Forget everything you thought you knew about "La Bamba."
Most Americans are familiar with the Mexican folk standard as popularized here by Ritchie Valens in his '50s rock rendition. It has since been covered by everybody from Los Lobos to "Weird Al" Yankovic, in a parody titled "Lasagna."
But there has never been a version quite like the radical, genre-bending son jarocho version performed Thursday by Sonex, a cutting-edge group from the southern Mexican state of Veracruz, where the song has been sung for centuries.
Sonex is part of a growing movement of musicians devoted to reviving the son jarocho, a style of song and dance rooted in African and Spanish traditions played primarily with stringed instruments -- violin, harp and small guitars called jaranas and requintos. The band made its first U.S. appearance as part of the 1st & Central Summer Concerts series at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles.
Thursday's bill, headlined by harpist Celso Duarte and his knockout quartet, was designed as a showcase of the music's range and possibilities, from the traditional to the progressive. At either end, these two talented groups showed why this music, like flamenco and its Afro-Cuban cousins, has such a lasting, cross-cultural appeal.
The music's virtues -- irresistible rhythms, lovely and soulful melodies, jazz-like virtuosity and improvisation -- captivated a very diverse audience gathered in the museum's outdoor plaza for the free concert. Elderly museum members stood and applauded while local jaraneros, devotees of the jarocho movement, called for encores.
Sonex opened with a set that vindicated the buzz about them in jarocho circles. The L.A. stop was part of a brief U.S. tour made possible by their visit this weekend to Washington D.C., where they perform at the Kennedy Center as part of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival.
This was a win for local culture, since it's unlikely an indie band with a cult following could have otherwise financed the trip. Sonex came to show that there's more to Mexican music than the mainstream's off-key banda singers, bubble-gum lip-syncers and British-rock wannabes.
From the unexpected funky bass riff that opened their first song, it was clear Sonex is a new breed. Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, band members were arrayed in a straight line across the landing at the top of the plaza steps. Standing in the middle was Luis Felipe Luna Farias, singer, songwriter and lead guitarist on requinto. Occasionally, he stepped up on a tarima, or wooden platform, to perform a zapateado, the music's flamenco-like dance steps that spontaneously express defiance, passion, bravado and pride.
Son jarocho vocals traditionally are piercing and nasally, but Sonex adds sweet and graceful harmonies from violinist Camil Meseguer Rioux and percussionist Helio Martín del Campo, who plays the cajón flamenco, a drum box. Rounding out the band are Juan Francisco Galván on funky electric bass and Jerónimo González Garcia on the furiously fluttering jarana.
The range of influences in the band's modern jarocho fusion can be heard on its upcoming debut CD, featuring appearances by Barcelona's acclaimed flamenco fusion band Ojos de Brujo and Café Tacúba vocalist Ruben Albarrán. One of the year's best Latin music albums, it will be available through Mexico City indie label Zafra Musica (www.zaframusica.com).
Duarte may be more familiar to U.S. audiences for his performances with Mexican alt-folk singer Lila Downs. Duarte, the son of a famed Paraguayan harpist of the same name, brings a semi-classical, pan-American style to his dazzling playing.
In his recent forays into son jarocho, Duarte turns the harp into a percussive instrument, lifting it at times off the ground, plucking deep bass lines with his left hand and cascading, shimmering melodies with his right.
He closed with a soothing solo, offering a delicate Japanese tune at the request of his museum hosts. An appropriate finale for a world-class concert.