Narratives of the desert:
The Canto Cardenche as a lived biocultural diversity heritage of northern Mexico

This is a forthcoming chapter for the Biodiversity in connection with Linguistic and Cultural Diversity book, edited by Anja Birgit Zagler. Published by The Austrian Academy of Sciences.


Yo ya me voy
A morir a los desiertos,
Me voy dirigido.
Esa estrella marinera
Sólo en pensar,
Que ando lejos de mi tierra
Nomás que me acuerdo me dan
Ganas de llorar.
Pero a mi no me divierten
Los cigarros de la Dalia,
Pero a mi no me consuelan
Esas copas de aguardiente,
Sólo en pensar que dejé
Un amor pendiente,
Nomás que me acuerdo me dan
Ganas de llorar.

[Translation to english]
I am leaving
to die in the deserts,
I'm headed
That little sailor star
Just thinking,
That I am way far from my land
Just as I remember
I feel like crying.
But the dahlia cigars
Do not amuse me,
But they do not comfort me
Those glasses of brandy,
Just thinking that I left
A pending love,
I just remember that
I feel like crying

These are the words sung by a trio of men known as Los Cardencheros de Sapioriz, the last performing living group of Canto Cardenche. This musical form was born and preserved through generations in the region of Comarca Lagunera, located in the extreme southwest of the states of Coahuila and Durango in Mexico. An acapella, polyphonic composed of  one or more voices, the Canto Cardenche appeared as the melancholic self-expression of the farm laborers working at farms and mines in the late 18th century, when a considerable wave of migration brought workers to northern region to work the land of farms.

There is no certainty of where and when exactly the Canto Cardenche originated, some researchers (Luna et al., 2015) state that it first appeared in Zacatecas where catholic missionaries taught locals gregorian chants and polyphonic songs to later be sung at religious services. However, Cardenche chants show a close resemblance to the chants by indegious groups located from the region, los yaquis  and los mayos. In oppressed conditions, farm laborers were stripped away from their material possessions and separated from their families. They adapted these musical styles and voiced their physical and emotional pain. In these songs death is ever present through stories of tragedies and heartbreak (Woodman, 2018; Luna et al., 2015).

“It is like love, like a thorn in the heart — although you can take it out, pain stays for a long time” (Cardenche singer, Francisco Beltran, unknown date)

The term Cardenche comes from a type of cactus found in arid regions of the north of Mexico, most prominently in the states of Durango, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosí. In the solitude of these regions with large areas of deserts, blots of strong pink, a “rosa mexicano” color are visible in the vastness of earthly tones that paint the landscape in rural north of Mexico (Woodman, 2018; Luna et al., 2015).

The plant possesses thorns that when penetrating the human skin causes an intense pain which only intensifies when attempting to remove them. Canto Cardenche comes from the innate human need to expel pain through our voices. Cardenche songs are songs that wound like thorns. In the year 1999, Canto Cardenche was included in the Dictionary of Spanish and Latin American Music, by Emilio Casares: “The Cardenche song is a musical genre defined as a song of the poor to the divine or the human, practiced since at least the end of the 19th century in the La Laguna region of the states of Durango and Coahuila, whose main characteristic is to be interpreted with three or four voices acappella.”

This chapter dives into how Canto Cardenche, a dying musical style, beyond portraying the everyday struggles of a disregarded landscape of Mexico, encodes a broad repository of ethnobiological knowledge. In addition to looking at this research from a social justice, biocultural lens, I draw relations to sound studies research as a possibility to open new pathways for ethnobiological research (Wright, 2017; Fernández-Llamazares, 2019). Later follows an analysis of melodies as memory carriers of histories embodying soundscapes of internalized identities. Language and the environment are entangled in every aspect of Canto Cardenche as forces portraying the urgencies and pain of the community. Canto Cardenche and its polyphonic nature become maps of belonging, that provide a space of vulnerability as  coping mechanism that knits unspoken bonds with the community.

While previous research work potentializes instrumentalization shaped in songs as an untapped depository of biocultural memory (Fernández-Llamazares, 2019), I offer a different lens on the choice of absence of instrumental accompaniment, silence and gaps that would traditionally be filled with accompanied instrumentalization as a profound healing act nurturing communication with non-human life forms. Lastly, I propose different perspectives on the idea of music as a key component of the diversity of life on Earth and how it is embedded in the concept of biocultural diversity as an approach to broadening previously segregated auditory spaces.

Voices at the margins

“[I] am reminded once again that the struggle is our legacy, a struggle as old as song”.
– Rashaan Alexis Meneses, 2018

The a cappella, polyphonic and heartbreaking Canto Cardenche songs are singly constituted with the one of the most powerful tools of human communication: the voice. Three or more voices incorporate the Canto Cardenche: first voice or fundamental which initiates the song, this voice carries the song and the rhythm of the piece. Secondly, the contralto, the highest one, is a sharp and lamenting requinto-like voice that reaches very high notes and causes a painful sensation to the ones who listen to it. The third voice, primera de arrastre or marrano is the deepest and most dramatic voice. The voice a cappella is a response to the limited means of the workers whom during the 1800’s lacked access to any form of instrumentation as told by Canto Cardenche singer Fidel Elizalde (2015), “the only ones with access to musical instruments were rich people, but our fathers and grandfathers had the will to express their feelings”. Thus, the Cardenche singers only had the sounds of their natural landscape as a background where ongoing complex sonic exchanges constantly are muting, changing and auditing sound (Fluegge, 2011).

“How are you doing?” sometimes might mean “How do you cope”?
– Maria Puig de la Bellacasa

Much like the essential role spirituals had in the United States as a representation of the means of expression of hopes and frustrations of slaves (Steinfeld, 2016), Canto Cardenche serves as an outlet to resist dehumanization. A tool to keep alive generation after generation an identity which landowners sought to erase by controlling their resources, Canto Cardenche is a testimony.

Death is ever present in the lyrics, along with depictions of emotional and physical pain. The raw feeling of desperation is amplified with the lyrics, some of them as dramatic as "At the foot of a green Maguey" or "I'm going to die in the desert”. As generation to generation passed these lyrics they established a collective identity of trauma. Through the novels Home, and Songs of Solomon, Toni Morrison explores the troubled relationship between past and present, she uses the word “rememory”, which is the sense that revisiting a person’s memory is at the same time also part of the collective memory (Visvis, 2008). Multi-Identity chicana feminist, Gloria Anzaldua, also talks about how self-identification is internalized in subtle ways, either in the form of images or/and emotions (1987). Hence, the melodies in Canto Cardenche become as I call “memory carriers of histories” embodying soundscapes of internalized identities, histories and multiple realities, particularly since Canto Cardenche was birthed and practiced outside of normative spaces for music and what was catalogued as “good” taste (Sluis, 2016).  Previously, the term “memory carriers” had been used in research for management of urban biodiversity and cultural landscapes, as Erik Andersson explains:

“Memory carriers can be explained as slowly changing variables and features that retain or make available information on how different situations have been dealt with before” (Andersson. 2016).

Through the years, Canto Cardenche has coined many names, the songs have been called by locals and scholars as songs of “drunkards, of rubbish dumps, of the poor” (Luna et al., 2015), due to the context where they were performed, in the peripheral areas of the northern villages. In the times of the great haciendas in the late 19th century, the laborers worked from sunrise to sunset and did not have the time to hang together. Only late at night, at the end of their work, they used to meet in the outskirts of the villages, spaces known in those days as “garbage dumps”, there, the Canto Cardenche was practiced. The region of Comarca Lagunera, a place dry, silent, solitary where their men defined themselves as people of few very words (Ferrer, 2017), whose bonding opportunities and most vulnerable moments come when high alcohol intake is involved (Garsd, 2013). Singers lasted all night drinking and singing about their surroundings, personal struggles, the desert landscapes, or a combination of those elements. 

Canto Cardenche does not serve to the norms of academic music performance, the singers are not expected to have an academic musical background, nor a trained voice, therefore, each encounter with a Cardenche song is different, there are no expectations nor predictability since each voice is always different. As Haraway (1994) talks about how encounters with an individual produces a world, so it is each encounter to a musical performance. Each performer comes with its worlds and each revisits a unique personal memory when interpreting a song. Moreover, each performance is a different experience, since even if people are sharing the same geographical area, they do not share the same kind of sound space. Whereas listeners possess individual associations to different sounds, as well, listeners focus on different aspects while hearing. People attune their ears at different levels of attention and immersion (Fluegge, 2011). Following Haraway’s thoughts on individual encounters (1994), each encounter to a Cardenche song enriches further how we visualize a landscape of the north of Mexico, by distorting the “sacred image of the same” expected in a voice.

absences as political

My ear is an acoustic universe sending and receiving.
My ear also sounds Where are the receivers for these tiny, mysterious signals?

— Pauline Oliveros

Listening is considered one of the principal perceptual relationships humans have with the world (Fluegge, 2011). It is not a passive experience, there is a constant circulation of information with information about space, people, objects and momentary changes flooding in from all directions (Fluegge, 2011). The voices in Canto Cardenche turn the inhumane treatment experience of the day to day into a healing process (Matthew, 2018). However as Mala Annamma Mathew mentions, music is not a reliever, rather an expression for healing whose narrative is constructed through the collective trauma (2018). Healing becomes a praxis that challenges western oppressions and notions of the linkages of the psychological and the physical  when it involves the use of social/collective and spiritual/psychological healing (Zavala, 2017).

In the case of Canto Cardenche is a strategy for community self-determination, a space of recovery from historical trauma in which people come together to rebuild themselves through vulnerability. The act of remembering is a vehicle in Canto Cardenche songs for communities to understand not just the violence of past oppressions, but as an act to root themselves in the place and where they come from. The collective aspect of Canto Cardenche that comes alive when more than two persons join their voices reconnects the community to the land.

[white noise]



             [canto cardenche]

In Canto Cardenche, silence is not a gap, but rather an accompanied arrangement to the voices. John Cage claimed that even in great absence of sound, he was able to hear two light tones: the pounding of his heart and his blood streaming through his head. Silence is not an absence of sound (Miller, 2007), silence reconfigures listening as a discontinuous and non-linear act (Lunberry, 2012). Silence is complicity. Silence is always a social process, involving different actions and agencies. This means that silence does not refer to something totally absent in the social sphere, but rather to the absence of narration.

However, if the lyrics are political, then so is their absence. If instrumental accompaniment is social, then so is the lack of it. If music is ascension and aesthetic experience; or narrative, a story we wrap around ourselves; then so is the precarity of it. Absences are political in Canto Cardenche, what is expected but later met with the omission. When there is nothing material to own, your voice is what you have left. Music created in spaces of oppression are called songs of urgency (Melnick, 1999). Just as blues, Cardenche was an escape for their singers to overcome the different forms of human rights abuse they were going through. Canto Cardenche took full force during the late XIX century, when the last years of the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz as president of Mexico came to an end and company stores exploited their workers through perpetual debt.

Polyphonic voices as maps of belonging

Polyphonic is a type of musical texture that embodies a prominent sonic ontology, as well as offering unconventional dimensions of registering a new “being-in-listening” (Ghosh, 2017). Elen Fluegge and Jean Luc Nancy agreed on the concept “being-in-listening”(Hainge, 2017) as a closer way to be approaching the self, meaning “to be in listening is to be at the same time outside and inside” (Hainge, 2017), to be open from without and from within. The very nature of musical polyphony is communal and public because of its sonic character (Ghosh, 2017). Canto Cardenche has the possibility of bringing people together into harmony with their environment through an immersive experience in which the variety of voices having a significant role at the same time, a sound-bath of sorts.

Through songs, indigenous people have traced their experiences and relationships with their land over centuries. For example, Temiar people of the Malaysian rainforest have highlighted that people from this region “sing their maps” mediating and mapping their relationships with the land through songs. In other words, Fernández-Llamazares (2019) explains, “they map through songs their epistemology of song composition and performance; in a melodically manner, as contours of pitch and phrasing; textually, in placing names weighted with memory”.

To this extent, if applied Fernández-Llamazares framework of “singing their maps”, one could say, Canto Cardenche sings their maps of belonging by transforming the song in soundwalks of their landscape tracing the deep cultural attachment to their lands. For example, in the song “La Noche Llegará”, which a fragment of the lyrics can be read below, the song is a detailed description of their landscape, depicting valleys, sidewalks.  Moreover, the use of polyphonic voices captures the social tensions in which songs powerfully invoke the visual and sonic soundscape of the northern region.

voy caminando muy despacito por la vereda.
La noche negra se esta acercando la estoy sintiendo;
bajo la sombra de un viejo arbusto descansaré.
De pronto duermo y estoy soñando que estoy volando por fin en libertad, soy golondrina surcando el viento sobre los valles en que nací, la noche llegará, y yo descansaré bajo la luna, la noche llegará y no terminara, yo dormiré.
Soy solecito que con mis rayos caliento el polvo y ahora soy vendaval, soy un oasis en el desierto y así seré lo que siempre fui. La noche llegará y yo descansaré bajo la luna, la noche llegará y no terminara, yo moriré.

[Translation to english]

I walk very slowly on the sidewalk.
The black night is approaching I am feeling it; I will rest under the shade of an old bush.
Suddenly I sleep and I am dreaming that I am finally flying free, I am a swallow furrowing the wind over the valleys where I was born, the night will come, and I will rest under the moon, the night will come and not end, I will sleep. I am lonely that with my rays I warm the dust and now I am gale, I am an oasis in the desert and thus I will be what I always was. The night will come and I will rest under the moon, the night will come and will not end, I will die.

Masculinities: language and landscape

“Language is a male discourse”, Gloria Anzaldúa contends about the culture in which she grew up (Anzaldua, 1987). Her chicana upbringing was influenced by spanish language, especially north mexican dialect, a language that even in its neutral form preserves its masculine version of the words. The language itself promotes the idea that women can only relate to each other through the medium of men. Canto Cardenche has in most of it existence being a male dominated musical style, with romantic songs directed to the love or heartbreak of woman, Canto Cardenche is constructed through a male gaze, depicting women through the men’s words, that has shaped the identity of the “norteño” identity and the imaginary of the northern landscape and visually positions the role of women in the northern region of Mexico as an object of romantic desire.

The hetero male cis vocabularies and metaphors for sound get reproduced within the field of music (Lentjes, 2014), as Canto Cardenche’s cultural continuity has been through oral transmission and exclusively to family members of male performs to their male children. The repetition and reproduction of these songs through a majority of male singers strengthen the boundaries of to whom Canto Cardenche was meant to be sung by. Household gendered dynamics have the power dictating the control and interpretation of our environment, therefore transforming certain musical endeavors as segregated auditory spaces (Lentjes, 2016). During the earliest years of Canto Cardenche, men dominated (and continue to do so) the public space, possessing more rights to navigate through these spaces where Canto Cardenche was performed regularly. In contrast, private spaces, such as households were designated places for women, here women learned from Canto Cardenche as indirect listeners by overhearing their parents and friends sing these songs (Romero, 2014).

From a sonic perspective, Rebecca Lentjes introduced the concept of “sonic patriarchy” as the control of a sound in a gendered manner, the dominance of gendered bodies through sound. It can also be heard in the gendering of sound, which is the assignment of male or female voices to words (2019). Anniruddh Patel (2008) argues, composers tend to be unconsciously influenced by the sounds of their language when creating music. The relations are linked mainly to syntax. Patel’s research has further the notion of land, language and music, specifically songs, are connected by historically tracing back their relationships. Research has linked that the way language is used for depicting landscape, provides information about cultural heritage, ecosystem services, as well as aspects of sense of identity and belonging (Wartmann and Purves, 2018).

Nadia Romero (2014) mentions, beyond depicting the struggles of love in some of the Cardenche songs, the Cardenche song embeds the “rules of the game” by encoding a vast collection of advice and learnings from family and elders, for instance the consequences of good and bad decisions and the social and moral responsibilities inside the community. For many families, Canto Cardenche functioned as a moral model for the northern families where the ultimate goal is to follow ancestral traditions of marriage and family. Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares (2019) states that music is a “a timeless prism for looking at human-nature interrelations” and Canto Cardenche is a repository of interactions and past engagements within a community. As with language, music is properly not a characteristic of individuals but of communities, evidenced not just in individual cognitions and behaviors but in inter‐individual interactions that may especially involve entertainment of action and interaction (Cross, 2013).

Beyond preservation and documentation

Music allows us to travel to other cognitive territories that those in power disregard, making visible the invisible. It facilitates communication beyond words among humans and non-human beings that inhabit their worlds (Loui et al. 2017; Mithen 2007).  Every person comes with their own worlds and the 3 range voices in Canto Cardenche highlight the individuality of each voice, each one with a different texture, range conveying the historical, spiritual meaning of places. Songs function as a reservoir of vast ethnobiological knowledge (Fernández-Llamazares, 2019; Herrero and Cardaño 2015; Mekbib 2009) building, maintaining and mobilizing the intimate relationships communities have with their local ecologies. Canto Cardenche with more than two centuries alive had its first recording made until 1978 as an effort of the National Institute of Anthropology in Mexico to preserve in its official Sound Library (INAH, 1978). Current singers inherited the Canto Cardenche from their grandparents and parents. "Our parents sang around a hundred songs and we could only rescue an approximate fifty."  (Secretaría de Cultura, 2016).

A recent revival and visibility of Canto Cardenche has strengthened the plans of cultural preservation, stewardship and identity in the north of Mexico. Although, there are contemporary efforts to bring Canto Cardenche to welcome a diverse range of performers, such as Coro Acardenchado, as a project initiated by Juan Pablo Villa, a mexican composer whose work centers on vocal improvisation, jazz, free jazz and chamber music. The Coro Cardenche approach to the traditional Canto Cardenche is through contemporary arrangements to some of the songs of the traditional Cardenche repertoire.

The arrangements include the use of live looping, free improvisation, sound landscape and body percussion. Another project is the Mujeres Cardencheras, a Durango based all-women group mostly focused on singing religious songs in the style of Cardenche with the aim to keep alive the Cardenche tradition and encourage women to practice the Cardenche tradition.

Younger generations have leaned in new forms of musical creation influenced by western lifestyled, thus, weakening the intergeneration networks that passed the the Cardenche songs, the memory carriers of the northern region. In order to develop cultural continuity, Canto Cardenche needs to adapt the knowledge and life lessons that carry their songs in today’s changing environments. Canto Cardenche will die with the older generations, unless, strategies beyond documentation and preservation are needed to revitalize the social cultural contexts in which Canto Cardenche is performed.

Although the surroundings and landscape of the northern mexican region have changed since the 19th century, the systems that construct the current socio-environmental landscape remain intact in Mexico. Hierarchies have become more complex but the entanglements of class keep dictating the survival and music continues to have a key role in interweaving knowledge and emotion to develop spaces of reflection and ignite action towards the recognition of the environment.  The role of preserving and bringing the knowledge of Canto Cardenche into present times lays in the potential to bring new perceptions of the environment and unlock conceptualizations of nature-culture relations that detach from western concepts.

Music in the form of traditional songs as Canto Cardenche embed systems of knowledge, unspoken social norms and the expression of local cultural worldviews. The continuation of Canto Cardenche in its “purest form” functions as a repository of knowledge that could be adapted and take new names, forms and sounds. Reclaiming Canto Cardenche could be considered another manner of healing in which local communities carry on sharing knowledge intergenerationally.


Throughout this paper, I have applied an understanding of Canto Cardenche as a musical style encoding a powerful repository of ethnobiological knowledge and histories through a social justice, biocultural lens. Canto Cardenche comes from the innate human need to expel pain through our voices. Moreover, a sonic perspective on the Canto Cardenche is explored as the embodiment of soundscapes of internalized identities and the natural communal and public agency of the polyphony musical texture.  When exploring how language weaves Canto Cardenche narratives by reinforcing gendered relationships and the social norms that excluded women from participating in these activities as performers but remained objects of within the songs. How Such is the irony of this exclusion, since the birth of Canto Cardenche was from the exclusionary practices against exploited workers and performed in the margins of their public space.

The recent revival and visibility to Canto Cardenche has brought attention for funding its cultural preservation in the north of Mexico. A transgenerational tool that keeps identity alive, and strategy for self-determination of communities might continue evolving if it adapts to the present environment and struggles of Mexico.

Each singer brings to their performance their worlds and each revisits a unique personal memory when interpreting a song. To sing is an act of healing through remembering. Melodies born out of urgency are the ones that transgress the course of history, leaving a mark that builds bridges through generations. In the desert, an environment that is often described as an empty, silent and lonely, Canto Cardenche breaks these perceptions with a raw crack of a voice that unlocks histories and stories and a rooted sense of belonging interconnected to the relations that take place within these environments.


Author Aleyda Rocha Sepulveda acknowledges Raymudo Rocha Montoya for infusing music into her daily life and Los Cardencheros de Sapioriz for keeping alive one of the most powerful, honest and unpretentious forms of music ever encountered.


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