What Makes a Good Smithsonian Folkways Recording?
The Sound and Story of the Salvadoran Chanchona
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By Daniel E. Sheehy
As the curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings,
I am often asked why I choose certain recordings to be published. My shortest answer is that I look for a recording that has both great music and a great story. The next question usually is: “What do you mean by great music and great story?” By “great music,” I mean music performed at a high level of standards as determined by the culture of which it is a part. By “great story,” I mean music that has a compelling extra-musical role—for example, it brings to public attention a culture with a future threatened by outside forces, counters cultural inequities by reinforcing a minority culture’s identity, adds momentum and meaning to a cultural movement, brings people together across cultural barriers,
or illustrates a little-known cultural tale that needs
to be told.
The recording ¡Soy Salvadoreño! Chanchona Music from Eastern El Salvador is a good example of what I mean by “great music with a great story.” The music is a mountain tradition, with its loose-jointed and undeniably joyous sound rooted in rural country life. It is performed by members of an accomplished, respected family of musicians steeped in the tradition for three and four generations. They play the style of their community and their ancestors, and they do it well. The spirit behind the music is the same rural-life spirit behind its name; chanchona means “big sow pig” and was playfully applied to the music around 1960 in reference to the homemade string bass that anchors the group. The “story” is that of a community from the eastern department (state) of Morazán, a central site of El Salvador’s civil war of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Forced by poverty and indiscriminate violence to leave their homes, many emigrated to Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area in the states of Virginia and Maryland.
The recording’s “storyline” begins in the U.S.A. and is portrayed in a short video on the Folkways website. In a Leesburg, Virginia, living room, with his three brothers, two cousins, and nephew, Salvadoran chanchona musician Trinidad Lovo says, “We come from war. We were born in a village where nobody had a cultural life, where nobody would applaud. We came from sadness, from war that gave us no reason to dance, to be happy. Some of us came here traumatized with our country’s problems. Once we were here, we realized that there was only work and no chance to have fun, and we brought out our music and played out our feelings in afternoon gatherings. Through music, you forget your sorrows, work problems, any kind of problem.” This is the two-pronged core of the storyline: the personal motivations and hardships of immigration; and the power of a little-known music of a hardscrabble people to uplift them and bring them together in tough times. The experiences of Lovo and his musical family are an immigrant story played out in millions of ways in the U.S.A. and the world. It is a story that is both particular and universal.
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Click images to enlarge and view captions
Los Hermanos Lovo
A Salvadoran Chanchona group from Leesburg, Virginia.
¡Soy Salvadoreño! Chanchona Music from Eastern El Salvador
by Los Hermanos Lovo
Las Tres Fronteras (The Three Borders)