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Angel Tavira Maldonado, 1924 - 2008

Mexican violinist, actor promoted son calentano music

July 05, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Angel Tavira Maldonado, a Mexican regional musician whose stirring debut acting performance in "El Violin" ("The Violin") moved audiences and won critical acclaim, including a best actor award at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, died Monday in a Mexico City hospital. He was 83.

He died of kidney problems, a representative of the company that co-produced "El Violin" told the Associated Press.

A violinist and composer of son calentano, a spry, soulful style of music native to the Tierra Caliente ("Hot Lands") region that straddles the Mexican states of Guerrero and Michoacan, Tavira never had acted before director Francisco Vargas Quevedo cast him as the main character in "El Violin."

In the movie, he played Don Plutarco Hidalgo, a farmer and fiddle player secretly supporting a guerrilla peasant revolt against the Mexican government. The movie was widely regarded in Mexico as one of the most socially trenchant films to be made in recent years.

Numerous critics singled out Tavira's performance as the stoic, taciturn, one-handed musician for its authenticity and persuasiveness. A reviewer for the Guardian of London described Tavira as "a natural star of the screen."

Like his character in "El Violin," Tavira was firmly rooted in the rich traditional culture of his birthplace.

Born in the town of Corralfalso on July 3, 1924, he was raised in a musical family, the grandson of a calentano harpist. Encouraged by his family, he learned to play violin, guitar and bass, and began to study music in school. Later, he took classes at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City.

As a youth, Tavira lost his right hand, reportedly in a fireworks accident during a saint's feast day. But he learned to master his chosen instrument by using a strap to connect his bow to the stump of his hand, the same technique he demonstrated in the movie.

Tavira began his musical career playing in bands and also recorded music and taught it to schoolchildren. He became a strong advocate for maintaining the traditions of calentano musicianship established by such masters of the form as Juan Reynoso Portillo. In his 60s, Tavira began studying musical notation at the Music Conservancy of Morelia in Michoacan, partly so he could help preserve the region's artistic patrimony.

Tavira's turn as an actor happened by serendipity. He met Vargas while the director was filming a documentary about calentano music. Tavira "was in front of our noses for four years, and I didn't realize it," Vargas told The Times in an interview last year.

Eventually, Vargas realized he had the perfect actor to play Don Plutarco and cast Tavira in the role, for which he won a best actor award at the 59th Cannes Film Festival, among other honors.

Tavira, who was married with four children and two stepchildren, became active in regional politics in the late 1980s, when Mexico was seething over a disputed presidential election. He recently had filmed a minor part in another movie, "La Morenita."

"It's an important loss because, as we all know, Don Angel was an indefatigable fighter for the music of his unforgettable region," Vargas told a Mexican interviewer this week. "Nevertheless, all the work that he did is not in vain, and I hope that his pupils continue in this same fight in order that all the work he did over a long time is recovered and known."

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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