Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

First Listen: Pasatono Orquesta, 'Maroma'

Pasatono Orquesta's new album, <em>Maroma</em>, comes out on May 20.
Courtesy of the artist
Pasatono Orquesta's new album, Maroma, comes out on May 20.

They had me at "vintage Mexican circus music." Maroma, the new album by the roots band Pasotono Orquesta, is dedicated to music of the one-man circuses — known as maroma — that traveled in rural Mexico during the late 19th century. The big-tent circuses, or carpas, were pared down to a single clown who had to tell jokes, juggle, perform light acrobatics and even recite poetry.

Half of the music on Maroma draws on the works that indigenous village string bands would play as accompaniment; the rest consists of new compositions by Pasotono's artistic director, Ruben Luengas. African and European influences made their way into maroma music, as well as hints of Dixieland jazz and even tunes that might have been heard in Hungarian gypsy caravans. All of the above would then get mixed with polkas, paso dobles, danzones and mambos as part of a true melting pot.

The group itself is a cultural treasure. For more than a decade, Pasotono Orquesta has been rescuing Mexican folk music and reinterpreting it with a modern bent from the perspective of "21st-century Oaxacans." The band members are academics, serious students of Mexican folk and modern music, as well as entertainers. Luengas adds elements of what he calls "Mextacanhaiku," a reflection of his interest in minimalism, the tonality of Mixtec language and environmental sounds.

Clearly, Maroma offers plenty to chew on, but all I had to hear was the sound of that amazing Mexican circus music. Come hang out under Pasotono Orquesta's big tent, and you'll know what I mean.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.