Angel Tavira: One-handed fiddler in 'The Violin'

Angel Tavira will be remembered as the wizened, one-handed octogenarian fiddler in the acclaimed 2005 Mexican film El Violin, also known as The Violin. He was 81 at the time and had never acted before, but in a sense he barely had to, for in real life, he was a wizened, one-handed octogenarian fiddler. In any case, his performance won him Best Actor award, in the specialist Un Certain Regard section, at the 2006 Cannes film festival. He was on a flight back to Mexico when the award was announced.

Tavira was a regional musician, latterly dedicated to preserving the calentana folk music of the Tierra Caliente, or "hot lands", of Guerrero and Michoacá*in south-west Mexico, when he came to the notice of the filmmaker Francisco Vargas in the late 1990s. Tavira had been playing violin, as well as guitar, saxophone and double bass, since he was six but had blown his right hand off at the age of 13 while trying to launch a rocket on his local village saint's day. In 2002, Vargas, moved by the way Tavira had learnt to play again by strapping the bow to his stump, made a documentary, Tierra Caliente, about his life and his efforts to keep calentana music from dying out.

The director then realised that Tavira could be the perfect man to play Don Plutarco Hidalgo, the lead role in the director's first feature film, El Violin, the story of an old man, his son and his grandson involved in a peasant guerrilla movement against a repressive army. Neither the time frame nor location are ever mentioned but there is a powerful sense of Mexican-ness, not least because of the accents, and the writer/director was clearly influenced by the guerrilla movement in Guerrero and elsewhere in Mexico in the 1970s and the Zapatista uprising, led by subcomandante Marcos, in the state of Chiapas in the mid-1990s.

Tavira himself lived through the 1970s guerrilla movement and brought this to bear in the film – shot in black-and-white – notably in his relationship with the captain (played by Dagoberto Gama) in charge of the local army unit. The one-armed fiddler charms the ruthless captain with his music, allowing the old man to smuggle buried bullets to the guerrillas daily in his violin case. Tavira steals the film when, sitting around a campfire, he tries to explain the origins of war to his wide-eyed grandson.

Angel Tavira Maldonado was born in the village of Corral Falso, Guerrero, in 1924. By six, he had learnt saxophone from his father, but saved enough – 30 pesos – for his first violin, a rare specimen brought from Mexico City by a family friend. In Vargas's documentary, he described the shock of losing his right hand and of learning how to tie his stump firmly to the bow. "Just seeing myself tied to the bow, I only wanted to cry. I had to practice again and re-learn from scratch."

Until his fame late in life, Tavira led various calentana bands in Guerrero, mostly with family members and usually in the shadow of the music's best-known exponent, the violinist Juan Reynoso, master of the complex stew of indigenous, Spanish, Cuban, South American and other sounds and rhythms. Like Reynoso, Tavira was self-taught and played by ear, but at the ripe old age of 60 he enrolled at the Music Conservatory in Morelia, in the state of Michoacán, to study musical notation so that he could preserve on paper for future generations the sounds that had previously only been in his head.

Phil Davison

Angel Tavira Maldonado, violinist: born Corral Falso, Mexico 3 July 1924; married (four children); died Mexico City 30 June 2008.

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