Monday, February 19, 2018

Tehua: A voice from old Mexico

Tehua was a beloved Mexican singer, best known for performing folk songs so venerable that no one knows who wrote them. In a career lasting more than half a century, she made many recordings, including two with Óscar Chávez, and covering a wide range of traditional and contemporary song. Many can be heard today on iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and YouTube.

The singer was born Maria del Rosario Graciela Rayas Trejo in the city of Queretaro, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, in 1943. When she was a toddler, her family moved to San Miguel de Allende, and for the rest of her life, no matter where she lived or traveled to perform, she considered the town her home.

From her earliest years, Tehua was immersed in the traditional music of Mexico. The sweet, sad tunes of boleros, danzóns, corridos and rancheros echoed from open doorways and through the narrow back streets of Queretaro.

"In Queretero, my father had a friend who owned a pulqueria [a kind of working class bar]," she told the newspaper La Jornada in 2002."I used to sit at the bar and on one side of it was a big jukebox filled with 78 records. That's where I heard La barca de Guaymas for the first timeSo I learned it way back then."

Not too many years later, she was singing herself, at first in bars and cafes, under the stage name "Tehua," which means "you" in nahuatl, one of the indigenous languages of Central Mexico. In the beginning, she mostly sang rancheros--tender songs whose roots go back to the time before the Mexican Revolution. Her first model was Lucha Villa, one of the greatest of all ranchera singers.

By 1970 a new music was sweeping Latin America: nueva cancion (new song). It often used indigenous instruments and musical traditions, with lyrics focused on social injustice and on hopes for a better future. These songs too became part of her repertory, and she often performed them with Óscar Chávez and Amparo Ochoa. Tehua also sang new songs from the English-speaking world, like Paul Simon's "The Sound of Silence."

Tehua died in Mexico City on August 21, 2014, but her music lives on through her recordings. This is how Mexico's Secretary of Culture remembered her:

   Tehua was a musical interpreter of legitimacy, courage and authenticity: she sang old, plaintive tonadillas (theater songs); local folk songs; songs from before and after the Revolution; nostalgic elegies to an ideal homeland and love laments from provincial cities. Songs like "La nortena," "Cuatro milpas," "Mi casita de paja" and "El loco syrup" found a new voice in Tehua, who rescued them from oblivion and the passage of time.

Mexican poet Jaime Sarbines (1929-1999) put it more simply. He described her singing as "the heartbreaking voice of the birds." Tehua's former San Miguel home is still in use today (see the last link below).

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