When musician Catherine John arrived in Cuernavaca from San Francisco in 2008, she could hardly have imagined that her subsequent journey would lead eight years later to the release of ¡Fandango Bragh!, a fusion album she describes as an expression of her “unique Irish-Mexican identity.”
After classical violin training as a youngster and already initiated into traditional Irish music by playing at a well-known pub in Marin County, John became swept up in a whirlwind of musical experiences in Mexico, both native and Celtic.
She took part in regular outdoor sessions, similar to the fandangos jarochos from Veracruz – “transposing the Irish pub to the Mexican patio.” She played with “A Campo Traviesa” a Celtic-World Music band in Mexico City; she learned all about traditional Mexican music from Enrique Barona, the revered maestro of Cuernavaca’s Tembembe Ensemble Continuo; she taught music at local schools and she organized recitals to raise money for youth orchestras.
“My time in Mexico was a total musical immersion, with Irish and Mexican music at the center of it all,” John says. Above all, she adds, her experience in Mexico was empowering, a period when she felt she became a “real” musician.
After three years in Mexico, John jumped at the opportunity to study for a Masters Degree in Community Music at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Not all was plain sailing, though. “I felt some homesickness for Mexico,” she admits. “I was suddenly seeing everything through Mexican eyes.”
Seeking out a Mexican community in Ireland, John met Antonio Garcia Lopez, a talented Mexican violinist living in Dublin. He invited her to join Mariachi San Patricio, the first ever mariachi band in Ireland, playing in its inaugural year.
Comprised half and half with Irish and foreign musicians, the group played at Mexican embassy events, Mexican restaurant openings and cultural festivals, while also engaging in collaborations with the Chieftains and the Dubliners, two of the most famous Irish bands.
John eventually moved to Dublin and came to see herself as “a cultural bridge” between Mexico and Ireland. “At our house in South Dublin, we jammed on violins, jaranas, guitarrón and bodhrán long into the night, and shared tunes and sones with members of the mariachi and anyone else who dropped in.
“I was countably playing both styles of music and learning more about each one. The connections between the two began to become very apparent toward the end of my time in Ireland.
“In Mexico music is played in the patio and in Ireland it’s in the pub or kitchen. It’s a gathering around food, storytelling, poetry, the craic and having fun. You’re in a circle and you come in and out when you want. There are children, abuelitos, people eating. It’s dynamic, alive, community oriented.”
From these seeds, John’s album was born.
Back in San Francisco in 2012, John sought out all the musical and cultural connections between Ireland and Mexico she could find. As she conceived her album, she took part in Celtic-Latin music sessions, joined the Mariachi Femenil Orgullo Mexicano, the Bay Area’s first all-female mariachi band, and helped coordinate an Irish Mexican Fiesta honoring the legacy of the San Patricio soldiers of the 1848 U.S.-Mexico War.
John says she dedicated long hours to working on the arrangements of ¡Fandango Bragh! and thinking about the cultural and personal links that form the Irish and Mexican elements in each of the 11 tracks.
“At the time I was going from playing one kind of music to another so the continuity for me was my instrument, the fiddle, although I tried to make everything very different on each track. For example, (the two elements) on “The Galway Shawl/El Rebozo” are in a different key, a different tempo. The have a different texture, everything about them is different musically. My fiddle and voice sound different, but the link is the rebozo and the shawl.”
The album features traditional Irish and Mexican songs and tunes, as well as a few of John’s original compositions. She gives a nod to Mariachi San Patricio with their arrangement of the bright fusion jig “Limoncito Set,” the album’s opening track, and A Campo Traviesa’s “O’Neill’s/La Bamba” – the latter a tune John says the group has been playing for 30 years.
¡Fandango Bragh! is full of surprises. You’ll catch snatches of Mexican classics “Sobre las Olas” and “Cielito Lindo” in “Marinito Lindo Waltzes”, hear Irish and Náhuatl poetry in “Xóchitl, in cuícatl sean nós” (Poetry in the old style) and not fail to be moved by John’s solo violin in “An Bhean Caointe/La Llorona,” a well-known Oaxacan waltz performed in the style of an Irish slow air.
With her connections in San Francisco’s Celtic and Mexican music scenes, John was able to gather a team and record her album between July 2015 and April 2016. The list of native instruments used by the invited musicians is impressive: jarana, pandero, quijada, huapanguera, bodhrán, uilleann pipes, harp, penny whistle, accordion, mandolin, flute.
Meanwhile, John continues to teach a few private fiddle lessons, while laboring at her “exciting” day job, working at a consultancy and travel agency for performing arts ensembles, choirs and orchestras. In addition, she is heavily involved in music programs emphasizing social justice. It’s a community involvement that once again ties back to her time in Mexico, when she organized youth classic music chamber concerts.
“I came from a privileged place where my parents paid for my lessons. I always worked hard but never questioned the availability of resources. But seeing in Mexico young people who didn’t have access to those materials, but had the will and the motivation to show up to their practices and rehearsals, that was really inspiring to me. Perhaps the most important part was learning to organize musical events. A friend would say, ‘we don’t have any strings, we need to raise money to buy some strings.’ So we went out and organized a concert.”
As for the future, John can see many avenues ahead, including bringing a Celtic-Mexican music festival to somewhere in Mexico. Whatever she ends up doing, the chances are that it will involve Mexico and Ireland in some way.
“Yes, I acknowledge I’m American, but such big part of me is that reverberating Mexican-Irish element of community, family togetherness and spirituality.”
John has set up a website (https://fandangobragh.bandcamp.com/releases) where ¡Fandango Bragh! can be purchased and digitally downloaded at a cost of $US10. She has also produced a run of CDs, a few of which are available in Guadalajara from Yovanna Torres of Irish Dancing de México Guadalajara, Ignacio Herrera y Cairo 2636, for 100 pesos. Call (33) 1422-2511 for details. John can also be contacted through the above-mentioned website.