Today, on this highest of holy days to Catholics, I recall the deeply resonant sounds of the ancient spiritual hymns known as alabados. Recognizing the value and importance of recording these spiritual praises and other musical and religious traditions, folklorist and linguist Dr. Juan B. Rael returned home in the summer of 1940 and recorded the voices of fifteen men and four women from villages in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, including these deeply spiritual hymns.
Listening to the alabados in moradas, oratorios and churches are a special experience, one that I had the privilege being a part of many times over since my youth. These hymns are often deeply sorrowful and for all the participants are meant to evoke a deep understanding of the sufferings of Christ.
For those that sing them as well as those around them, the alabados are profoundly meaningful and significant to their sense of faith and identity. To be keepers of this literary and spiritual tradition is a role long held by the Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, the Penitente Brotherhood. For centuries, these guardians have kept the repertory of these hymns alive in cuadernos, but also in a living practice that, though challenged by modern life, continues to this day.
A native of Arroyo Hondo, in Taos County, Dr. Juan B. Rael was himself a community-grown scholar, a role that though still unique for manitos was even more rare in the early 20th century. Mentored by another manito, Stanford Professor Aurelio M. Espinosa, Rael would go on to become a distinguished linguist and folklorist. In 1940, Rael was drawn home, where be would sit down and record the voices of elders sharing these traditions.
This remarkable effort represented one of the first significant moves to document these traditions and resulted in 8 hours of audio recordings, where the alabados represent half the collection.
The men that were recorded by Dr. Rael included Ricardo Archuleta of Cerro; José Ignacio Cantú of Manassa, Colorado; Alfredo Romero of Arroyo Hondo; Luis Montoya of Cerro; and brothers Esequiel and Narciso Arellano of Arroyo Hondo. A sampling of what was shared in 1940 are below:
On August 9, 1940 in Cerro, New Mexico 70 year old Luis Montoya and 70 year old Ricardo Archuleta shared the alabado Padre Jesus Nazareno (Father Jesus Nazarene). In Rael’s notes of the recording, he writes, “This hymn deals mostly with the Crucifixion of Our Lord and the suffering of the Virgin during the Passion.
On August 11, 1940 in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, 50 year old Alfredo Romero shared the alabado “Dios te salve, Dolorosa.” In Rael’s notes, he writes of this hymn, “This alabado, an invocation as well as a hymn of farewell to the Virgin, is sung at vigils and wakes, usually after the rosary is recited.”
On July 30, 1940 in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, 46 year old Narciso Arellano shared the alabado “Lloren pecadores” In Rael’s notes, he writes, “This alabado is sung after the seizure of Our Lord by the Roman soldiers, during the procession on Good Friday. It covers most of the events of the Passion.”
On August 9, 1940 in Cerro, New Mexico, 70 year old Luis Montoya shared the alabado “A la muerte, pecador.” In Rael’s notes, he writes, “This alabado is usually sung at wakes for the dead.”
On July 30, 1940 in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico 46 year old Narciso Arellano shared the alabado “Madre de Dolores (Mother of Sorrows).”
On August 7, 1940 in Manassa, Colorado, 72 year old José Ignacio Cantú shared Dulcisimo Jesús mío (My Sweetest Jesus). In Rael’s notes, he writes, “This hymn makes reference to an image of Christ, El Cristo de Mapimí, which is enshrined in the town of Cuencamé, in the state of Durango, Mexico.”
On August 11, 1940, 50 year old Alfredo Romero and 46 year old Narciso Arellano jointly shared “Soy esclavo de Jesús (I am a Slave of Jesus).”
On July 30, 1940 40 year old Esequiel Arellano of Arroyo Hondo shared the alabado “Jesucristo me acompañe.” In Rael’s notes, he writes, “The first part of this hymn contains a series of contemplations on different incidents that occurred during the Passion of Our Lord. The last four strophes contain expressions of farewell and thanks to Our Lord, the Virgin, and St. Joseph. The hymn is sung during the afternoon procession on Holy Thursday.”