Afro Mex meets Chicago Blues-Auspicious for Mayoral Election?

Billy Branch playing at Mexico City's Premiere Blues Club Ruta 61

Is the upcoming musical mashup between Billy Branch, the African American blues harp master and Sones de Mexico Ensemble on Sat. Feb 21, an auspicious harbinger for mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy “Garcia? 

Consider: A recent poll shows that if Chicago’s black voters cast a substantial vote for the Hispanic candidate–it will cause an upset against Mayor Emanuel.  Since it’s unlikely that the concert date was chosen to coincide with the mayoral election just 3 days away on Tues Feb. 24  the notion of synchronicity at play is both intriguing and appealing to me.

One thing IS clear:  Billy Branch loves Mexican people, culture and music and they love him!   He’s a popular performer at Mexico City’s premiere blues club ” Ruta 61″ in fact he was en route to do a show there on Feb. 19 when I reached out to Billy’s wife and publicist & manager Rosa Enrico, to ask how Billy became interested in playing “son jarocho”– the afro mexican” music.

Rosa said Billy’s interest in learning Spanish began in elementary school. His love for Mexican culture solidified when in his twenties, he toured Mexico a number of times with the Willie Dixon All Stars over thirty years ago. Since then he’s gone back countless times.”

“Four or five years ago the Ford Foundation paid for us to bring the Blues in Schools Program to Xalapa, Veracruz in SE Mexico. Veracruz was a known slave port and the son jarocho music’s afro roots can be traced to that time period. Billy collaborated with Ramon Guitierrez, leader of the famed internationally loved group, Son de Madera, who has a program similar to Billy’s Blues in Schools program. The students learned to play harmonica and sing the Blues in addition to playing the Mexican harrana (a small guitar) and singing Mexican songs.”

    “The Ford Foundation invested in this collaboration to encourage the Mexican and African-American communities to celebrate their common roots. It’s our hope that this celebration can eventually lead to a coalition and solidarity so we can achieve common socio-economic and political goals that will enhance our quality of life.”

In his recent interview with Hoy (see video below) — Billy reiterated his hopes that disparate ethnic groups become a community by using the exploration of the African roots of Mexican music as a bridge. Billy says “As ethnically diverse as this city is, there’s more separation– than community from different ethnic groups. There are more commonalities –than are known by the general public. There is considerable African influence in Mexico which is not very well known or very well celebrated. This (concert) is perhaps a step in that direction to pave some bridges to connect separate  communities.”  (Billy’s thoughts echo my feelings about why we loved “Music Without Borders” the summer concert series cancelled in 2012 under Mayor Emanuel’s then new cultural department administration. The music brought diverse people together as a community to enjoy and learn from each other.)

The 2 shows Saturday night are a glorious landmark for Billy Branch’s and  Sones de Mexico’s  exploration into the Afro roots of Mexican music and blues which has been 6 years in the making. The story as related on Sones De Mexico’s facebook page is that  Billy and members of Sones de Mexico met in 2009 at Buddy Guy’s when he offered  to play a song  with them. Sones members were hesitant when to their surprise he suggested the song “La Bruja”  an Afro Mexican folkloric son jarocho favorite. This was the seed for the Saturday performances during which the audience will have the pleasure to see the many fruits of this creative play. If you were lucky to attend the Sones de Mexico 20th Anniversary show at Millennium Park in Aug 2014 -you know how electrifying the energy is between these two multiple grammy nominated bands.

The musical collaboration on Saturday also includes Billy Branch’s band -the Sons of Blues plus Nadima (his superb black backup vocalists of (Na)nette Frank, (Di)ane Madison and (Ma)e Koen). They’ve added dancing too- Southside Chicago style steppin’ will be a part of the Blues meets Son Jarocho project courtesy of actor/dancer Michael Pogue. He’s joining tap dancer Reggio “The Hoofer” McLaughlin, the Mexican Folkloric Dance Company of Chicago and Sones de Mexico “zapateadora” Lorena Íñiguez).

UPDATE -Mayor’s race went to a runoff!!  March 29 –  You’ll have a chance to see Billy Branch and Sones de Mexico again at the “UNITY IN THE COMMUNITY”  Concert and Rally for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia at Alhambra at 6 pm. Performers also include Funkadesi with Shirley King and others.  Tickets here:

AND “Los San Patricios: The Story of the St. Patrick’s Battalion” with Sones de Mexico and the Irish Music School of Chicago at Old Town School of Folk Music on March 21 at 8 pm. ” With music, dance and balladry, two of Chicago’s most prominent communities with immigrant roots, both known for passing down traditions from generation to generation, will bring together the fiddles, harps, accordions, foot tapping and voices of Irish jigs and Mexican son to tell the story of Los San Patricios.”

Don’t forget to vote—-!

Gail Dee–We Want Music Without Borders

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