The Queen of Los Portales
Now in her late sixties, Graciana is the first lady of son jarocho, the traditional music of the state Veracruz. This music, together with the mariarchi music and the sones from Jalisco, is the most popular in Mexico. Graciana, who plays the harp and sings, comes from a small village near Medellin de Bravo in Veracruz and made her album-debut ´Sones Jarochos´ with Trio Silva in 1995. Till then she had never left her own region; but she then toured Europe and the USA often and appeared for the first time in Mexico City. In 1999 she issued ´La Graciana En Vivo´, a live recording of a concert in the renowned Theatre de la Ville in Paris.
The fairytale curriculum vitae of the singing harpist who rose from rags to riches in her sixties recalls that of Cesaria Evoria from Cape Verde and that of the blind singer Dona Rosa from Portugal. La Negra Graciana spent half a century in lugging her harp along streets and performing there. As a child she had begun by playing with her father and brothers at family and folk festivals in the locality then had later played mostly as a soloist in Los Portales, a borough with many terraces in Veracruz harbour, where street musicians play nearly all day.
One day Eduardo Lleranas, very fond of traditional Mexican music and owner of the label Corason, pricked up his ears. Greatly impressed by Graciana´s archaic yet fresh way of playing the harp and her energetic singing, he decided to make a recording and soon came back from Mexico City to Veracruz, to set to work with La Negra Graciana, her younger brother, Pino Silva, who sings and plays the little Jarana guitar, and her sister-in-law Elena Huerta. Elena is likewise a harpist and owns, outside the city, a small turkey-farm which they used as an improvised studio. In this country idyll they recorded 18 pieces - many traditional and sometimes very old sones jarochos, which Graciana´s father had loved in his own day, like ´El siquisin´ or ´El balaju´. This first recording also included the piece ´La bamba´, which is known in many versions, like one from the rock-band Los Lobos.
But not only Graciana´s interpretation of these widely known evergreens won her the hearing of listeners outside Mexico. It was her special way of playing the harp ´a lo antigüito´, as she herself says. Her way is slower and less ornate than that of several of her colleagues, who since the 50s have been trying to make the son jarocho prettier and more commercial. Yet though the special colour of the harp´s sounds may be the most notable feature of Graciana´s music, she seldom uses the harp as a solo instrument. Rather it accompanies the décimas, the improvised song verses, in which the singer and her brother Pino reflect on anything and everything.
On hearing Graciana in 1997 in Mexico City, Ry Cooder was as delighted for her sones - the combination of the harp with cheeky and shrill singing. By then Graciana Silva was already used to presenting her music to an alien public, be it in other parts of Mexico or even abroad. As soon as her debut album appeared in 1995 she was invited to various festivals in Europe and the USA.
For her performances, La Negra Graciana appears with a typical son-jarocho ensemble. Besides her arpa jarocha there are two smaller percussive guitars, known as jarana, and also a requinto, a four-stringed guitar, which is plucked in a rhythm counter to the harp´s. Mexican sones have always been associated with certain dance-traditions, so Graciana´s concerts include dancers whenever possible, who contribute to the rhythms with their huapangos and zapateos.
The concept ´son´ stands in Mexico for a wide and various repertoire of traditional music with regional differences. The sones from Veracruz are called jarochos like the town´s residents. If La Negra Graciana is asked about her style of playing, she calls it ´very jarocho and veracruzano, since the whole area round the coastal town Veracruz is simply a place where jarochos have come together´.
Veracruz, the ´harbour of the New World´, in the Gulf of Mexico is where Cortés troops landed to found the first Mexican town. Its music´s rhythmic accents and echoes of call and response recall the African extraction of part of its population. And even the dark-haired Graciana Silva has this mixture in her own blood, which has brought her the affectionate nickname ´La Negra de Veracruz´.
Graciana Silva Carcia, known as ´La Negra Graciana´, was born on the 18th December 193* (divas being as young as they feel) in Puente Izcoalco, a village near Medellin de Bravo in Veracruz and half an hour from the harbour, as she points out.
Music was part of the family background and also a means of bread-winning. Graciana´s mother was a singer, and her father played the jaran. This little guitar was mastered by Graciana´s brother Pino, who also played the violin. He was the one who, like one of his uncles, had begun by learning the harp. But one day the attention of his teacher, an old, blind man, was drawn to Gracia, who was ten years old and had secretly been listening to the lessons. Her playing persuaded him to continue the lessons with her instead of her brother. ´As the blind man began to tune the harp in, my heart took a leap. At that moment I said to myself: I´m going to learn the harp´. It was the start of her love-affair with the instrument.
The blind Rodrigo Rodriguez remained once and for all her guide, and she turned down offers from other musicians to teach her other techniques. ´I can only do it the way I was taught. Ugly or beautiful - it´s my way of playing. My hopes and zeal were always drawn to the harp. It simply comes from my heart.´ At first she played her instrument with the usual arpeggios, till she very soon had the deftness needed for the faster and very virtuoso changes of key and improvisations, which have become her trademark. She is also known for her sung décimas - ten lined verses, mostly improvised and always humorous with a dash of irony - about all possible everyday themes, especially romances and love of her own traditions.
As regards her loves, Graciana Silva can also sing a song or two, since she has been married several times and has eight children, none of whom has chosen to preserve the family tradition of harp-playing. At least her youngest daughter, Guadalupe, dances at many of the concerts which La Negra Graciana has been giving throughout the world, especially in Europe and all over America.
Her growing national and international reputation seems not to have gone to her head, as her behaviour is still natural and straightforward. The folk at home, she says, tend to look at her on the street with more interest and respect, but she is still her old self. Now, as before, she plays and sings on the terraces of Los Portales for the folk drinking coffee or waiting to go fishing. And, as always, she begins her performances with ´El siquisiri´ a son which, true to its name, is tricky and may serve to show any harpist´s mastery. And now, as earlier, this passionate cook lives in her modest house in Colonia Campestre, a borough below Veracruz airport.
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
The Mexico-festival in Berlin
(15 September 02 - 01 December 02)