Yep, Hikuri, a Son Jarocho band I encountered on my travels back in the early 1990s are back! recording a whole new album in the US . Listen and be enthralled…
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!
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.
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…