Juan Reynoso Portillo
Mexican violinist Juan Reynoso Portillo, 94, died peacefully in his home in Riva Palacio, Michoacán on January 18. He had been in ill health for some time, though as recently as March of 2006, he was able to teach daily lessons. He played well at the wedding of one of his sons and at his 94th birthday party later that same year, but in recent months he was unable to play and was confined to his hammock and bed.
Born in Ancón de Santo Domingo, Guerrero on June 24, 1912, Juan never had the opportunity to attend school. The Mexican Revolution was still raging around him, and mothers, including Juan's, would sometimes hide their children from rampaging armed groups by placing them in the chimneys of their homes. In this chaotic world Juan grew up, mesmerized by the violin from the age of five or six. Small for his age, he became known as "Juan El Guache," or Juan the Kid. His father would take him to places where people congregated, offering ”res por cinco,” or three violin pieces for five centavos.
In those days there were no paved roads, and as Juan got older he was forced to walk for hours, sometimes days, to get to an engagement. He walked to lessons too, with his main teacher Isaías Salmerón Pastenes in Tlapehuala, Guerrero. Sometimes he would take a boat across the Rio Balsas to study with members of the illustrious Tavira family in Corral Falso. He learned not only from violinists but also from horn players and singers, absorbing music like a sponge.
He never learned to read and write music, though he was a fine composer, and only learned to read and write a little Spanish as an adult. However, with his keen ear, high musical standards, dogged persistence and incredible memory, he rose to the very top of the musical world of Tierra Caliente. In this region, straddling parts of the states of Guerrero, Michoacán, and the state of México, the music is sophisticated, quite varied, highly intense and extremely demanding.
Juan was without a doubt the finest player of his generation, and one of the finest Calentano musicians of all time. I am honored beyond words to have had the chance to study with him for ten years. His music will without a doubt live on, both through his many recordings and through transcriptions and arrangements of his work.