Friends of the family
Colfax harpist Christine Bonner explores her Berryessa-family roots on Compañeros
In 1846, Jose de los Reyes Berryessa embarked on an arduous trek. In the midst of what became known as the “Bear Flag Revolt,” a conflict tangentially attached to the Mexican-American war that eventually would lead to the annexing of Texas and California by the United States, Berryessa found himself with the once-solid California ground shifting under his feet. His sons had been captured as hostile combatants, and as the patriarch traveled to visit them in prison, he was met by Capt. John C. Fremont and Fremont’s scout, Kit Carson. That meeting ended in Berryessa’s death and a massive political scandal for Fremont.
The following years saw the end of the revolt and a series of false political promises that eventually resulted in the Berryessa land—and the lands of other Mexican rancho owners—being parceled out for the new American settlers. The Berryessa way of life, and the way of life of old Mexico, was at an end.
In many ways, the events of the mid-1800s provide the background to folk harpist Christine Bonner’s music, although the listener might never know it. Indeed, Bonner herself is a direct descendant of the Berryessa family, and that heritage informs her music, giving it a sense of depth that is often absent from the music of other acoustic instrumentalists. From the opening of her new CD, Compañeros, Bonner’s plucked harp notes call out to a lost Mexico, a sense of distance and of time.
But rather than wallowing in the defeat of the past, Bonner’s music looks toward a joyful future. The opening track of Compañeros, “Ode to Juanita,” swiftly segues into a rhythmic dance of moving, Spanish-flavored acoustic instruments that are strongly reminiscent of flamenco. Guitar, acoustic bass, canjon and, of course, harp make darting scale runs to the sounds of hand claps. The effect is not one of sorrow but of joy.
This sense of joy is what Compañeros is ultimately about. As the title suggests, it is a project about friendship and the emotional bonds that tie us all together—at times in the face of great sadness. “It’s Christine’s idea of a celebration,” said Rob Bonner, Christine’s husband and the producer of the CD. “The whole idea of the album is that we would have friends over, have dinner, drink a little wine, and then we’d go down into the studio and record. It was an album made by our friends.”
But don’t think for a moment that the friends of the Bonners are idle passersby. In fact, the musicians represented on Compañeros represent some of the very best acoustic musicians in the area, including Joe Craven and Enrique Coria of the David Grisman Quintet, accordionist Fred Faiella, Gary Campus of the Dead Beats and Bill Edwards of groundbreaking progressive bluegrass group South Loomis Quickstep.
Furthermore, the Bonners themselves represent a kind of self-contained musical powerhouse. Rob was the longtime bassist for South Loomis Quickstep. Daughter Allegra (who also sings on Compañeros) was the leader of local progressive-punk outfit Angora Machinegun and is now working on a solo project.
It is this family element that provided the first push for working on the project. “The music I play is about my connections with my family,” Christine said. “It is a celebration of life, family and friends, and it’s about connecting with history.” Of course, the Bonners found that interest in the CD extended far beyond their own family. “The Compañeros CD sold 1,000 copies in the first month,” Rob said, smiling with obvious pride. “Just from word of mouth. We were only in four record stores. People were coming in and buying five at a time.”
Accompanied by the full Bonner clan and many of the top-notch musicians that grace the album, the Bonners will present much of the album’s material at a CD-release show at the Crest Theatre next week. One suspects that the ghost of Jose de los Reyes Berryessa might just be in attendance as well. If he is, one can be assured that he will not be wallowing in self-pity. Instead, he will be dancing.