Old songs full of life

Times Staff Writer

Now that the river has been fouled by pollution and the local economy has flat-lined, this introspective pueblo of 12,000 has put its hopes for the future in three things: rampaging bulls, the Virgin Mary and a uniquely exhilarating brand of roots music that many people thought was headed for the boneyard barely a generation ago.

The music, son jarocho (pronounced ha-RO-cho), is a classically structured but insanely catchy fusion of lyrical forms from Spain’s golden age, wild and woolly Afro-Cuban beats, and a type of wisecracking, improvisational wordplay that connects Mexico’s rural past with its increasingly urbanized, cosmopolitan present.

Originally imported by African slaves to the nearby port city of Veracruz, son jarocho later retreated into the brackish wetlands of this sizzling coastal plain, where it dozed contentedly, virtually unchanged, for two centuries. A fleeting revival occurred in the 1940s, when former Veracruz Gov. and future Mexican President Miguel Aleman adopted the most famous of all son jarochos, “La Bamba,” as his campaign theme, spurring an exodus of musicians from Veracruz to the nation’s capital. Later, Ritchie Valens hit pop stardom with an even slicker, more commercialized version of “La Bamba.”

Jaunty though it is, however, Valens’ well-known rendition only hints at the raw exuberance of a musical-dance genre once considered so aggressively sensual that the Spanish Inquisition tried to ban it. Built around 6/8 and 3/4 time signatures, traditional son jarocho has a hypnotic lilt that derives from its lickety-split strumming of 10-string jaranas and four-string requintos, its celestial shimmer of diatonic harps, and its spooky scrapings of quijadas (donkeys’ jaws).


“The rhythm of son jarocho doesn’t exist anywhere else outside here, except in Africa,” says Jacques Riviere, a French filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the music.

As recently as the late 1960s, son jarocho was largely forgotten and tottering toward extinction. But a frenzied three-day music festival that wrapped up here earlier this month suggests that the music is not only surviving, but also suddenly thriving in the backyard of its birthplace. The reason? A remarkable alliance of grizzled campesino musicians, academics who’ve helped chronicle and preserve the music’s long, complex heritage, and a growing number of young jaraneros (son jarocho performers) eager to bring their forefathers’ culture into the 21st century -- without compromising its archaic soul.

Close encounters

For the son jarocho faithful, the festival synthesizes all these elements in what organizers like to refer to as an encuentro, or encounter. As they see it, the 24th annual Encuentro Nacional de Jaraneros y Decimistas (a decima is a 10-line lyrical poem) presents not only a great excuse to throw a blowout 72-hour party, but also a rare opportunity to bring together obsessive fans and curious newcomers, lured by a seductive sound that partially dates to the Renaissance.


“We call it the Woodstock of son jarocho, because everybody’s here,” says Rafael Figueroa Hernandez, a Mexico City musicologist whose father, Rafael “Don Fayo” Figueroa, plays bass for the veteran son jarocho group Siquisiri, one of the encuentro’s main organizers.

Two weekends ago, the local population tripled as thousands of day-trippers converged on this town of pocket-sized parks, palm trees swept by Atlantic breezes, and modest one- and two-story houses painted in Crayola hues, a town UNESCO has designated a Cultural Endowment of Mankind.

Many had come to witness two cash-cow spectacles that also take place in late January and early February: a gruesome ritual slaughter of six Brahman bulls, which are first allowed to chase the terrorized and giggling locals through narrow streets; and a solemn water-borne procession honoring the Virgin of Candelaria. Some pilgrims also came to pay tribute to the memory of native-son composer Agustin Lara (1900-70), the Cole Porter of the Mexican romantic music called bolero.

Hundreds more came to listen -- and to dance. In jaranero culture, even the music is secondary to the fandango dancing that accompanies it. Like son jarocho, fandango is formally disciplined but emotionally uninhibited, channeling rhythmic movement, stylized eroticism and social custom into a single interactive experience. “The encuentro is a display window for the [musical] groups, but the essence is the fandango,” says Diego Lopez, the encuentro’s general coordinator.


To understand dance’s primacy in jaranero culture, recall that the first words of “La Bamba” are “Para bailar la bamba/se necesita / Una poca de gracia y otra cosita” -- in English, roughly, “In order to dance the bamba, it is necessary to have a little bit of grace and a little something else.” That something else is a working knowledge of the musical and social conventions that inform fandango.

The dancing usually takes place on a tarima, a small wooden platform that slaves are believed to have invented as a way to pound out rhythms after their craven owners took away their African drums. A quick nip of toritos de cacahuate, the peanut-based aperitif that is ubiquitous here at festival time, may help screw your courage to the sticking point.

Then, as the musicians light into a new son, one or more couples will rotate onto the tarima, stomping their boots and heels in an impromptu syncopation, and sometimes even singing back to the musicians in a spirited call-and-response chorus. Poet William Butler Yeats wrote of the dancer becoming the dance. In this quasi-Caribbean hothouse, they’ve gone Yeats one better: The dancer becomes the music, and the music goes on until dawn. “We are the biggest cantina in the world on these days,” says Jose Vasquez Marcelo, a town official in charge of cultural activities.

Some fandangos are for women only, or a single female dancer. Others are for couples. Some are improvised on the spot, as few qualities are more highly prized by jaraneros and decimistas than verbal dexterity and wit. “The topics are politics, disasters, town gossip, funny stories, which are difficult to manage because they can fall into obscenities or bad words,” Lopez says with a laugh.


In its late-night set on Day 2 of the encounter, the group Chuchumbe improvised a two-person son addressed to Senor George W. Bush that included the lyrics, “What does Bush want? Who told him that Jesus doesn’t like Muslims?”

When worlds collide

Vasquez says that the encuentro, along with the overlapping activities of the Candelaria and the running of the bulls, has brought salvation to the island village, which is surrounded by the Papaloapan River. With its livelihood resting on the shaky props of fishing and cattle-raising, Tlacotalpan -- whose Indian name means a place between land and water -- might easily be cast adrift amid the swirling tides of globalization.

Instead, it is busily reinventing itself as a cultural crossroads of Old and New World traditions. “Telenovelas are violent, the TV is violent, video games are violent,” says veteran musician Victor Palacios Molina. “I would prefer that my children learn how to play son jarochos.”


Festival organizers say that the latest son jarocho revival began in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the National Institute of Anthropology in Mexico City began compiling archives of son jarocho lyrics. As neo-traditional groups such as Mono Blanco began to rediscover son jarocho’s roots, some Mexico City and Veracruz academics began traveling to small provincial towns and villages to meet local musicians and make recordings. A number even learned to play jarocho instruments.

Initially, the encuentro was set up as a competitive festival, with a jury prize going to the winner. But organizers quickly decided that experimentation and sharing, not financial gain, should be the event’s signature. Today, while the free music and free-spirited dancing form the encuentro’s public face, musicians also come to swap information and professional tips. “You’ll see 15-year-olds and 80-year-olds, old men and little boys, exchanging lyrics, exchanging chords,” Figueroa says. “They play together, they go to lunch, they get drunk together. And that’s what keeps them coming back.”

Son jarocho remains something of a delicate rare bird amid the preening aviary of modern Mexican music. Venues are severely limited, and few roots musicians can afford the $4,000 needed to make a decent studio recording of their work.

Yet dozens of promising performers in their 20s and 30s are bringing fresh new sounds, insights and attitudes to the traditional son jarocho formula, probing the music’s Arabic, Spanish-Baroque and African textures, and adding slangy political commentaries reminiscent of hip-hop.


Perhaps most important, a number of them are composing new son jarochos, fleshing out the standard repertory of about 100 traditional tunes. Initially, some old-timers would grumble or bark out, “What’s that stuff?” whenever these new songs reared their heads. But traditionalists have come to appreciate the media attention and fresh converts that the new groups attract.

Recently, a high-profile suitor has come calling: Hollywood. Two dynamic young son jarocho bands, Cojolitas and Los Vega, performed on the soundtrack for last year’s Miramax biopic “Frida” about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Like many son jarocho groups, Los Vega is composed entirely of members of the same family: seven brothers, sisters, uncles and nephews, all born and raised in nearby Boca de San Miguel. “Our secret is that it comes from the heart, and we learned it from our grandfathers,” says group member Freddy Vega.

Music of the people

To be experienced in its truest form, son jarocho must be heard not in an academic symposium or even on a stage, but as occurs here every year, in the streets, on front porches, in the living rooms of lucky private homes, in alcoves around the zocalo, or anywhere else where four, five, a dozen or more musicians and dancers may spontaneously cluster and start jamming, faces glowing under lampposts.


This year, more than 400 musicians in 45 groups made the trip, the largest number yet. “Nobody pays you to go, nobody gives you anything -- maybe space to lay down and sleep uncomfortably,” says Adriana Cao Romero Alcala, a Mexico City dentist who plays harp for the band Chuchumbe. “But you go anyway. You have to do it.”

Although evenings were reserved for bands and fandango dancers performing in the Plaza Dona Marta, daylight hours were given over to panels, discussions and a photo exhibition on son jarocho music and culture. The tattooed and bare-midriffed of Europe and North America are finding their way here, though not yet in large numbers.

That could change quickly. In Tlacotalpan, politicians are murmuring about the need to make the encuentro more profitable. Record company scouts have been sniffing around and some have made pirate recordings. “The problem is that the companies come and steal material, and then you don’t see any money,” says Don Fayo of Siquisiri.

But after surviving 200 years of wars, revolutions, demographic shifts and swings in musical fashion, Don Fayo thinks son jarocho and Tlacotalpan have nothing to fear from more change, more visitors, more encounters. “I don’t think it could affect us. I hope that they will come.”