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.