Raquel G. Paraíso
Among the many musical traditions of Mexico, the son is one of the most representative of the richness and diversity of Mexican culture. Son (or sones) is a generic term that describes both a complex of genres and the various regional subgenres that make up that complex. Son is a type of traditional music performed by small ensembles, with or without singing, and danced. It serves to entertain, but is also performed at celebratory occasions and festivals as well as in rituals. Although sones appear throughout Mexico marked by regional differences in both instrumentation and performance styles, they share common characteristics that define the genre as a whole, musically (i.e., their rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic structures), lyrically, and choreographically. Because of the particular cultural traits and sociocultural contexts that each son subgenre encompasses, it can be argued that regional sones are a powerful expression of Mexican regional musics, cultures, and social identities.
Born as a hybrid genre out of the intermixing of European, American Indian, African, and Afro-Caribbean musical elements and contexts, Mexican sones have moved through time defined by many as a symbol of Mexican identity, even if the very concept of that “Mexican identity” has changed over time. What might be called the son’s “Golden Age” lasted from the 1890s until the middle of the 20th century. By the 1960s, sones were in serious decline all around Mexico: they had lost the favor of their audiences, old performers had passed away, and new generations did not engage with these musical traditions. Cultural politics contributed to selective processes through which some son subgenres faded away. Sociopolitical processes from the 1930s to the 1980s contributed to the re-contextualization of the Mexican son through modified versions of sones staged and broadcast in theatres, radio stations, and film productions. Post-revolutionary nationalism, the music industry, and folkloric ballets created these new versions and exercised an ideological control that both affected popular musical expressions and shaped musical tastes. Changes in urbanization and life conditions transformed social relationships and furthered this intense transformation.
With fewer performance occasions and little support from either the government or private patrons, several regional son subgenres became thin and isolated, with minimal projection outside their regions. In the 1980s, some of the son subgenres underwent a renaissance owing to various private and official initiatives that infused new life to the music. This article provides an overview of the son, past and present, connecting the relevance of this musical style with the social history of the country.