The tuning of a banjo blends into the tempo and strum of son jarocho, Mexican folk music from the Gulf coast.
“It works very beautifully,” says Rana Santacruz, singing to accordion and his own original music.
Born in Mexico City, he lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and he comes to the Berkshires to perform in the FreshGrass festival at Mass MoCA. Santacruz describes his music as bluegrass mariachi, a blend of influences, and he says this kind of crossover has happened for more than a century.
He recalls a high-energy polka well-known in the Mexican revolution, Jesusita en Chihuahua — Pancho Villa would have it played going into battle. As it traveled from one musician to another, it became a common bluegrass tune, the JC or Jessie Polka.
Bluegrass, traditional American music, has always grown from a worldwide blend of sounds, and now it draws musicians around the world into a contemporary movement. And Mass MoCA is moving with it.
According to FreshGrass, bluegrass is American roots music with acoustic instrumentation — banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass — says Rachel Chanoff, Mass MoCA’s Curator of Performing Arts and Film. And FreshGrass musicians interpret, expand and redefine the music.
The festival is cutting edge, she says, in a throwback way. FreshGrass recognizes traditional bluegrass, welcomes emerging artists and pushes limits. Among this year’s headliners, Old Crow Medicine Show, 14-time Grammy winning mandolin master Ricky Skaggs and international banjo champion Alison Brown will join Dublin folk-rock songwriter Glen Hansard.
‘I’m so excited to breathe the same air he’s breathing. He has lyrics that have touched my life so poignantly.’ — Jodi Joseph
“I’m so excited to breathe the same air he’s breathing,” says Mass MoCA’s director of communications Jodi Joseph. “He has lyrics that have touched my life so poignantly.”
She welcomes new music and unexpected interpretations. Among the more than 50 musicians and groups in this year’s lineup, she sees musicians winning recognition and expanding the genre, from young Country phenomenon Sierra Hull to Lau, a progressive folk-rock group from Edinburgh, and Ruthie Foster, three-time Grammy nominee for blues.
“She has such a dynamic voice,” Joseph says. “I think people will hear her and walk out of a food line, grab their kids and get to that stage as fast as possible.”
Parsonfield from Northampton performs with an energy that pours through their shows, she says, and Bang on a Can musician Philippa Thompson performs with Brooklyn music co-op M Shanghai — on the musical saw.
“You wouldn’t see it anywhere else and might not think of it as bluegrass,” Chanoff says.
But bluegrass is at the root of it.
Santacruz will perform with a bass player, fiddle, banjo, alto saxophone, two trumpets and drum, though he knows bluegrass groups often do not have percussion.
‘(The musicians) are sensitive and adapt very well to other genres. None are purist bluegrass, but all are influenced by it.’ — Rana Santacruz
“They are sensitive and adapt very well to other genres,” he says. “None are purist bluegrass, but all are influenced by it.”
He remembers first hearing the banjo on television and tuning his guitar to try to find that sound. Bluegrass influences the songs he writes, as Mexican folk ballads do, and Balkan Brass, Tom Waits, magic realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and classic Mexican films like “Los Tres Huastecos,” a comedy about triplet brothers.
Some of his fellow musicians will also explore “the porous border between film, music and performance,” Chanoff says, in FreshScores, live compositions to silent films.
The musicians choose their own films, and in the past year they have ranged from comic to strongly thoughtful, from “The Great Train Robbery” and “The Flying House” to “a Child of the Ghetto.”
He remembers first hearing the banjo on television and tuning his guitar to try to find that sound.
The program began last year and has strengthened this year with commissions to three musicians: Gypsy jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel, fiddler Darol Anger, an associate professor at the Berklee School of Music, and Aoife O’Donovan, the lead singer of Crooked Still. Chanoff sees her as part of the new, progressive bluegrass movement, exploring in her solo songs and Yo-yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo.
Santacruz finds this movement and blending natural. He found that when he came to New York, as he met musicians from different backgrounds. Put people with instruments together in one room and they will play together, he says.
And it happens here, where musicians sit in with each other on stage, workshops spill into jam sessions and spontaneous music fills the galleries. People in the crowd bring tune guitars and play under the upside-down trees.
Bluegrass influences the songs he writes, as Mexican folk ballads do, and Balkan Brass, Tom Waits, magic realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez …
“It’s one of the most musically adventuresome audiences we see all year,” Joseph says.
FreshGrass has grown a loyal, relaxed and friendly group of fans.
“I love the music,” she said, “and it’s so rewarding to stand in a field with hundreds of people listening to a band they’ve never heard before and getting into it because they have such an open heart for music.”
People are starting to know Mass MoCA for this homegrown festival, she says, with a Berkshire flavor, camping, local food and brews the mountains around them. And they will come to listen to Alison Brown’s banjo tribute to The Band and Santacruz singing in Spanish to a tenor waltz:
In a clay box you left a piece of your heart
… I tie it close to my soul, and it takes away my pain
… and when I miss you and think of you at night
in that clay box I find you again.
This story first ran in Berkshire Magazine. My thanks to Anastasia Stanmeyer.