Nicolas Lell Benavides
Photo by Karli Cadel
Nicolas Lell Benavides is a composer and conductor living in Los Angeles, CA. His music and writing focus on his Nuevomejicano roots and upbringing.
I didn’t know it at the time, but writing this piece was hugely important for me. I had tried, and failed, to write New Mexican pieces before this, but this was the first one that felt like it had my fingerprints all over it instead of a cheap imitation. This piece, and the passing of my grandfather, taught me that culture is a practice, not a goal. It isn’t something you file away and revisit years later, it’s something you cultivate and grow. Writing this piece felt true to me as a New Mexican, and an American, because I was done trying to be somebody I wasn’t, and I began to realize that I needed to work on things that were relevant to me and my experience in the world.
I’ve had the great privilege of studying at amazing institutions with wonderful mentors, but I spent most of my time (against their advice) trying to be them. No matter how wonderful somebody is, what I realized is when you try and copy them, what you’re trying to copy is the experience of their ancestors. Though not impossible, it’s culture building in a condensed time frame, not unlike assimilation. Aaron Copland wrote music that brings me to tears, but who’s to say he’s the only composer worthy of being called American? Why can’t my ancestors – beautiful, persevering, flawed – be my inspiration as an American? The collection of experiences that have led to my existence, and my skills, could have only precisely happened here in the United States. Their history, our history, is older than the United States itself. I remember growing up and learning about American history in high school, and I was struck by how Northeast focused it was. I read about Boston, New York, Philadelphia, but never Albuquerque, El Paso, or Santa Fe where my family has lived for hundreds, likely thousands of years. Generations of future Americans fought, loved, and died over land, treaties, and representation. Latino culture is indigenous culture that frequently forgets its indigenous roots, and that forgetting is because of forced assimilation over many generations from outside as well as within. Beans and corn didn’t come from the Iberian Peninsula, that’s for sure. I had ancestors who spoke Spanish and because of them I can as well, yes, but we as New Mexicans also have ancestors who spoke Tewa, now only spoken by 1,000 or fewer individuals. Blood may tell us where we come from, but it tells us nothing about how we came to be.
Knowledge is fragile. Like the Library of Alexandria, what seems permanent can be easily taken for granted, and each generation is forced to make a choice of what to prioritize. I can’t undo the generational wounds that have forced living New Mexicans to forget the cultural sacrifices our predecessors underwent to allow us to exist, but I can make a choice as an individual to throw another log on the fire that is my cultural practice. Forgetting is easy, it’s remembering that takes work. The best I can hope to do is engage in conversation with those closest to me. When I’m guided by my elders, what I make will be truly New Mexican. When I eschew their contributions to my life, I’m making choices for my children as well who will never know any different.
If I want future generations to have access to the beauty that I enjoy in this life, then I need to personally contribute to my culture. That doesn’t mean what I make will be unamerican, rather, what I make will be all the more American for it.
Rinconcito gets its name from one of my mother’s favorite songs: Rinconcito en el Cielo by Ramón Ayala. As a kid I always loved the idea of there being a little corner of heaven that one could visit with a friend or lover. Of course, as I grew older it dawned on me that the lyrics had a much more adult meaning! However, the image of there being a secret corner in the sky for friends has never left me. Though I don’t use any of the music from Ayala’s beautiful song, this piece is about ancestors in the way I imagined it as a child.
Rinconcito is about a meeting place for the dead and the living. My Grandpa Garcia, an
accordionist who taught me to play rancheras and corridos as a kid, used to tell me that music
is the only thing that people in heaven and people on earth share. When I was young, I imagined one could make music with the ancestors in heaven. This work takes elements of traditional New Mexican music but reconfigures them and distills them to the point of sometimes being unrecognizable.
The piece opens up atmospherically, like an unsteady first contact, before a level of rapport is established and the themes intermingle effortlessly. Before long the piece leaps into a fast dance, using common features of Southwestern music, and then the slower, atmospheric music returns, with the ancestors saying goodbye for now.
The work is inspired by my upbringing in New Mexico and my two grandfathers, one of whom passed away recently: Gilbert Benavides (1929-2018) and Eddie Garcia (1933-). They were and are as New Mexican as New Mexican can be and served as a strong cultural connection to the old way of life in the Land of Enchantment. As I have one grandparent left, I’ve become painfully aware of the fragility of our connection to the past and the need to actively maintain it. Each new generation inherits this link, and I hope through music like this to play my part in preserving it. Though I have until now infrequently looked inward toward my own culture for inspiration, I’ve very much enjoyed the process and hope that this is the beginning of a new series of pieces where I explore the theme of what it means to be New Mexican.