In the mid 1990s, a young student at the National University of Mexico went in search of a very old instrument in the mountains of the southern state of Oaxaca. Today, he's become a leading force in the revival of the instrument, called the bajo quinto, and the music played on it.

Betto Arcos has his story.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Ruben Luengas was working on a research project at the National School of Music in Mexico City in 1995. He wanted to focus on the music of his hometown, in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca. So he asked his 97-year-old grandmother to tell him about the music played at her wedding.


RUBEN LUENGAS: (Through Translator) She tells me, it was played on violin and bajo. That's what they played at the parties. I imagined an upright bass. Then I thought an electric bass? So I asked her if she could describe the bajo to me. I had no idea what she was talking about.


ARCOS: The bajo quinto looks like an oversized acoustic guitar, with five courses of doubled steel strings. It's played with a pick, with an emphasis on the bass strings. But Luengas did not know any of this. So, he went to his professor who invited him to his studio and showed him a collection of more than 15 bajo quintos from the States of Puebla, Morelos and Guerrero, but none from Oaxaca.

LUENGAS: (Through Translator) He said to me, this is the bajo quinto. I was speechless. I became captivated by the instrument. So I asked my teacher, where can I get one? And my teacher says, you have to go find it and learn how to play it. It's part of your tradition. He gave me a whole lecture on it.

ARCOS: And he demonstrated.


ARCOS: That teacher was Guillermo Contreras who's still a professor and researcher at Mexico's National School of Music.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish)

ARCOS: He says the bajo quinto likely evolved from the Italian baroque guitar, called chitarra battente, brought to Mexico during the Colonial period.



GUILLERMO CONTRERAS: Chitarra battente is very similar to the bajo quinto because it have five course of strings, 10 strings in total, metal strings, and the body is very similar. Its big body, large neck, and I suppose that the bajo quinto have the origin in the chitarra battente.

ARCOS: Contreras says in the mid to late 1800s, a German music store had branches all over Mexico, including one in Oaxaca. He's also found evidence of instrument builders there.

CONTRERAS: In Oaxaca, there were two important centers for building musical instruments: Coicoyan in the Mixteca and Oaxaca City.

ARCOS: It was that first town, Coicoyan de las Flores, that ethnomusicologist Ruben Luengas' grandmother had told him about. She and just about everybody else said it was a dangerous place and advised him not to go. But one day, he mustered the courage and took off to the tiny, hard-to-reach town, deep in the Mixtec Mountains.

Luengas says that as soon as he arrived, he had the odd feeling he was going back in time. A colleague at the university had given him her grandfather's contact. By that point, he says everything seemed pre-arranged.

LUENGAS: (Through Translator) My friend's grandfather told one of his workers to take me to the luthier's house. We went down a very deep ravine, then up a hill. I knocked on a little wooden house and out comes a man, about 80 years old. He speaks very little Spanish. I told him I was there to get a bajo quinto. He didn't say anything. He turned around and got a brand new instrument he just finished for whoever needed it. And he said he was waiting for me. That day completely changed my life.

ARCOS: Ruben Luengas is now one of the leading bajo quinto players in Oaxaca. He's formed several groups to showcase the instrument, including an eight-piece band, Pasatono Orquesta, modeled after the traditional Mixtec orchestras of the 1920s.


ARCOS: Luengas says That luthier he met in Coicoyan has died. Nobody there learned his secrets; his respect for the trees, the music, and all the mysticism that goes with the craft of making the bajo quinto.

LUENGAS: (Through Translator) But the truth is, it's not dead. I had the opportunity to learn from him. Now, I'm reproducing his bajo quinto models, his singular style. And as long as I'm here, I'm not going to let it die.

ARCOS: Ruben Luengas says he now has the responsibility to pass on the tradition. He just needs to find apprentices who want to learn it.

For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.


WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.


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