Annette Brown, Lifetime The story of June Carter Cash comes to life in the…
- Posted on Mar 16th 2011 3:00PM by Steve Hochman
Courtesy A Hawk and a Hacksaw
Set about 25 miles up the Rio Grande Valley from Santa Fe, right before you really hit the stretch of the Rocky Mountains that rise up through the rest of the continent, it's the gateway to a region with a colorful reputation -- the home and inspiration for artist Georgia O'Keefe; the setting for John Nichols' magic-realism classic 'The Milagro Beanfield War'; the site of the majestically mysterious and abandoned Chaco Canyon (capital of a large, ancient Anasazi civilization) as well as both active and archaeological pueblos throughout the area; the New Age/elite retreat Taos; even the Los Alamos National Laboratory (HQ of the Manhattan Project and much secretive research since).
But Espanola, itself, is a center of displacement and aimlessness, unemployment and disaffection, cruising and drugs.
Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost see something more engaging there, though. The couple, coming from Albuquerque a couple hours south, finds something vibrant about that community. Barnes singles out the low-riders who are so prominent.
"In New Mexico, Espanola has a bad reputation," he says. "The low-riders to me is a cultural phenomenon that is turned into high art. They're like mobile sculptures -- an identity, cultural identity. And I feel lucky to be around that stuff."
A few years ago he saw it all in a new light that expanded his vision and appreciation of that community. Oddly, it happened while he and Trost were living in Budapest, Hungary, and traveling around Eastern Europe. Anchors of the band A Hawk and a Hacksaw -- he on accordion and percussion, she on violin and viola -- they'd headed over there to fully immerse themselves in the Eastern European folk music on which they'd drawn to form the band's distinctive sounds.
But in the process they got a new view of home.
"It's interesting," says Barnes, who started A Hawk and a Hacksaw a decade ago, after leaving innovative Albuquerque indie band Neutral Milk Hotel. "We feel very isolated in New Mexico in many ways. And in some ways it can become a cultural vacuum in a negative way. Kids and youth culture -- seems to be a stagnation.
"But in terms of folk culture and things like that, I feel the mountains of Northern New Mexico, and the isolation of New Mexico from the rest of the states, has created this interesting spot. You definitely get that in the Balkans, or in Appalachia, regions affected by the environment, music and culture affected by that. It's very different musically, but something about that life, the distilled culture."
When they returned, they heard it in a new light, too:
A Hack and a Hacksaw, 'Espanolo Kolo'
The song 'Espanola Kolo' is perhaps the centerpiece of A Hawk and a Hacksaw's new album, 'Cervantine.'
"The kolo is interesting," he says. "It's the national dance of the former Yugoslavia. When we got back from Eastern Europe and were driving around Northern New Mexico I wanted to mention Espanola in a good light and give it some credit. There are no New Mexican melodies in there, but it's mariachi and Spanish-influenced definitely in the melody. It's a song we wrote, so not playing with traditional melodies -- just wanted to pay homage to this town and connect to it."
To anyone who's spent time in both regions, the similarities are no real surprise. Gorgeous hills. Enclaves of indigenous ancient cultures fighting for survival. Disenfranchised and disaffected youth. Piquant food specialties. Accordions and horns.
Maybe the Balkans and Carpathians aren't all too different from the Sangre de Cristos, musically. Influxes of Czechs, Germans and other Europeans over the course of several generations made accordions and brass standard on both sides of the Mexican-American border along with specific musical structures -- polka, anyone?
Growing up in New Mexico, Barnes thought of these sounds as essentially Mexican. But as he explored European styles he was struck more and more about the roots. But beyond that, he found that it's been a two-way street, and Europeans -- the Balkan brass bands, in particular -- have embraced the sounds and rhythms of Mexican street bands into their world.
"It's pastiched so much that music in Mexico and New Mexico sounds very Eastern European now to me," he says.
A Hawk and a Hacksaw is pastiching its own way, of course. Joined in the band's current lineup by England-born siblings Stephanie (vocals) and Chris (bouzuki) Hladowski, brass players Samuel Johnson and Mark Weaver and percussionists Issa Malluf (dumbek, riq) and Charles Papaya (bass drum and cymbals), Barnes and Trost take an approach that's multi-culti even within the sounds from the respective regions of choice. And yet somehow it still sounds pure, not a forced fusion in any way. The album's title song (the Cervantes reference expands on the band's name, taken from a line in "Don Quixote") covers a large European geographical/cultural span as well as furthering the connection to cultures that shaped the New World.
A Hack and a Hacksaw, 'Cervantine'
"That song is kind of a Spanish influence in the melody line, but there are two rhythms going on -- though they worked together," Barnes says.
"It's a Spanish feel but also uses a Turkish rhythm. The bouzouki is playing a Turkish rhythm or vamp, but the horns and accordion are playing the Spanish thing. The idea was not to do it as a mash-up or some contrast, but to find a harmonious rhythmic joining together. That's what we try to do. We don't want to mash up all these different cultures and throw them together, but create harmonious situations where they work and are pleasing to hear."
The New Mexican elements, he admits, are not quite as easy to spot as the European parts. But they're there simply by dint of who is playing the music. Bottom line is that everything in here is an honest reflection not of the cultures in which the music formed, but the musicians and their experiences.
"Living in New Mexico, the environment really effects what you play," he says. "We're interested in Eastern Europe and influenced by where we're from -- don't want to be a cover band just doing Eastern European songs; want to bring something new."
He's also interested in some things old, though. 'Cervantine' marks the debut of the band's new label, L.M. Dupli-Cation, with ambitious plans to feature both archival and new recordings of traditional artists from various places and cultures, with Barnes inspired by Folkways and others.
One artist he'd very much like to spotlight through new recordings is Antonia Apodaca, an octogenarian accordionist who lives near Espanola.
"She's one of the last keepers of New Mexican folk songs," Barnes says. "Played all her life. She played for Bill Clinton -- very interesting woman."
And they're looking forward to getting back in touch with their place soon. Following a West Coast US run of concerts, they're headed to Romania, Turkey and Western Europe -- and then...
"Going to go home," he says, "and plan to grow some chilies and corn and beans."