fireworks as a percussive element, a recurring theme throughout a number of the performances on the disc.

Also of substantial note is a selection taken during the Fiesta de San Sebastián in the Tzotzil region of Zinacantan. Alderson describes the mix of chiming guitars, sawing violin and laconic vocals as a local kind of A Love Supreme, which, despite any aesthetic difference between John Coltrane and the residents of this particular region, is surprisingly on the mark. "Zapateado Majastik," a dance recorded Petalcingo in Tzeltal, sounds surprisingly buoyant and lively, especially when one considers the fact that these people had been forced from their town at gunpoint just a week earlier. There is also an excellent sample of the percussive intensity of the drummers of Huixtán, captured at the Fiesta de San Miguel. Paired with a spry flautist, these performances lock themselves into grooves that can hardly be matched.

The fact that these performances are removed from the original, ritual surroundings can be somewhat problematic. However, Richard Alderson is cognizant of this and ably supplies the necessary context within his excellent liner notes. One doesn’t need to be well-versed in the aspects of daily life and ceremony of the peoples of Chiapas to enjoy the music contained herein. The meaning, beauty, and intensity of this music comes across as a result of Alderson's bountiful skill as an engineer, and because of his innate ability to find truly sublime performances. Academic or commercial distinctions are meaningless here, as this disc shows that good music transcends all boundaries and categories purely of its own merits.

By Michael Crumsho

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