LURAY — Growing up in Luray as a biracial child of a Mexican mother and a Scots-Irish father, Estela Knott never thought her two cultures would connect.
Knott listened to Appalachian folk music since her childhood, as well as styles of traditional Mexican music originating from her mother’s home in Chihuahua, Mexico. She started performing at the age of 8, when her mother would host yearly fiestas for the community.
In 2000, she and her husband, David Berzonsky, traveled to Mexico and were introduced to musicians who played Son Jarocho, a style of traditional Mexican music with Spanish and West African influences that are native to the Veracruz state in Mexico.
They became increasingly fascinated in the similarities between Appalachian folk and Son Jarocho.
“The styles are very different, but the tradition around it is very, very similar,” Knott said.
Son Jarocho is traditionally played during fandangos, a multi-day festival where a community gathers under tents and shares food, music and dancing all day long, comparable to the fiddle festivals among the Appalachian mountain people. While clogging is the hallmark of Appalachian dance, Son Jarocho has its own style of percussive footwork called zapateado.
“It was very moving to feel like two parts of myself that felt so not together, all the sudden, here’s a connection between my cultures,” she said.
Soon after their trip to Mexico, Knott, a singer and jarana player, and Berzonsky, who plays requinto and bass, formed a band called Lua Project with Matty Metcalfe on accordion and banjo and Stuart Gunter on mandolin and violin. The Charlottesville-based quartet blends Appalachian and Mexican sounds, coining this fusion as “Mexilachian.”
Both forms of music have roots that trace back to the 1600s and 1700s, according to Berzonsky. Appalachian music is derived from the English and Scotch-Irish ballad traditions and Son Jarocho also draws influence from Spain during Mexico’s colonial era.
“There’s a way in which metaphorically they’re the same: Both are forms of music that reflect rural life in the countryside,” Berzonsky said. “Even though they’re from different countries, they come from the same time period.”
Both styles have poetic stanzas of four lines, with eight syllables in each line.
“That was striking to find that they were sharing that poetic form,” Berzonsky said.
Berzonsky and Knott created a multimedia project called “Mexilachian Son: New Sones From an Emerging Virginia Culture,” funded by a grant from Virginia Humanities, the nonprofit state humanities council based in Charlottesville.
The couple are collaborating with renowned Son Jarocho master musician, jarana player and poet Zenen Zeferino, who hails from Jaltipan de Morelos in the Veracruz state. Son Jarocho music was largely abandoned in Mexico by the 1970s and 1980s, and Zeferino led the rebirth of Son Jarocho music. He has toured around the world with his band.
“He is one of the very few people in the world who was born into the tradition of Son Jarocho and carries an enormous amount of Son Jarocho roots — whether musically or poetically,” Knott said. “To be with him, it’s a real gift.”
They recently wrote and recorded two songs with Zeferino in addition to two other songs they’ve worked on in the past, blending Zeferino’s jarana with Appalachian musical elements like banjos, accordions and upright bass, intertwined in English and Spanish languages.
Berzonsky and Knott will perform “Mexilachian Son” with Zeferino from 3:30 to 5 p.m. May 11 at the Warehouse Arts Center in Luray. They’re also performing in Charlottesville the following night.
“The most magical thing about working together on this project is the communication and love for wanting to learn and blend these two styles of music that are so incredibly different,” Knott said.
They will play six to eight songs together, along with a presentation of the other multimedia aspects of the project, which includes video interviews with numerous Latino immigrants living in Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.
David Bearinger, director of Virginia Humanities’ Grants and Community, said in a press release that, “the work that Lua Project is doing opens a window into the lives of thousands of immigrants from Latin America who are now living in Virginia. It forges links between these present-day immigration stories and a centuries-old Mexican musical tradition. Making these connections is at the heart of what we call the Humanities.”
The duo wrote new lyrics based on the stories the immigrants told during their interviews. Knott’s mother is one of the immigrants interviewed for the project.
“Each one of us has a very distinct story to tell and we’ve all had our trials, and our joys and sorrows,” she said.
A common thread among the different immigrant stories, Knott said, is working hard to make life better for the next generation.
“There are so many beautiful aspects of what we share as a larger culture and there’s so many more things we have in common than differences,” she said. “I’m hoping people will walk away from the presentations realizing the humanity of immigrant families living in Virginia and that their stories aren’t very different from ours.”
Clips of the interviews will be shown at the event, which are also available online at www.luaproject.org. They will also talk about the history of Son Jarocho music and how they blend the two different styles together. The event is free to attend.