The music of Deep Mexico: Trio Ollin

“Ollin” means “movement”, and Yolitzli means “heart” or “life”, explains Julio Herrera of the Trio Ollin. The trio consists of members of a larger group formed by teachers of the Ollin Yoliztli Center for Traditional Music and Dance in Mexico City, a music school and cultural center with over 750 students which also shares its space with the headquarters of the Philarmonic Orquestra of Mexico City. And the group also takes its name, Herrera continues to clarify, from these words in the ancient Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.

The members of the trío, Julio Herrera and brothers Marco Antonio Rubio and Leonardo Rubio, spoke passionately and eloquently about their struggle for recognition of traditional Mexican music and dance, as I conversed with them before their concert at Old Town School of Folk Music, the sponsor of their two-week visit to Chicago.

Performing on dozens of instruments which they all master, including percussion, harps, violins, cane-sugar flutes, guitars and bass, the Trio Ollin´s concert was a mind-blowing discovery of the many nuances of what Herrera calls “Deep Mexico”. Not the musical Mexico that the world came to know through that country´s Golden Age of Cinema (mostly mariachis and jarochos), but a sonic universe that includes the music of the indigenous peoples who still survive and speak and sing in over sixty-five languages. In the entire world, Herrera notes, Mexico is second only to India in number of living languages.

Every song played by the Trío Ollín gave witness to all the different peoples passing through Mexico´s history, who came to create its rich and radical mixture or mestizaje. There were danceable melodies incorporating African-influenced drums from the Chontal peoples of Tabasco and tunes from the warrior people Kikaapoa, who originally came from Chicago´s part of the world – the great Lakes region – and moved to Mexico over 150 years ago when the Mexican government gave them land to help them escape from U.S. colonial repression. The polkas and minuets evidenced the more favorable consequences of the French invasion of the late 1800´s, which brought the music of military bands from France and Belgium. Another surprise were the melodies called “chilenas”, brought by Chileans who came to support the fight for Mexican Independence. The music was often hauntingly beautiful, as if sharing the best memories of all those cultures that collided in Mexico throughout the centuries.

Originally shunned and belittled by the classical musicians of Mexico, the traditional music performed by the teachers of Ollin Yolitztli is finally receiving the respect it richly deserves, in part thanks to international acclaim for the schools´s students. The instruments and forms of Deep Mexico, says Herrera, is as original and varied as any other cultural manifestation, and implies a wisdom we should be loathe to lose and a cultural treasure we should be keen to protect. “Classical music is played all over the world”, says Herrera, “but Mexican music is ours and only ours. No one else has it, and it has a value and importance that not just the world, but Mexico itself is finally beginning to recognize”.