Almost 20 years ago, a young student at the National University of Mexico went in search of a very old instrument in the mountains of the southern state of Oaxaca. Today, he has become a leading force in the revival of the instrument called the bajo quinto and the music played on it.
Ruben Luengas was working on a research project at the National School of Music in Mexico City in 1995. He wanted to focus on the music of his hometown, in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca, so he asked his 97-year-old grandmother to tell him about the music played at her wedding.
"She tells me it was played on violin and bajo. That's what they played at the parties," he says. "I imagined an upright bass, then I thought an electric bass, so I asked her if she could describe the bajo to me. I had no idea what she was talking about."
The bajo quinto looks like an oversized acoustic guitar, with five courses of doubled steel strings. It's played with a pick, with an emphasis on the bass strings. But Luengas did not know any of this.
He went to his professor, Guillermo Contreras, who invited him to his studio and showed him a collection of more than 15 bajo quintos from the states of Puebla, Morelos and Guerrero — but none from Oaxaca.
"He said to me, 'This is the bajo quinto.' I was speechless," says Luengas. "I became captivated by the instrument. So I asked my teacher, 'Where can I get one?' And my teacher says, 'You have to go find it and learn how to play it. It's part of your tradition.' And he gave me a whole lecture on it."
Contreras, who's still a professor and researcher at Mexico's National School of Music, says the bajo quinto likely evolved from the Italian baroque guitar, called chitarra battente, brought to Mexico during the colonial period.
"Chitarra battente is very similar to the bajo quinto because it has five courses of strings — 10 strings in total — and metal strings," says Contreras. "And the body is very similar — big body, large neck."
He says in the mid- to late-1800s, a German music store had branches all over Mexico, including one in Oaxaca. He has also found evidence of instrument builders there: "In Oaxaca, there were two important centers for building musical instruments: Coicoyan, in the heart of the Mixteca, and Oaxaca City."
It was that first town, Coicoyan de las Flores, that ethnomusicologist Luengas' grandmother had told him about. She — and just about everybody else — said it was a dangerous place, and advised him not to go.
But one day he mustered the courage and took off to the tiny, hard-to-reach town, deep in the Mixtec mountains. Luengas says that when he arrived, he had the odd feeling he was going back in time. A colleague at the university had given him her grandfather's contact. By now, he felt that everything seemed prearranged.
"My friend's grandfather told one of his workers to take me to the luthier's house. We went down a very deep ravine, then up a hill," Luengas says. "I knocked on a little wooden house, and out comes a man, about 80 years old. He speaks very little Spanish. I told him I was there to get a bajo quinto. He didn't say anything. He turned around and got a brand new instrument he just finished, for whoever needed it, and he said he was waiting for me. That day completely changed my life."
Luengas is now one of the leading bajo quinto players in Oaxaca. He has formed several groups to showcase the instrument, including an eight-piece band, Pasatono Orquesta, modeled after the traditional Mixtec orchestras of the 1920s.
Luengas says Don Telesforo, the luthier he met in Coicoyan, has died. Nobody there learned his secrets: his respect for the trees, the music and all the mysticism that goes with the craft of making the bajo quinto.
"But the truth is, it's not dead," says Luengas. "I had the opportunity to learn from him. Now I'm reproducing his bajo quinto models, his singular style. And as long as I'm here, I'm not going to let it die."
Luengas says he now has the responsibility to pass on the tradition, but first he needs to find apprentices interested in learning it.