The canto Cardenche may be best described as agony made song. Sung a cappella in groups of three this traditional Mexican music is the kind that’s been shared from generation to generation. When hearing it, it can still conjure the pain of its singers, as well as the pain of the forebearers that first shared it with them. It takes the name of a cactus whose thorn — like love, the Cardenche singers note — goes in too easily but hurts like hell to take out. Long a regional staple, the canto Cardenche just got a dazzling new documentary that features heartbreaking musical performances that capture why this howl of a singing technique is so unique. A morir a los desiertos premiered at the Los Cabos Film Festival where its director and two of the subjects in the film offered audiences some insight into the making of this musical doc.
Spanish director Marta Ferrer first stumbled upon the canto Cardenche when a friend sent her a YouTube video. “I listened to it and I teared up,” she shared. “It really struck home, touched my soul, really. I feel that it’s a type of music, a type of singing, that either grabs you or it doesn’t. There’s no middle road here.”
That night, she found herself dreaming about those mouths singing those songs. That’s how much the canto Cardenche had touched Ferrer, who became obsessed with it and ended up saving some money to travel to Mexico to shoot a documentary about it. Once she got to Sapioriz and she heard the canto in person, she knew she had the kind of project she’d always dreamed of. In fact, those dreams became the opening images of the documentary. A morir a los desiertos begins with a number of Cardenche singers from Sapioriz serenading the camera, except we’re only offered very close shots of their mouths, as if Ferrer only wanted you to focus on the songs and not be distracted by the landscapes or even any kind of facial expressions. It’s pure song.
Part music doc, parth ethnography, and part history lesson, Ferrer’s approach is to let the songs and the singers tell their own stories. Lovingly shooting the aging singers as well as the dust-filled landscapes in rural Mexico, she lets her camera linger (on train tracks, on factory workers) so that the still shots narrow your focus, letting your eye wander to capture the beauty of these well-worn houses and world-weary singers.
The documentary is driven, as Ferrer shared, by one question: Where does this beautiful agony come from? “Searching and searching I began to learn about the history of these communities—their fathers and grandfathers were workers in the cotton fields here. I ended up understanding that this singing was a reflection of the state of their souls, of an entire community. It reflected a particular history, of a specific social context.”
She traces that history in candid conversations that take place against the near-inhospitable landscapes of Sapioriz where her subjects point out how singing was a reprieve from the hard labor many of the local workers had to endure. “I was interested in song as a kind of catharsis,” said Ferrer, “a relief as it were. A sigh. A venting off.” And rather than just tell you, she shows you, with many a song rendition sprinkled throughout the doc.
And while it may speak to a specific region and a very unique singing tradition, Ferrer was clear that she wanted the film to amplify larger questions about why it is we create art. Ultimately, she agreed, “it’s a documentary about the need to express ourselves.”
The Los Cabos Film Festival Q&A took place in Spanish and has been translated by the author for Remezcla.