Once upon a time there was a 19-year-old boy who left his home in Mexico to become a linotypist in New Orleans, but he found music instead. He went back to his country to create an artistic opus—innocent in appearance, but imbued with shrewd social observation—that should be declared as national heritage.
The name is Francisco Gabilondo Soler, also known as “Cri-Cri,” his artistic moniker (a French vocable for “cricket”). He wrote more than 200 songs that several generations of Mexican children grew up with, from the days when radio was king to the era of CDs and streaming.
On The XEW
Francisco, a total unknown, rose to fame in 1934 on the XEW radio station in Mexico City, when he was introduced in this manner on October 15: “And now let’s hear pianist Francisco Gabilondo who is going to play some of his own stuff.” Nervous in front of the microphone, sitting at the same piano that Agustín Lara used at the station, he started to sing something unusual for those times—three ditties for the very young.
The first was about a bad-tempered fountain stream, the second about Francisco´s own grandmother’s wardrobe, and the third about a king made of chocolate. It was a wild bet by the XEW.
Two weeks later the program was a surprising success. The segment got a sponsor and, at the suggestion of a friend, Francisco Gabilondo introduced Cri-Cri, an imaginary cricket whose adventures were told between songs. The experiment that had been planned for a couple of months lasted for almost three decades. With only a brief intermission during WWII, Cri Cri’s radio program on XEW lasted from 1934 to 1961. His albums continued to be broadcast during the following decades.
More Than Just Music For Children
Francisco Gabilondo Soler, bullfighter, amateur astronomer and songwriter, did not precisely possess great singing abilities, but he did have a voice of great expressiveness, a natural melodic capacity and impressive narrative skills.
His inexhaustible imagination, versatileness, use of metaphor and satire could also position him as a literary craftsman. His universe was as vast as the world he set out to explore, made up of dolls that became alive when everyone else was sleeping, pigeons that went to church, noisy neighborhood cats, unhappy ugly dolls, and hotheaded gringo cowboy mice.
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Cri-Cri’s songs feature the things that were familiar to Mexicans and Latinos for generations: grannies with wardrobes full of treasures; small town fountains with streams going up and down that bathe the ants on the road; the seven o’clock supper with a glass of warm milk. His compositions are also an album of old trades of Mexico, now almost extinguished: the ropavejero or man who asks for used clothes door to door, the potter, the healer, the shoe cobbler, the aguamielero or ambulant honey-wine seller.
Portrait Of Mexican Society
Cri Cri’s songs are often seen as sweet and sentimentalistic pieces, but he’s more like a witty social commentator. Gabilondo compares elderly single women to stubborn donkeys (Mi burrita) and describes a priest as a “pot-bellied penguin” (El casamiento de los palomos); Americans, like the cowboy mouse (El ratón vaquero), are big-footed, crafty, and resort to arms at the first provocation; newlyweds about to get married are “innocent looking white doves” and children going to their first day of school are like animals that, fortunately, will encounter books.
In the exquisite El comal y la olla, a dialogue filled with double entendre, a griddle for tortillas and a pot fight over their honor and good reputation—the former is horny and male; the latter is fat and female.
There also seems to be an insistent complaint in his songs for the abysmal differences between the rich and the poor and the latent racism in Mexican society.
Like Pogo, the famous cartoon by Walt Kelly, Gabilondo´s innocent-looking characters comment on the human condition and exert social criticism: the dark jicote who wants to marry a haughty and pretty bee is revolutionary, progressive, knows about laws (“according to the laws of this country we are all equal”), is intoxicated by socialist ideals (“and here I thought that ours was a classless society, but it seems I was wrong” ) but he can’t do anything, because the snobbish queen bee refuses to accept the love of a “dark-skinned and chubby” insect.
During an interview in 1984, Gabilondo admitted that his characters were based on real people. The duck-lady in La patita was inspired by a woman he saw in a market in Mexico City complaining about food prices. The song talks about a housewife who is abandoned by a crooked husband, and finds herself in such poverty that she cannot buy clothes for the children and, when hunger rages, she suggests the kids to eat mosquitoes.
Window To Yesteryear’s Mexico
Like all great stories, Cri-Cri’s songs make his listeners compassionate and aware of the inner life of others: the cuckoo feels nervous and bitter; the ugly doll feels abandoned and is afraid that someone will notice her; the ducks in music theory class are fed up with school, and the young piggy is worried about her mother´s safety.
True, a few of his songs would not pass the filters of political correctness these days, but these are the exceptions. Most of Cri-Cri´s tales are delightful windows to yesterday´s Mexico, a distant country already covered with a fine dust and smelling of watermelons, castor oil, nougat and quelite soup.
We would do a favor to our kids by introducing them to Francisco Gabilondo´s songs, especially his more melodic and inventive earlier material. After all, as he once sang, “children of these times / the same old stories / like to hear.”