Building bridges: Lua Project connects cultures in Mexilachian Son

The Lua Project presents Mexilachian Son: New Songs for An Emerging Virginia Culture on May 11 at Luray’s Warehouse Art Gallery, and on May 12 at McGuffey Art Center. Image: Martyn Kyle The Lua Project presents Mexilachian Son: New Songs for An Emerging Virginia Culture on May 11 at Luray’s Warehouse Art Gallery, and on May 12 at McGuffey Art Center. Image: Martyn Kyle

The fandango in Veracruz felt familiar to Estela Diaz Knott.

Under a tent, musicians strummed guitar-shaped instruments of different pitches—requintos, jaranas, and leonas. With their feet, they stomped and scuffed rhythms on tarimas, rectangular wooden platforms that serve as both stage and percussive instrument. They mixed centuries-old verses with ones they made up in the moment. They played son jarocho, a folk style of Mexican son, or song, from the region.

As they played and sang, their audience danced, ate, drank, and laughed. Music and voices drifted through the air, mingled with the smell of smoked carnitas on the grill, and transported Knott, who was there to perform, more than 2,000 miles north, to her hometown of Luray, Virginia.

“Holy shit,” Knott said excitedly to her bandmate Dave Berzonsky. The fandango felt like an Appalachian fiddle festival.

For Knott, the daughter of an indigenous Mexican woman from Juarez, Mexico, and a Scotch-Irish-American man from Virginia, it felt like her two cultures were coming together. Knott and Berzonsky were inspired to blend the music of Veracruz with the music of Appalachia, and they’ve spent the last two decades doing exactly that.

In two performances this weekend, the pair, who live in Charlottesville and perform as Lua Project, will share their newest music in a Virginia Humanities-sponsored project, Mexilachian Son: New Songs for An Emerging Virginia Culture. They’ll be joined by Christen Hubbard on mandolin and fiddle, Matty Metcalfe on accordion and banjo, and Zenen Zeferino Huervo, a poet and singer from Veracruz, on vocals and jarana.

The Mexilachian Son project grew out of a previous Virginia Humanities grant in which Knott and Berzonsky, along with Zeferino and dancer Julia del Palacio, sought to introduce son jarocho music to Appalachian Virginia. This time around, they’re examining how the poetry of son jarocho compares to the poetry of the English, or Appalachian, ballad.

With Latinx immigrants coming to the United States, “This form of music, san jarocho, is beginning to disseminate itself” here says Berzonsky. “And one way to allow that style of music to re-plant itself in a new country is to write stories about this country.”

Knott, Berzonsky, and Zeferino interviewed Latinx immigrants in the Shenandoah Valley and used their stories to write new verses for “La Guacamaya” and “Las Poblanas,” two songs in the son jarocho tradition that have been sung for at least 300 hundred years.

Musically, it wasn’t easy. Appalachian and son jarocho music are based on two different core rhythmic feels (four beats for Appalachian, three beats for son jarocho), and that makes vocal phrasing (in two languages) “rather tricky,” says Knott.

Thematically, they had more freedom. “La Guacamaya” is the word for the blue macaw and is a metaphor for a beautiful woman, and Lua Project’s version celebrates beauty in the Shenandoah Valley, in the form of the happiness of the Peralta Manzanares family, the flowers of Monticello, and apples (not only is “Manzanares” a word for “apple picker,” but co-writer Zeferino visited Virginia during the apple harvest).

“Las Poblanas” is a song about healing. Lua Project’s version examines the political conflict between the Scotch-Irish settlers—who came to the Valley as indentured servants, were promised land after serving their term, then denied that land, over and over again—and the new immigrants, Latinos who come to America to flee violence and poverty and end up working the harsh, emotionally and physically laborious jobs that no American wants to do. It’s a song about being “needed but not wanted…seen but not heard,” they say, and how an older generation’s work and sacrifice can inspire and sustain a younger generation’s dreams.

Through song, these stories are heard and retold, which has been particularly meaningful for Knott, who says that for most of her life, she felt as though she lived on a bridge, running back and forth between Mexican and American cultures, being both and yet neither. Through music, she’s come to realize that she is not on the bridge, she is the bridge. “Bringing those two beautiful, rich, amazing cultures that live in me together is why I choose to make my life’s work through music,” she says.

“I want to sing on behalf of the voiceless, or the ancestor, or the widow too broken to sing,” adds Berzonsky. “…when you hear the songs, you realize the differences among us are not great…that what divides us is often an illusion concocted by those that benefit from that division.”

And with Mexilachian Son, Lua Project insists there’s much to celebrate, too, and in fandango style. “The nature, the cuisine, the music. I want to thread these things together, to bind them, so that we waken ourselves to our shared destiny, our common humanity,” says Berzonsky.

“I realize this is an elevated speech for a couple that writes songs, but nonetheless, that’s the light we are trying to put out into the world.”

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