Roberto Fernandez concedes that it's sometimes lonely being a bluesman in Culiacan. The capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Culiacan is best known for the banda or grupera sounds that also provide the drum beat to the narco-culture and violence that's enveloped the region.
"There's no blues scene," Fernandez chuckles. "We are the only ones." The frontman for the Malverde Blues Experience, Fernandez is a big man with a voice to match. His stage projection recalls in some ways Leslie West of the old US rock group Mountain, and Fernandez's band mates lay out a thundering sound with slices of heavy-metal, soul and the Texas boogie of ZZ Top.
As for the name of the group, Fernandez offers two explanations, both of them riddled with Mexican experiences of immigration, contraband smuggling, banditry and myth-making.
The name "Malverde" (literally "Bad Green"), says the lead singer, is taken from an Indiana friend's bummer high on marijuana that could be considered a "blues experience." Pressed further, Fernandez accepts that Malverde, of course, is also the patron saint of Sinaloa's narcos and poor people who revere the outlaw figure outside the formal rituals of the Roman Catholic Church.
"The name seemed perfect to me because it situates us in that mythic context, which in the final analysis is the basis of all societies," Fernandez muses. The music of Malverde Blues Experience, he adds, not only speaks to the realities of a violent hometown but to "universal situations that happen anywhere."
In a land of mariachis, romantic trios, norteno stars and cumbia crooners, few probably would think of Mexico as a blues country. But swimming underneath popular musical currents and far removed from the radar screen of the commercial mainstream, a dedicated if struggling blues scene inspired by Mississippi legends, British interpreters and contemporary masters plugs onward against the grain.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the capital of Mexico City is the most visible front of the blues warriors. The big city hosts the annual Polanco Blues Festival, a smattering of radio programs, regular performances and even an Internet magazine devoted to the blues.
Different groups perform covers and original songs in both Spanish and English. Formed by veterans of emblematic Mexican blues bands like Real de Catorce, a defunct group named after an old silver mine, Callejon Azul (Blue Alley) is one of the most active combos on the circuit.
"It´s becoming a big movement in Mexico City, and one with quality," says Marycarmen Velasquez, Callejon Azul's lead singer.
"(Mexican blues bands) are not groups that play all covers. They bring original compositions that are musically fine-tuned and done by quality musicians," Velasquez says. Although Callejon Azul samples some covers, Velasquez says her group concentrates on producing original tunes in Spanish. The blues singer says she was influenced by Koko Taylor but early on searched for her "own style."
Callejon Azul songwriter and bassist Salvador Arceo says that instead of social commentary, his band prefers introspective themes that touch on sexuality, love and disillusion.
"More than anything we do personal songs, but all of them with the feeling of being human," Arceo affirms.
Callejon Azul and fellow groups get out their music and word of their gigs through Facebook, Myspace and CD.
For Mexican blues lovers, or bluseros, the Internet magazine Cultura Blues (culturablues.com) is a must-read source of information about upcoming concerts like the January 28 battle of the harmonicas scheduled for Mexico City’s Rock Blues Factory club. In addition to the regular reviews, the current edition of the publication (January 2012) contains an old interview with Muddy Waters, a piece on a Jimi Hendrix record and a discography of Spanish-language blues music.
Located about six hours' driving time north of Mexico City, Aguascalientes is another important center of the blues. Best known for its huge Nissan factory and mammoth, beer-soaked San Marcos Fair, Aguascalientes also stages the Aguas Blues festival every November. Last year's edition of the free festival celebrated the 15th anniversary of an event that draws blues musicians from across Mexico and, when the budget permits, from abroad. The slogan of Aguas Blues is simple: "The Blues Lifts Up the Spirits."
At the 2011 festival, an enthusiastic crowd of hundreds packed the elegant and acoustically fine Teatro Aguascalientes to hear blues messengers tell it like it is.
Longtime festival organizer Juan Manuel Munoz admits he was surprised by the first turnout for a festival showcasing music with a decidedly underground presence. Munoz says that while Mexicans have a different history than the African Americans of the US South, his countrymen can relate to the adverse social situations and deep emotional feelings that electrify the blues.
"We identify with the suffering, the pain, the social problems," Munoz says. "From the inception, many blues players try to imitate the greats like Muddy Waters or those before him."
A live wire on stage, Jimmy Hernandez has been at the core of Aguascalientes’ blues scene for 30 years. In his long career Hernandez has played with several bands, and his latest group is aptly called Los Amigos del Blues (Friends of the Blues).
“The music makes my heart vibrate. For me, it’s life,” says the singer/harp player. A music teacher by day, Hernandez says he was influenced by blues pioneers like Robert Johnson. He then picked up the harmonica after listening to British musician John Mayall. Concurring with other Mexican artists, Hernandez says creating and disseminating the blues is not always an easy task. Like US musicians, the obstacles confronting Mexican blues practitioners are many: juggling day jobs with the demands of the craft, virtual blackouts by commercial radio stations, sometimes difficult club owners and fans that don’t always turn out to smaller, routine gigs that help take care of the bills.
“(Day) work is our activity,” Hernandez says, “because here in Aguascalientes music doesn’t pay.”
Yet the blues keeps attracting new generations of players and fans. Luis Sifuentes followed in his father’s footsteps and played with the old man’s band, Los Amigos del Blues, at last fall’s Aguas Blues fest. The 16-year-old guitarist says he enjoyed seeing the different musical styles. An admirer of British axe men like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, Sifuentes says the blues is a minority musical preference among Mexican young people, but one that nevertheless attracts some like himself.
“You can improvise a lot. That’s what stirs my interest,” the budding bluesman says. “If we can compare (blues) with other musical genres, it is total improvisation.”
Even at his young age, Sifuentes exudes the commitment of a die-hard blues fan. “The blues is a music that does not deserve to die,” he adds. “It’s a great musical tradition that should continue progressing through the years.”
Blues promoter Juan Manuel Munoz could not be more in agreement.
“I think it’s a safe bet to say that (blues) is among the genres that aren’t easily forgotten, because it is feeling and that’s what motivates people,” he says. “The blues is more alive than ever.”
Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur, a news service of New Mexico State University.