By John Philip Wyllie
Among the more than 50 bands and individual performers that participated in last weekend’s Adam’s Avenue Roots Festival, Los Californios might have claimed the award as the most unique had one been given. Performing in period costume from 1830s California, Los Californios faithfully recreated the music that local inhabitants once danced to during the period when California was still part of Mexico.
“With the (1849) California Gold Rush and the arrival of so many people so quickly, the culture that was here before (that time) was completely overwhelmed,” explained group founder, violinist and vocalist Vykki Mende Gray. “These songs exist through the efforts of one man, Charles Fletcher Lummis.”
In 1903, Lummis sat down with the descendants of the early Californios and set about the task of preserving their music. Using an Edison wax cylinder recording machine, Lummis made 12 hours of recordings.
“He was going to transcribe all the songs and publish them with singable English lyrics,” Gray said. Unfortunately, Lummis only got around to publishing 14 songs during his lifetime, but his early, primitive recordings remain to this day.
“In 1989, through a grant with the California Parks Service, we had the original recordings played back and recorded on to a cassette tape,” Gray explained. “So, now I have 12 hours worth of music that I am slowly, but surely working my way through. At this point, very few people know about this music and we are the only band (in San Diego) that specializes in it.” By performing live at festivals, historical sites and schools , Gray and her bandmates, Janet Martini, Peter Dubois and David Swarens hope to keep this musical tradition alive.
“One of our projects is an educational one in which we hope to place the music back out there,” Gray said. “During the summer, we teach this music at two different music camps.”
While none of Los Californios are Hispanic or descendants of the original Californios, they share a common love for historic preservation and pre-Gold Rush California as well as this music in particular.
“We have received a very positive reaction from the Mexican community,” said Gray. Often the older members of their audiences will tell them that the music sounds like the music they heard in their youth.
Upcoming performances include a May 3 afternoon date at Mission Trails Regional Park and one at 11:00 a.m. on May 10 at the San Diego Folk Heritage Festival at the Children’s School in La Jolla. For further information, access their website at: www.loscalifornios.com