Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Son Jarocho Story — Part 1

I’ve been wanting to post something about Mexican folk music for a while now, mainly because there is so much amazing stuff to listen to. Don’t worry, I’ll be focussing on tunes rather than lyrics, so all you need is your ears to come for a ride on this magic bus. First stop; Veracruz and the amazing sound of Son Jarocho.

 Veracruz is a big place (a state roughly the same size as Japan) that hugs the gulf coast of the Atlantic ocean. The southern half of Veracruz, the appropriately named Tierra Caliente (Hot Land) is the place to go to find Son Jarocho. In its purest form it lives in the many villages, ranches and haciendas of this region, particularly during local fiestas. It is a true folk music, tied to the lives of the local people. The valley of the Papaloapan river (the river of butterflies in the Nahuatl language), is credited as being the true home of the Jarocho sound.


Son Jarocho owes this sound to its traditional ensemble of string instruments. These instruments are local variations of Spanish and French colonial models introduced during colonial times, although black African rhythms and and indigenous music also play a vital part in the make-up of the Jarocho style.


The instruments are, however, largely European (stringed instruments were unknown in the Americas before the conquest). The most important of these are the Jarana (a small 8/10-stringed guitar, which is usually strummed), the Requinto (another small guitar, this time with four strings plucked by a wooden pick) and the Jarocho harp (small, portable, no pedals). These instruments give the Son Jarocho its characteristic “music box” type sound. As with many regional styles of music in Spanish America, it uses a 6/8 rhythm syncopated with 2/4 and 3/4 rhythms (known as a sesquialtera).

 Around this basic trio of instruments Son Jarocho has developed an astonishing number of variants. Most typically these involve the Mosquito (a much smaller and therefore higher pitched Jarana and the main form of percussion, a donkey’s jawbone.




Another element of the Jarocho style is that the vocals are shared between alternating singers. In some instances (or styles) there will be a main singer whose lyrics will be echoed by the other vocalists, while in other situations vocalists will alternate. At some parties, where more than band is present, each will play alternate choruses and sing insults at one another, rapper-style. But hey, enough rapping from me, already. Here’s another song for ya, showing a traditional song and arrangement.


And here’s another, showcasing the sound of the Jarocho harp.


Son Jarocho is famous the world over for one particular song. Oddly La Bamba became an emblematic in the Son Jarocho repertoire due to political events. In 1946 the official candidate for the Mexican presidency, Miguel Alemán, native of Veracruz, chose it as his campaign song. When he won the election (as official candidates in Mexican elections often do), the song remained as a theme for his presidency, becoming one of Mexico’s most popular radio tunes. Eleven years later, a Mexican-American named Ricardo Valenzuela (Ritchie Valens) recorded a rock n roll version of La Bamba that made the song an international hit, reprised in the 1988 film La Bamba and the release of the version, performed by Los Lobos.


And thats your lot for part 1! Watch out for part 2, at a Floppybootstomp near you…


The Weird Little Old Irish Lady (and other strangeness)

One of the bonuses of teaching English as a foreign language is the insights it gives you into the dark recesses of this very peculiar communication tool. Here’s a few that people may not know about, something to think about if you have to read, write or deal with this particular coagulate of grammar structures and unstable lunacies. Hope this can help you muddle through.

* Adjective lists. If you’re gonna describe stuff with a sausage-string of adjectives (i.e two fetching brown leather riding boots, a priceless 1st century Japanese lacquered box, a dirty old metal garden seat or the weird little old Irish lady of the title). All these must be placed in a certain order to be correct. No other order will work, so all English language learners have to learn this sequence:

Personal opinion (is always 1st on the list) followed by; size, age, shape, colour, origin and material.

Got it? You can try remembering it using a helpful acronym such as OSASCOM if you like. Note: ‘riding boots’ is a compound noun and is, therefore, never separated.

Of course in practice these things can change and mutate. Take the ‘Japanese lacquered box’. Now, it’s quite possible to change the order here to ‘lacquered Japanese box’, which still makes sense. Chinese boxes have that privilege too. But if you try French, Spanish, Italian or Russian, the rules change; no ‘lacquered French box’, I’m afraid. It just sounds strange. And the meanings change as your brain tries to make sense of the jumble. Is there a compound noun in there? If so, what can a French box be? A ‘Russian box’ can be suddenly transformed into a container-shaped version of Russian dolls, so unless that’s what you mean, stick to the correct order. Go back to ‘French lacquered box’ and ‘Russian lacquered box’, to make the previous mental images go away again.

A final example for the still unconvinced:

1) A weird little old Irish lady.

2) A weird old little Irish lady.

See the difference? In the 2nd sentence the word ‘old’ attaches to ‘weird’ (it’s all it can do, being put so cruelly out of sequence), to form the amalgamated ‘weird old’, thus making the 2nd sentence more insulting than the 1st. (plus you get no inkling of the lady’s age in the 2nd ).

Be aware also that a) ‘old Irish lady’ is different to b) ‘Irish old lady’, to the point where you might, in a colloquial sense, be married to b).

Anyway, enough adjectives already.

* Pronunciation, however, is the biggest problem for the English language learner. Particularly so for people whose native languages are phonetic (i.e. they are written down exactly as they sound). Here’s a little poem that highlights the problem. Read it out loud and you’ll see what I mean.

“I take it you already know

of tough and bought and cough and dough

others may stumble but not you

on thorough, plough, enough and through

Well done! So now you wish perhaps

to learn of less familiar traps

 Beware of heard, a dreadful word

 that looks like beard and sounds like bird

And dead is said like bed not bead

for goodness sake don’t call it deed.

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt)”

– I could go on, but you get the picture.

Anyway, before I start going off on a rant about the gerund or relative clauses, I’ll stop there. Just think I’ll leave you with the kind of advice that native speakers often give but usually break with impunity themselves (because on top of everything else, you see, languages are also unfair).

* Remember to never split an infinitive

* Don’t use no contractions or double negatives

* Watch out for incorrect verb forms that have snuck into the language.

* And never start a sentence with a conjunction.

Oh, and a happy Easter to you all.

The Chocolate Box Of Shit

Lets talk history for a wee second. Fifty Years ago today, the world was faced with revolution, repressive dictatorships and a lot of the things that seem so unprecedented now (particularly with he world — including Libya, Qatar, Syria and the rest — being so calm and uneventful). It is perhaps of some use then, to take a fresh look at these through the filter of the past. It will, hopefully, help us not to make the same mistakes again.

 In 1961 two major events took place in the sunny old Caribbean. The first was the botched April invasion of Cuba by the United States. The next month, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, was assassinated in a CIA-orchestrated plot (perhaps an attempt by the CIA to rescue their reputation after the Bay of Pigs?).

Dapper scumbag, Rafael Trujillo

To take the last event first, General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (1894-1961), aka ‘El Jefe‘, was a grade A bastard. His career took off during the US invasion of the Dom-Rep of 1916-24 – because they threatened to default on loans – Trujillo rose through the military ranks to become a general. In 1930, after a rebellion he failed to quash, he stood when new elections were called. After a fraudulent vote, he became president and outlawed all political parties apart from his own. A hurricane later that year was used as a pretext for imposing martial law, something he became increasingly partial to. His repressive policies and pro-US agenda made sure his regime was safe, allowing him to crush opposition, rig elections and for his family to steal everything that wasn’t nailed down. Then, as Shakespeare might have written it, hubris set in. Trujillo felt the need to try and earn the respect of his peers via international politics.

 A racist anti-Haitian policy culminated in the Parsley Massacre (c. 20,000 Haitians murdered), furthermore, in 1960 Trujillo attempted to assassinate Venezuelan president Romulo Betancourt with a car-bomb. That was possibly the last straw for his regime. Who did he think he was, assassinating foreign presidents? The USA? So Kennedy’s goons acted. In 1961, Trujillo was shot dead

 And perhaps that should serve as some sort of a happy ending, no? Horrible dictator dead? Well, perhaps. Problem is, that once a superpower starts messing with your body politic, it just can’t help itself… it has to keep going. Cue the coup against Juan Bosch in 1963 (for daring to suggest land reform) and a number of other interventions besides. The result? A venal, useless Dom-Rep political class forever bleating to Washington to support their own particular grouplet against so-called Communists/Terrorists etc. A mess, in other words. Will the same fate befall Libya once we dislodge Gadaffi? What if we fail to dislodge him? Well, glad you asked me that…


Because 1961 will forever be remembered for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. President Kennedy, symbol of a new, youthful America, decided to behave like an old, cold warrior and invade Cuba to thwart the Revolution. Obviously a believer in the Big Society, he got Cuban exiles to plan their own invasion themselves (no big government telling them what to do, woohoo!!) but promised to add some air support, training etc by the US military – just like we’re offering the Libyans. Two days after the invasion proper (April 17th), all the invaders were dead, captured or routed.

Prisoners being led away after Bay of Pigs fiasco

The Bay of Pigs episode boosted the Castro regime rather than undermined it. Che Guevara later wrote to the Organization of American States thanking Kennedy for the attack, as it had helped strengthen Communism in Cuba (Enough to drive anyone to Dallas in an open-topped car, I would have thought).

 So, what has any of this got to do with Libya or Afghanistan or Sierra Leone or any of a hundred places where shit is happening right now? Would not intervening cost more lives than piling in without a strategy as we are doing? Not sure I know to be honest, but here’s a rule of thumb for you; foreign policy is like a box of chocolates, and oil-producing chocolates leave a nasty taste in the mouth. If you possibly can, leave them in the fucking box.


The Reverse Sleeper Curve

… or How The Novel Makes Us Stupid.

In his polemical volume Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson sets out the thesis that cultural commentators have got the media all wrong. His analysis focuses on the conventional wisdom that TV and computer games somehow damage our brains and render us stupid. He argues that far from this being the case, TV and games make us smarter [as he calls it, the Sleeper Curve]. My aim in this little post is to add a corollary to this thesis; that the modern novel, and particularly highbrow literary fiction, is having a reverse effect – making their readers dumb and uncritical.

So, what does Steven Johnson claim and how’s the evidence is presented?

First, he analyzes TV narrative structures historically. Before the 1980s, in the US, there was just a handful of broadcasters all relying on advertising revenue (which accrued, roughly, according to viewing figures; i.e. the more viewers you had, the more you could charge for your ads). The broadcasters, therefore, had to maximise their number of viewers. This meant appealing to a mass audience and doing nothing to confuse or upset them (or they might switch channels, upping the viewing figures for your competitors). It drove the networks to make programmes that were safe, bland, easy to follow. Technology, however, changed the game completely.

The key technical development was the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR). Before VCRs, most TV dramas employed a simple narrative strand from beginning to end. Star Trek, Columbo, Happy Days etc would all follow just a singe plot-line because adding complexity was deemed to be confusing. In a sense, this was understandable; if you misread a storyline in an episode of, say, Kojak you could not see it again to check until the episode was repeated months or years later (very irritating), so TV companies made sure plots were real simple and easy to follow. The VCR enabled other narratives to develop.

The first programme to take advantage of a post-VCR world was Hill Street Blues. With its multiple plots, complex story arcs and large cast of characters, it bombed when first broadcast. Viewers simply couldn’t understand what was going on. Slowly, however, audiences got it. Having a video of an episode to hand, they could now replay it and have a second chance (or even a third, fourth and fifth) to understand what was happening. An appetite for more intricate storytelling grew and the TV networks began (belatedly) to respond. Fast forward to today and the layered, multiple storylines in Lost, 24 and The Wire. All these narratives are now driven by the plot complexity required to sustain repeated viewing of the ubiquitous DVD box set (where most TV shows get a large portion of their revenue). TV shows have never been richer or more sophisticated in terms of structure. Even crap TV (argues Johnson) is getting better.

Second, we have video and computer games. The real story here is that, contrary to popular belief, these games aren’t simple, repetitive and easy. Most modern games are bloody hard! Take as an example Grand Theft Auto. Each edition of GTA has got more complex, abstruse and open-ended. The walkthrough is hundreds of pages long. It’s a huge complex world where you will be making choices (logical, spatial, narrative, moral) again and again and again. Mind-expanding stuff. Some evidence exists of changes to our brains that (arguably) make game-players more adept at certain tasks than non game-players.

So far so good, I hear you say. An interesting argument about the effects of the mass media that challenges popular stereotypes. What does this have to do with Literature? Surely the novel, the high-end literary fiction, lauded by Bookers, is clever stuff? Reading such novels can’t possibly be making us dumber… surely to goodness!

Well, here’s the thing. As TV has expanded its range of narrative structures and techniques, the reverse is becoming true of literature. Fewer and fewer experimental novels are hitting the shelves and Lit- Fic is stagnating. There is almost no variation in modern novels from the narrative techniques of the 18th century (first and third person narrators, flashback, multiple storylines merging, the epistolary, rambling existential angst… old hat. Don’t pretend to be a literary writer if you can’t challenge these established forms in some way). No contemporary author, it seems, has picked up the cudgels for structure and getting the novel to do things differently. Look at the winning Bookers over the past 20 years. Any innovative narrative structures there? Anything truly original? Anything?

Sadly no. Since Joyce, the trend in English language narrative has been to sideline innovation. Even the terms of engagement have changed. Parts of the writing craft that were once assumed as a given are now lauded: voice, plotting, nice story arcs. The stuff that Lit-Fic was supposedly there for (to challenge, innovate and push back boundaries), has been jettisoned without a bye or leave.

James Joyce: last (English language) writer to grab the novel by the scruff of the neck and smash it against a wall for fun.

The really disturbing effect of this trend, however, is on expectations. Already publishers, creative writing courses etc have sidelined the experimental or any exploration of narrative structure. Why? Because readers can’t take it. Where 1950s TV execs told their writers ‘don’t, whatever you do, confuse or irk the viewer’, the same message is now drummed into novelists: the reader is an idiot, don’t bother trying to stretch them. You want to write a novel with six main characters with two stories running backward chronologically or to tell their stories as a fractal spiral in two sentence snippets? No dice. I mean, what if a reader somewhere didn’t understand your plot, got upset and gave you a 1 star-rating on Amazon? No, we want one character’s PoV from the beginning of the book to the end. If you do include a flashback, do it in italics so nobody can possibly get confused.

And so it goes. The more we simplify, the less challenge the readers can take. Eventually the novel becomes effortless. Everything comes ready diced, chewed and pre-digested. All the reader has to do now is swallow. English Literature; a form that once provoked, made us struggle to be worthy to reach its heights, is now just a playpen full of ‘voices’. Perhaps it’s time to put down your Roths, Amis’s and Updikes and take up your Playstations. Your braincells may well thank you for it.

James Dargan

Writer and Raconteur

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