Exploring the enduring influence of composer Silvestre Revueltas

Jesús Del Toro, editor-in-chief of La Raza newspaper and a CSO Latino Alliance member, is the author of "Silvestre Revueltas del Otro Lado" (2018), which explores the composer’s influence on the contemporary music scene.

Many fans of Mexican classical music believe the genre is rooted in Mexican folkloric traditions.

For 20th-century Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), the influences came from further afield, and nowhere is that more evident than in his most well-known and performed work: Sensemayá.

Think Afro-Cuban roots.

Revueltas’ seven-minute Sensemayá is a powerful example of how Afro-Cuban roots predominate through boldly rhythmic, hypnotic and uber-evocative musical ideas.

The influence of Africa in Mexican music will be the focus of a pre-concert event, presented by the CSO Latino Alliance, at 6 p.m on Oct. 24 leading up to a performance of Revueltas’ Sensemayá, with James Gaffigan conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That concert will also feature works by George Gershwin, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein. (Tickets to the CSO concert include admission to the Latino Alliance event in Grainger Ballroom.)

At the pre-concert event, Chicago-based Sones de Mexico Ensemble will perform music styles, including son jarocho, mariachi and chilenas, as examples of how African influences permeate Mexican music. This year, Sones de Mexico is presenting “The Black Music of Mexico,” a series of concerts that explore Afro-Mexican cultural contributions reverberating “throughout Mexico’s past and present, with the aim of promoting unity between Chicago’s Black and Mexican communities.”

In addition, Latino Alliance founding member Jesús Del Toro will discuss the influences that shaped Revueltas’ music, the Afro-Cuban connection to Sensemayá and Revueltas’ time in Chicago, where he studied in the 1920s. “While most think Mexican music owes all of its influence to Spanish and European music, the fact is there are African influences in many works and songs that hail from Mexico,” said Del Toro, author of the book Silvestre Revueltas del Otro Lado (2018), which explores the composer’s influence on the contemporary music scene.

“While most think Mexican music owes all of its influence to Spanish and European music, the fact is there are African influences in many works and songs.” — Jesús Del Toro

Some of the most traditional-sounding Mexican music, such as mariachi, has African influences in its DNA, Del Toro points out. “Mariachi has components that do not come from a Spanish, indigenous or even European musical tradition,” he said. “There are elements that are from African tunes and rhythms from Africans working in the sugar fields.”

Today, Mexico has more a million residents of African Mexican descent. The history of African Mexicans in Mexico goes as far back as the 16th century when it was known as New Spain. At the time, Mexico had more African slaves than any other Spanish colony.

And so, it is no mystery that African influences bleed into the nations musical landscape. That influence comes into a certain fruition with Revueltas’ Sensemayá.

Considered one of Mexico’s best classical music composers, Revueltas became a child prodigy. At age 8, he started studying the violin and entered the Juárez Musical Institute in Durango at 12. By 1916, Revueltas was off studying composition and violin at St. Edward College in Austin, Texas. Three years later, he moved north to begin further studies at Chicago Musical College (now part of Roosevelt University).

“Revueltas is mostly a powerful political composer and was writing music during Mexico’s nationalism period when all Mexican artists, painters and writers were trying to reinvent and discover Mexican identity,” Del Toro said. “But his was a very different approach because he wasn’t interested in creating a Mexican folk past.”

Revueltas based Sensemayá on the 1934 poem “Chant for Killing a Snake” by Cuban poet and journalist Nicolás Guillén. The poem is one of 17 in a collection titled West Indies, Ltd. “Chant for Killing a Snake” depicts an Afro-Cuban ritual of sacrificing a snake that sports glass-like eyes. The poem is deeply rooted in spiritual and magical traditions that made their way from Africa to Cuba.

Revueltas was drawn to the imagery and metaphorical poem’s bent. An ardent anti-imperialist, he was keen on casting a progressive and idiosyncratic musical lens on the people of Mexico, from the street beggar to the farm worker. When Revueltas heard Guillén’s work, he decided to create a tone poem. The imagery of killing the snake served as a framework to meld Afro-Cuban beats with polyrhythmic elements to create a musical metaphor for the fight against oppression and imperialism.

In doing so, Revueltas’ works posits him with composers like Aaron Copland and Dimitri Shostakovich, Del Toro contends. Like Revueltas, Copland sought to celebrate the common man and highlight an unseen particular national identity, and like Shostakovich, Revueltas’ music has a hopeful humanism.