Hispanic-American folk music — which includes dance music — has been one of the richest veins of musical treasure in the New World. Think of dance forms alone — the habanera, tango, salsa, merengue, cumbias, cha-cha, rhumba, samba, guajira and conga. Or think of mariachi music’s distinctly Mexican versions of polka, two-step, march and waltz.
It is easy to see what a fruitful musical phenomenon Hispanic-American folk music is. In addition to the dance forms, there exists an equally great heritage of folk songs from all regions of the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America. And there is also the U.S. Hispanic musical heritage — folk songs from Old Spanish California and the Old Southwest.
There is within this huge volume of Hispanic-American music a whole department of songs written for Christmas, Easter and other feasts. This body of music exists — a Hispanic-American musical tradition of sacred folk music — untainted by transplanting and commercialism.
In a previous writing, I have shown that there can be good and bad folk music, and that one criterion a person can use in judging its quality is to require that it at least be genuine — that it be a true representative of the folk music tradition from which it comes — and not folk music watered down and corrupted by American pop commercialism, often represented by the presence of the soft rock beat in the music.
Thus it is, in my view, the great good fortune of the Catholic Church — musically speaking — that Hispanic immigration has made them the largest minority in the United States. Hispanic Americans are bringing their folk music to our churches. When it is genuine and performed by skilled musicians, it is generally better than the watered-down American folk music found at Mass.
There is a “but,” unfortunately.
Some parishes are allowing adolescents at Spanish-language Masses to have free rein in bringing music to Mass — and they are bringing in cheap and commercial rock and pop tunes with Christian words. Some well-attended Spanish-language Masses are accompanied by Hispanic-American rock bands. I know of one such Mass in Long Island, N.Y., attended by close to 1,000 people each Sunday.
The music resembles nothing Hispanic. On the contrary, it sounds like an American pop music event. Spanish Masses I have heard elsewhere permit untalented Hispanic-American guitarists to water down their own folk music — just as we have already done with ours — accompanying most songs with a soft rock rhythm in the guitar accompaniment.
There can also be a too-festive atmosphere in the unsupervised and incorrect choice of genuine Spanish music for Mass. In Santa Fe, N.M., I have heard more than one Mass where every piece of music was either a fast waltz or a polka. The music was better than the soft rock versions, but there is certainly better Mexican folk music for Mass.
The worst-case scenario, however, would be to allow folk music at new Spanish-language Masses to become as watered down as our own. In doing so, the Church will allow a great musical gift in musical reform to pass by unnoticed.
Catholic churches would be placing little burden on Hispanic musicians at Mass by asking that they perform their most genuine, traditional sacred hymns and songs — and leave out the soft rock style that has corrupted our own “folk” music.
The tradition of live musical performance in Central and South America is much more vibrant than our own. I know an American professor who married in Colombia only eight years ago, and he still had to serenade his Colombian bride-to-be in the traditional manner — appearing at midnight beneath her window with a group of live musicians singing Spanish love songs. The serenading tradition of Colombian musical culture is absolutely alive and well.
People in Central and South America are less inclined to put on records and more inclined to play and sing whenever they can. The traditional folk repertoire is more alive in the minds of their peoples than in our country. All anyone needs to do is ask Hispanic musicians to play something more genuine — using the rhythm found in the country of musical origin — and to ask that they draw on the sacred music that would be proper for a church and not outdoors at a fiesta, where one finds the fast waltz and polka.
American music publishers could help the situation by researching the true sacred repertoire found in Spanish language folk music and publishing it with an indication of its original rhythmic accompaniment. Hundreds of these folk songs exist, and some of them are likely to be known by musicians in each parish.
Hispanic music at Mass — if encouraged to remain traditional and authentic in performance — could breathe fresh air into the whole musical life of the American Catholic church.
Webster A. Young is a classical music composer