Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Son Huasteco

 There’s a bunch of Mexican folk styles that deserve to be better understood. They are not only the bearers of rural, indigenous and traditional cultures, but also feed in to the mainstream and off each other to form a rich and varied tradition. In addition they are styles that live to be played, for community and group enjoyment. Like a musical version of Facebook, they define and bring together communities. I’ve already given you a taste of the Veracruz style the Son Jarocho, now I will give you a rough sketch of its closest musical neighbour, the Son Huasteco.

Son Huasteco is party music played by groups made up of three musicians (known as Trios). The instruments these Trios employ are the Jarana (a small guitar), a huapanguera (a big guitar) and a violin. The violin plays the role that the harp does in the Son Jarocho, carrying the melody. Similarly, both styles use dancers to mark out rhythm. The wooden dance floor (Tarima) is arguably an additional instrument. Traditional zapateado dancers bang the floor with their boots and shoes in time with the rhythm – a phenomenon akin to tap dancing.


This style of music is found in the northern part of the state of Veracruz and Puebla, southern Tamaulipas and eastern San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo and Queretaro states. It is very much associated with indigenous peoples such as the Totonacs and bears a very characteristic stamp of indigenous styles. The use of falsetto vocals is one typical sign of this legacy. Here the traditional group Trio Reyixtla interpret the popular standard, ‘the short-sighted bee’.

 A lot of groups sing in indigenous languages, keeping alive the traditions of cultures in danger of being swamped by modernity. One of the most popular is the Xochipizahuatl which praises both the Virgin of Guadalupe (Mexico’s patron ‘Saint’) and the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. This song is performed at many traditional ceremonies including indigenous weddings. Here the group Los Hermanos Olivares perform a version in the Nahuatl language. A beautiful and affecting song.

Mainly, though, this music can be heard on the street, bars, parties and anywhere that musicians can get together…

 Son Huasteco has, like other styles, adapted to a changing world. During the Revolution various Huasteco songs were written that became popular throughout the country. El Soldado de Levita (which has been called Mexico’s Katyusha – Russia’s most popular Revolutionary song – by err, Russians) is perhaps the most popular. This particular version has been adapted for radio play and a general audience.

 And to finish, an idea of how this music still influences the pop and rock tradition. Take it away, Cafe Tacuba!


Barca vs Real: The Football Paradigm


It’s the end of the footy season (or near as dammit) and my thoughts turn from the merits of the 4-3-3 formation to the state of modern publishing – like it does. In a sense, it is in Spanish football that we can discern the trends evolving in the publishing industry and how to make the future better. An obvious comparison, I would’ve thought.

So lets get down to brass tacks. Although there are parallels between publishing and soccer, there are glaring differences too. For a start, football is rich and publishing is broke. But putting that aside, both have spawned global brands that span the world. Cristiano Ronaldo may be on a par with J K Rowling in terms of media celebrity (google them both and you could make some sort of lame-ass comparison). Additionally their operating models hold lessons that can be regarded (pardon the pun) as transferable.

Real Madrid is the most successful side in Spain. It operates much as the main (big five) publishers in the UK. In recent decades, it has given a name to this strategy; the Galáctico system. The essence of this strategy is to buy success. You purchase the world’s top players and maximize your income from merchandising and the publicity these star signings. With enough stars, you become a galaxy of star names (Hence the word Galáctico). This compares with what mainstream publishing to an uncanny extent. Celebrity memoirs and the ‘transfer’ of literary superstars from one to another seems to be the way they generate traffic, publicity and sales. The drawbacks of this system in football is that it’s expensive, leaves very little room for home-grown players to emerge (Real have only promoted one player to the first team in the past 15 years) and, most importantly, it is an approach that does not guarantee success.

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Success is the name of the game both in footy and books. And, although historically Real Madrid are the most successful side in Spain, Barcelona are catching them up. Barça’s model has been in place for about thirty years and has been bearing fruit for twenty or so. Particularly recently (Five league titles out of the last seven) it has become the envy of the world. So how have they done it?

The Barça system is ostensibly a transplant from the Ajax Amsterdam model of the early 1970s. This model sets a system of play, based on simple basic principles, and has every team in the club (from under 12s to the first team) playing the same way. In the long run, it will produce teams of players that have come through the ranks and know how to complement each other. This system worked like a charm in Holland, but because of a lack of money, all their best players got poached. Barcelona has the advantage of deep pockets and has been able to implant this system with staggering success. Not only have they won a hatfull of trophies, their system and players were the backbone of Spain’s World Cup-winning side (Villarreal and Valencia have also implanted similar player-development models). The essence of the Barça approach is this: You develop your own players, coaches and managers in-house. You buy outside only when you have to or you spot a bargain. This doesn’t guarantee success either, but it does deliver batches of great players from time to time.


Publishers in general are moving away from the Barcelona principle. To emulate them they would have to nurture their writers from an early age, commit to them long-term and trust their writers as a group/cohort to move forward as a group. Does any publisher do this? Authors’ contracts are becoming less and less supportive to long term development. Contracts for new writers are shrinking from three to two books, advances are withering on the vine. Only the independent publishers seem to be resisting this trend (apart from the advances bit). If only the independents could break down the barriers, dammit, maybe there’d be more books out there worth reading.

 Well, that’s more or less it for this particular tortuous comparison. I’d love it if a canny independent press would suddenly find themselves with a dozen best-selling authors on their books after nurturing them from debut novels. A pipe dream perhaps, but maybe its the only alternative to the Real Madrid publishers ‘parking the bus’ with unreadable tripe and trying to batter the hell out of any creativity in the opposition. You can guess which team I support by now, can’t you?

The Son Jarocho — Part 2

The story of Son Jarocho in the 20th century has been one of two contrasting visions that have moulded contemporary musicianship. The traditional form, performed in ranches, farms and parties –often accompanied by dancing a Zapateado (which involves stamping on the ground, like Spanish flamenco) – began to decline with industrialisation and the spread of more commercial forms of music.

In the 1940’s and 50’s Jarocho music was still popular in clubs and dance halls in Mexico City and elsewhere thanks to the patronage of a cadre of politicians from Veracruz who supported their local musicians and by migrants from the impoverished regions of the state to the capital. Even so, the Jarocho sound was having to compete with jazz, pop, Latin forms such as the mambo and even mariachi music. A bleak outlook indeed.

The first of these visions, that did a lot to rescue the music from impending oblivion was the Mexican film industry. Mexican films fixed the image of the Son Jarocho group: dressed in white trousers and shirts with a red handkerchief around the neck and a straw hat. One of the greatest exponents of Son Jarocho, Andrés Huesca participated in many of these films. In the 1948 Han Matado a Tongolele, Huesca substitutes the small Jarocho harp, that had to be played sitting down, with a larger harp (from Michoacán) that could be played standing up (as he did in the classic Alla en el Rancho Grande). The effect of this on Jarocho groups was to make them conform to the film stereotype. Jarocho bands soon adopted the white uniform and abandoned the local (smaller) Jarocho harp.

The demands of the film industry, radio coverage and other media influences was to radically change Son Jarocho and fix a stereotypical image of this music in the public mind. This was damaging in the long run as musicians abandoned their local styles and home-grown songs to accommodate the new repertoire and style demanded by the public. Sadly, a great deal of damage was done in this way and a lot of the branches of Jarocho music withered away, with many of the songs and local musical styles dying out.

Fortunately the second of these visions was to rescue this music at a grass roots level. An effort to preserve and rescue traditional styles of Mexican music began as early as the 1940s. Enthusiasts (like the musicologist Raul Helmer) began to seek out traditional musicians and record their songs on tape. These recordings form the basis of the ethno-musicology of Mexico and managed to capture some of the richness and the scope of Mexican popular music. Son Jarocho in particular now has a lively and growing number of enthusiasts and researchers, particularly since the radical Jaranero movement of the 1980s, that set out to first, record for posterity the music of local groups and musicians and second, to revive the performance of fandangos, the manufacture of traditional instruments, the dissemination of Jarocho styles, songs and history to new generations. Grupo Chucumite is doing just that, helping to spread the Son Jarocho message to the US.

 Alongside these two visions there has been a lively trend of experimentation with form and instrumentation. No folk music can survive in aspic. New musicians will add their own ideas and sensibilities into the mix. Son de Madera, for example, combines the use of a tambourine together with a traditional Requinto and introduces some Jazz-like improvisation.

Pop music followed the trail blazed by Ritchie Valens (and the folk-rock tradition) by trying to blend their musical styles. Cafe Tacuba, Ozomatlli and other Mexican groups explore their home-grown version of folk-rock. It is my hope that this tradition thrives and provides the world with a lot more great music. I’ll end this brief intro to Jarocho here. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

James Dargan

Writer and Raconteur

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