Oaxaca's creative musicians

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

The prolonged economic slump in the Mexican countryside has emptied some towns of their young adult populations. Preventing mass migration requires alternative income streams to supplement subsistence farming. Some towns make handcrafts or goods for niche markets, but one indigenous village in Oaxaca produces highly-skilled musicians. Shannon Young reports.

MARCO WERMAN: Finally today, a story about life and music in a small town in rural Mexico. Many small towns in the Mexican countryside are losing their young people. They can't make enough money farming, so they leave in search of jobs. To try to prevent this migration, many Mexican towns develop alternative sources of income, like making crafts. But one indigenous village in southern Mexico came up with a different idea as Shannon Young explains.

SHANNON YOUNG: Santa Maria Thlahuitoltepec sits on a cloud cloaked mountainside in northeastern Oaxaca. Most of its 9,000 residents are subsistence farmers or poultry breeders. On paper, Thlahuitoltepec is like many towns in southern Mexico. But a closer look reveals some differences. First, this town still has plenty of young adults, a demographic that has otherwise left small towns like this one in search of work in the cities or in the U.S. And then, there's the music. The large municipal band practices in the afternoons near a gazebo crowned by a metal G-clef symbol. Local resident Florina Vasquez-Nunez estimates that around 70% of the town's population knows how to read music. Then, she says, there are those who can't read the notes, but can play be ear. Youth and music literacy converge at Tlahuitoltepec's Center for Musical Training and Development of Mixe Culture. Mixe is the indigenous group that most people in the town belong to. The conservatory offers a top notch musical education along with middle and high school coursework to some 120, mostly indigenous, boarding students. More than 100 local people attend free afternoon music workshops. The school's Director, Damian Martinez says music accompanies all major life events here, from christening parties to funeral processions. He argues the presence of a band is so important that party hosts are more likely to scrimp on the food than to forego the live music. These traditional celebrations sustain many of the region's musicians. That and giving music classes. Felix Vasquez Hernandez teaches beginner level students how to play guitar. He explains that while pianos are favored teaching instruments in many formal music schools, the conservatory here prefers guitars. They are lighter and more portable, he explains, and pianos can be hard to find in many communities. But there are other instruments as well. Intermediate level students spread out around the 10 acre campus to practice music assigned as homework. Sixteen-year-old Viviana Karena Los Mendoza rehearses in the cafeteria. She says she's learning a lot at the school, including singing by sight reading, breath control and instrument maintenance. Viviana wants to continue her education in Mexico City. University level music instruction is one of the options for conservatory graduates. Some return to their communities to form bands. Others become music teachers. A few join symphony orchestras. Thirty-year-old trombone player, composer and arranger Leovigildo Martinez did all of the above. He wasn't planning to move back to Thlahuitoltepec after growing accustomed to city life. But the invitation to teach at the conservatory here was an offer he couldn't refuse. Leovigildo Martinez now directs the Banda Ere Eme, a group that has reinvented traditional regional music by fusing it with elements of Ska, Jazz and Rock. Most of its members are in their twenties and live in Tlahuitoltepec. Martinez says they're not just creating a new style of regional music; they're trying to show that it's possible to make ends meet in the rural town without having to migrate. The most regular source of income for the band and other musicians here is the circuit of family, religious, and town-based festivities. So it seems the musical education available in Thlahuitoltepec not only acts as a job training program for an economically marginalized area, but also helps to keep the town's social fabric strong. For The World, I'm Shannon Young in Oaxaca.

WERMAN: That'll do it for us today. From the Nan and Bill Harris studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Marco Werman. Thank you for listening.