How to Understand Mexican Music | Interview with Leonardo Prieto

It’s January 2022, we are still in a lockdown, and I’m in a zoom call with Mexican musician Leonardo Prieto. During “normal” times, I could go see his concerts, but now digital is the only option.

It would be easy for an artist to focus on the pandemic’s hardships, but Leonardo chose a different path. He produced two albums in 2021 and launched his first solo album on New Year’s Day.

If this sounds ambitious to you, wait until you see his full CV. Leonardo has three bachelor’s degrees in music and sociology and a double master’s. He also plays more than five instruments, produces, performs in a band, and taught at Codarts.

His enthusiasm for music matches his ambition. He understands both the emotional and intellectual aspects of music. This combination and his studies in sociology gifted him an exciting and different perspective.

We discussed Mexican folklore, the origins of Cielito Lindo, sociology, Leonardo’s background, and his first solo album. Before we jump into all that, let’s start with an introduction.


Young Leonardo Prieto | Rock Music & Mexican Folklore

Growing up, Leonardo loved rock music. He listened to the Beatles, Guns & Roses, and Metallica. He started playing drums at the age of 5 and guitar when he was 10.

Besides rock music, he also developed a liking for Mexican folklore. His first love was Son Jarocho, a music style from the state of Veracruz and a fusion of Spanish, African, and indigenous elements. The key instrument for this genre is the Jarana, an eight-stringed guitar. According to Leonardo, everyone can learn how to play the Jarana, making the genre fun. For those who want to learn more, check out this Son Jarocho Spotify Playlist.

After the Jarana, many instruments followed. Prieto learned to sing, play the piano, and less commonly known instruments like the requinto, gaita Colombiana, and marimbol. He played in bands and performed with other Mexicans, Cubans, and Colombians.

The different musical influences taught him to play various genres and the origins and cross-breeding between musical styles. The musical similarities between countries became especially interesting when he started his studies in sociology.

Studying Sociology & Cielito Lindo

During his bachelor’s in sociology, Leonardo also performed on stage, parties, and weddings. The overlap between sociology and music gave him an interesting perspective.

In University, he learned that music is often linked to cultural identity, nature, and religion. Especially in Mexico, music is intertwined with local customs, and different areas have different influences (rural areas have many indigenous influences compared to the more euro-centric urban regions).

On stage, Prieto realized that many Mexican songs were popular in Colombia and Cuba and the other way around. Many of the elements, such as the tunes, techniques, dances, and lyrics were linked. However, each country personalized the songs by playing them differently.

On the surface, this is logical given Latin America’s colonial history. However, we realize how vastly underestimated this influence is when we look deeper. An intriguing example is Mexico’s most famous folk song, Cielito Lindo. What struck Leonardo by surprise was its first phrase, “De la Sierra Morena.” The Sierra Morena is not typically Mexican but a mountain range in Spain. This phrase comes from a Spanish play from the Spanish Golden Age theatre (Teatro español del Siglo de Oro), the widely accessible Spanish theater plays from the seventeenth century. If you’re interested, check out his full research on the topic.

How Should We Feel About These Colonial Influences?

When I asked Leonardo how he felt about these Spanish colonial influences, he had an interesting answer.

He mentioned that music has many different roles. Music can be entertaining, relaxing, and emotional. It’s neither good nor bad, and musical exchange between countries is natural.

Most people tend to simplify the world by categorizing it into (often two) categories. For example, this music is from Mexico, not Spain. It’s understandable because it’s our way of making sense of the world, but problems arise when we create new concepts based on these highly simplified ones. Leonardo’s message is to avoid categorizing too quickly and experience music as-is instead.

mexican music leonardo prieto

Developing His Music Career & Moving to The Netherlands

After finishing his bachelor’s in Sociology, Leonardo wanted to formalize his music education. He got a bachelor’s in Composition and another in Literature and Music Theory from the University of West London (and several additional degrees).

In 2016, he moved to the Netherlands and studied a double master’s in Piano and Composition. Surprisingly, the Codarts Conservatory in Rotterdam is one of the few institutions that offers official degrees in world music. This appealed to Leonardo, who had already mastered many international instruments.

In 2004, Prieto formed a band called Son de Aquí. The band always had international collaborations. Due to Leonardo’s studies and previous performances, however, it became even more international and the group continued as a combination of Mexican and European musicians. Prieto took the stage during the famous North Sea Jazz Festival and Días Latinos. He also performed in Mexico, Chile, Cuba, Italy, Greece, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, and The Netherlands.

His Latest Project | 1st Solo Album Sembrando

In 2022, Leonardo launched his first solo album Sembrando.

His first works were more “mainstream,” influenced by hip-hop and Latin music; his new album is more personal and technical.

Leonardo’s current mission is not to create new things but to create something personal. His recent work contains many elements from his technical background, experience with composing, and years of stage performances. You could describe Sembrando as alternative jazz with sounds from contemporary classical and influences from traditional Mexican and Cuban music.

The ensemble’s lineup consists of various musicians from The Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Germany, and Mexico with solid backgrounds in different musical fields. Sembrando only counts one cover. Leonardo composed all the other songs himself. To get more information about the album, check out Leonardo’s Website or Instagram!

mexican music leonardo prieto

Leonardo’s Mexican Music & Culture Recommendations

As you can tell by now, Prieto is a fantastic musician and is highly knowledgeable about the topic. It wasn’t easy to summarize the entire conversation in a short blog post. I felt I could’ve continued asking questions for another few hours, but we had to wrap it up at some point.

Leonardo did give me several additional books, music, and movie tips for those interested. 

Check out his recommendations below.

Son Mexicano & Other Music

Son Mexicano is a style of Mexican folk music that includes various regional genres, all of which are called son (the original meaning of the word was sound, improvisation, dance, or poetry, linked to a cultural environment). This music type started in the 18th century and mixes Spanish, African, and Indigenous elements. Some of these and other styles are:

Mexican Movie Directors

For those interested in Mexican cinema, some well-known Mexican movie directors are:

Leonardo’s Latin-American Book Recommendations

And last but not least, a number of Latin-American authors worth reading:


Check out the cultural list for a complete selection of book, music, and movie recommendations per country.

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