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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…

James Dargan

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