Pajaritos are in Mexico City, bringing the Picó Picante show on the road and sharing with us their findings on this literal and figurative musical journey. Day 5 brings about an addition to our Mexican music vocabulary--sonidero!--and their continued travels.
Our mornings begin early and triumphantly in Mexico. Generally, one of us wakes the other with news from the glorious inbox: an interview confirmed, a virtual connection made, or sometimes an event cancelled to permit a return to sleep.
Today’s news was of the shimmering kind. Mariana and Marco, who run the Proyecto Sonidero, have agreed to meet with us to discuss their project. Together they organize events that celebrate the culture of sonideros in Mexico, and we are curious to learn more. That evening, they welcome us to Mariana’s dining room with a plentiful jug of cerveza.
Mariana Delgado and Marco Ramírez Cornejo of the Proyecto Sonidero. Photo by Sara Skolnick.
What Is a Sonidero?
Before delving into their recent work, we discuss the sonidero movement and its origins.
In brief, sonideros are people who make parties happen: they cart around their own sound systems, engineer their sound, and provide their broad collection of music to get people shaking.
Once the party strikes up, they are not only DJs but also hosts of the event. They aim to integrate their audience, to intervene in ways that make their guests feel welcome.
Sonido Fajardo, a sonidero, at a party in honor of Nuestra Señora del Carmen. Mexico City, July 2009. Photo by Livia Radwanski.
One such intervention is the saludo, or greeting. Audience members display pieces of paper with names of people they would like the sonidero to greet: their friend who just walked in, their mother who stayed at home, their uncle who’s living in New York or Chicago. The sonidero calls out these names over the speakers in his or her characteristic style. Mariana and Marco stress the importance of these greetings, especially those directed at guests who are only there in spirit. “They make present those who aren’t,” asserts Mariana. After the party, those greetings are expected to make their way toward their respective destinations.
As the music flows on, and as the jovial greetings are dispersed, the sonidero is concurrently burning a disc of all the music and voices heard through the speakers that night. The discs are later sold as a memento of the evening, as well as a gift for people who couldn’t make it.
El Rey de Reyes (the king of kings) from Sonido La Changa calls out greetings while the music plays. Release party for Proyecto Sonidero’s new book. Video by Proyecto Sonidero.
Protagonists of Their Own Stories
Over the decades, sonideros have embraced new technology as a way to expand their activities. Nowadays, live video of their parties streams online. The parties’ virtual chat rooms are filled with lively conversation: greetings are thrown back and forth, and invitations to dance are met with little icons of animated dancers.
The sonideros’ online presence is a rich narrative of their experiences, tracking the whole of their artistic development, from the barrio where they were raised to the friends, family, travels and parties that make up their lives today. They create a full aesthetic package: an alias, a logo, a persona. Mariana and Marco speak fondly, and with some amazement, about the sonideros as protagonists of their own stories. The documentation of their events – through audio, video and photography – form a significant piece of movement’s chronicle. Says Mariana, “Every photograph of people with their fists in the air is an affirmation of a moment.”
Members of Sonido Dinámico at the Villa de Guadalupe, Mexico City, November 2008. Photo by Mark Powell.
The Mexican Flavor of Tropical Music
The spirit of the sonidero tradition has evolved in some ways, but remained constant in others. In the 1950s and 1960s, sonideros began as music promoters and crate diggers, always eager for music from outside the Mexican mainstream. They paid fortunes for records from South American and the Caribbean. In the 1970s, they started taking trips there themselves.
Records from the collection of Facundo Vera.
Sonideros were certainly influenced by the tropical styles they discovered, but the influence started going in the other direction as well. An interesting feedback loop emerged, with South American bands introducing sonidero greetings and audio effects into their own compositions.
“From the early days until now, the sonideros have always been a very important channel for introducing and validating music from other parts of Latin America. Mexico City became a great metropolis of tropical music. Many things were brought here, reevaluated, reinforced, remixed with Mexican flavor, and then redistributed to other parts of the world,” says Mariana.
The cumbia rebajada, or slowed down cumbia, is one example of this. The sonideros would place an obstruction onto a spinning cumbia record in order to slow the tempo to a low, sultry crawl. The down-pitched style generated a different form of dance as well, and it led to some cumbia bands performing their live songs at that reduced speed.
The rebajada version of “Cumbia Serrana” by Parranderos de Colombia
Thus, records in the hands of sonideros were not “dead productions” but rather active and transformative sounds. At the time when most Mexicans enjoyed the danzón, with its elegant and formal dance style, the sonideros were introducing their crowds to new rhythms and new ways of moving their bodies.
The crowd for a party by sonidero Ramón Rojo from Sonido La Changa. Tepito, Mexico City, October 2008. Photo by Livia Radwanski.
On the Margins
Mariana and Marco describe that the sonidero movement has always been involved with marginalized social groups. Since their emergence, sonideros were an alternative for those who could not afford to go see an orchestra or invite a band to their wedding. Sonideros were more accessible: they transported their gear on a bicycle, mounted their own parties, closed the streets with a simple rope, and charged a twenty-cent entry fee. The atmosphere has always been an interesting mix, with multi-generational families as well as flocks of eccentric city dwellers embracing the tradition.
As the tradition continued, sonidero parties were recognized as inclusive spaces for discriminated groups, particularly people who were homosexual or transsexual. Some would create an aesthetic of body movements that were previously unknown to the sonidero parties, that had little to do with the familiar tropical dance styles. Often, these innovators were voted as the best dancers.
A coordinated dance at a party in Tepito, Mexico City, October 2009. Photo by Livia Radwanski.
Enter Proyecto Sonidero
Because of their street parties and their acceptance of marginalized people, the sonidero culture has been dismissed or ignored by the Mexican media since the 1980s. Their events have often been blocked from important public spaces, too – except when in the midst of election season, when the government doles out plenty of favors.
These issues are the motivation behind Mariana and Marco’s Proyecto Sonidero. They aim to create and ensure physical spaces where the traditions can continue. They also strive to recover a presence for sonideros in radio and television stations – what they refer to as Mexico’s “telemonopolies.”
Since 2008, their efforts have led to many successful events at cultural and academic centers in the city. Besides parties, they have held workshops, educational presentations and panel discussions. Their deep knowledge and constant documentation of the sonidero culture have equipped them with grant-writing muscle, which sustains many of their operations.
Earlier this year came the momentous publication of their book, Sonideros En Las Aceras, Véngase La Gozadera – roughly translated as “sonideros on the sidewalks, bring on the celebration.” The book reflects the project’s greater mission of “recognizing the potential of the sonidero movement as a creative response to a combination of cultural, economic and social necessities.” It is available in Spanish as a free download, and it has plenty of amazing photographs (including the ones in this article).
Proyecto Sonidero’s recent book, Sonideros En Las Aceras, Véngase La Gozadera. Published in 2012.
Proyecto Sonidero has received a very positive response from the sonidero community and a great deal of curiosity from the media. A recent performance in the metro, staged in partnership with a few of the sonideros, generated such a crowd that the security officers had to move people along.
To Mariana and Marco, the sonideros represent a new model for the music industry. They praise the means by which sonideros fulfill their business, organize their tour circuit, distribute their products, involve other players, get into social networks, and take public spaces.
Mariana declares that this is “no longer a marginal movement, but a very vital movement that’s responding to the pulses of time, that’s using current tools and resources, that’s making a presence that the condemned record and entertainment industries wish they could have.
Contrary to the media’s image, Mariana states,
“the sonidero movement is not about delinquents nor dead popular cultures, but rather, it’s about many cultural, technological and social movements at once, that permeate and affect other areas, and that represent the 21st century.”
Sonido Sonorámico Dance for the Festival de México, organized by Proyecto Sonidero. Plaza de Santo Domingo, Mexico City, March 2009. Photo by Livia Radwanski.