Grasshoppers!

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I was moved to make a recording the other day.  A pretty rare event for me anymore … something that happens about once a year it seems.  So it was pretty important that I press that record button.

I was hiking in Saguaro National Park East.  A hot morning in August … nearly 100 degrees by the time I finished my hike around 10:00.  Humid, too, for the desert.  Tucsonans have been wishing for the monsoon rains to kick in but so far they really haven’t – a major downpour nearly flooded my backyard about three weeks ago but there’s been nothing since.  The park was parched.  Here and there I heard a bird call but otherwise things were silent, and my observation was that this silence had an enormous enveloping presence.  It was like a thing in and of itself … something I had to slog through, like mud. like the heat.  But for the fact it effectively amplified my ever-present tinnitis, I liked it.  It was a pleasure to stop in my tracks and (in the absence of the sound of my boots shuffling through the sand) reverently note a silent world.  I could enjoy my own private 4’33”.

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In a patch of brittle creosote, not far from the intersection of the Garwood and Wildhorse Trails (a veritable Times Square in these parts) it came to my attention that I was suddenly walking through a gathering of chirping insects, invisible to my eye, but most definitely making their presence known.  The sound was not the shrill shriek of cicadas – the most commonly heard daytime summer insect – but a sound unfamiliar to me, one I must have overlooked in the past (not surprising, given that I am usually drawn like a magnet to cicadas, to the exclusion of all else).  Whatever the present soundmakers were, however, I had to applaud them, for they were a ballsy bunch, undaunted by the heat, defiant of the silence, and utterly indifferent to my presence.

And so I stopped, to first pull the water bottle from my pack and drink from it, and then to retrieve the recorder (yes, I just happen to have it with me).  Once I zeroed in on a spot where the insects seemed most dense, I fired up the recorder, set the levels, and placed the device on the ground amidst some decaying prickly pear.

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As usual, the paperweight in the guise of a Sony PCM-D1 that I had purchased for a small fortune years ago had trouble with the right channel.  Meaning that after about 20 minutes of recording I had only actually captured about 5 minutes of usable stereo recording.  5 minutes which largely coincided with an airplane passing overhead.  No matter, the contrast is nice … the sound of the plane slowly disappears and then nothing is left but bugs.

A little context for you … here is the dry-as-a-bone Wildhorse Trail, where I stood motionless as the recorder did its thing:

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Not too far away, the largest barrel cactus I’ve seen in awhile (it was taller than me):

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The remarkable crested saguaro on the Garwood Trail:

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Naturally, I was curious to lay eyes on the animal that provided me with the subject of the recording and when my patience with my recorder/paperweight reached its end I switched the damned thing off and commenced to search the creosote branches.  It wasn’t easy but eventually I spotted one, and then another of the bugs – their invisibility shattered by the flash of stridulation that was their rear legs brushing against their wings.  To my surprise I discovered the insects were, simply, grasshoppers, or – given their gregarious gathering together there amongst the creosote – locusts (to explain, as near as I can tell locusts are simply those species of grasshoppers that will, on occasion, pass through a gregarious phase.  That is, they will swarm in biblical proportions.  In truth, I seriously doubt the Wildhorse Trail group would constitute a swarm, but heck who knows how things will evolve nowadays).

Finally, pictures of the critter itself:

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A Desert Cicada

I made a recording back in June, and then forgot completely about it until the other day when I was downloading the contents of my recorder.  This is a pretty common practice of mine actually, this forgetfulness, but it is unusual in this case because of the subject of the recording – cicadas.  I love recordings of cicadas, and it’s pretty unusual of me to forget I have one in my recorder.  So, blundering onward …

The recording (below) was made on the outskirts of a housing development known as Diamond Bell Ranch, located south and west of Tucson, and not far from the village of Three Points (in fact, I think Diamond Bell may be considered part of Three Points).  Diamond Bell Ranch consists largely of empty desert lots but the main drag (a divided boulevard, no less) and the general center of the community has a few nice inhabited homes.  Despite its relative proximity to Tucson, Diamond Bell Ranch feels like it is in the middle of nowhere, and it is – if you see the development from a nearby mountain it appears as nothing but a lonely cluster of buildings adrift in a vast desert valley.  There are no convenience stores on the corner or Wal-Marts on the outskirts of town.  Groceries are a long ways away, and if you got into trouble, help would not be quick to arrive.  Nonetheless, I could see the attraction of living in such a place – it’s close to nature (smack in the middle of it really), and no doubt your neighbors would leave you alone.  I’m certain people don’t move to Diamond Bell Ranch to be social. Read more

Fuentes de Bubion

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While there were days of sunshine during my October visit to Bubion and its environs, I think I will most associate the village with rain and fog and running water.  The latter, especially, was ubiquitous, even on the sunniest of days, as the fuentes and lavaderos of Bubion ran continuously, providing a pleasant background burble to the otherwise quiet labyrinth of tightly winding streets and paths which characterize the village.

The fuentes, the fountains, maintain their usefulness to this day.  They are not – let’s be clear – grand and showy fountains which might center a plaza in a capital and entice the likes of Anita Ekberg to trespass in the middle of the night; rather, they are modest structures, basins built of ancient rock and filled by water pouring from 1-inch pipes without valves .   The lavaderos are slightly more complex.  These originally provided the women of the village with a shaded but open-air room where they could wash clothes and – no doubt – socialize.  Being spring-fed from a source deep in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range surrounding the village, the water is entirely drinkable and delicious.  And this fact I found to be a remarkable thing, a thing which more than anything threw Bubion and the villages of Las Alpujarras back in time – how many places are there left in this world, where water taken straight from its natural source is potable?  It is a place we have not ruined, have not even compromised.

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My biggest regret was not writing down the names of the fuentes I came across.  There were many of them (20 maybe?), even in this little village (according to Wikipedia Bubion has 361 residents), and their names were appropriately evocative … Fuente Hondera.  Fuente Sta. Trinidad (the two I photographed).  I don’t know how long ago they were built, but the town dates to Roman times and very likely some variance of the fuentes have been in use since then.

I recorded the sounds of the fountains, as well as the sound of cascading streams on the outskirts of the village, and the sound emanating from the drains located beneath the streets.  In the neighboring village of Pampaneira, these drainage troughs were not even located underground but rather in rivulets running through the streets themselves (keep in mind these streets may be only a few feet wide).

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It rained a fair amount during the five days I was in Bubion, and while I was initially disappointed by this weather I quickly changed my mind when I saw the fog roll in.  The otherwise spectacular setting took a nicely sinister, moody turn which was very picturesque.  So, in addition to the little sound collage I made from the recordings of the water (below), here are some pictures of wet Bubion for you to look at while you listen.

 

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Music of Southern Veracruz, part 1: Evaristo Silva

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The timeline of what follows is not clear in my mind—even a rereading of some old journals did not really complete the picture. Still, I’ll guess that my interest in the music of Veracruz began, in earnest, after an encounter with Evaristo Silva, a panderista who lived in Tlacotalpan, a river port town in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. A panderista plays a pandero, an instrument that can more or less be likened to what the mainstream musical world calls a tambourine, though it differs in significant ways (it is octagonal, for one). When Evaristo played the pandero the sound was smooth and seamless, like waves pushing and pulling rocks across a beach, and it provided an impenetrable rhythmic foundation for the stringed instruments–the requintos and jaranas–of the son jarocho band of which Evaristo was a member.

Chino, the Chilean-Mexican who built and owned a Mexican restaurant on Bedford Avenue, across the street from where I lived in the early 90s, was the first to tell me about the Tlacotalpan, and to suggest I visit. However, it was my friend Rory, an aficionado of musical styles performed on faraway shores, who introduced me to son jarocho, and upon hearing it I was hooked. This was upbeat, busy music, a whirlwind of notes picked from an array of stringed instruments. Listening to a recording of one song, La Indita, with its disorienting swirls of melancholic melodies, made me think I had joined a gallery of angels ascending to heaven; and upon hearing the famous son La Bamba (“son,” to clarify, is a Mexican traditional music form, which for our purposes can be easily translated to mean simply “song”) performed in its proper context and with its intended instrumentation, I gained a clearer understanding of what raw, driving music was all about.  On the same CD of music as those tracks was a recording made in Tlacotalpan. The instrumentation on this track was similar to the others but it featured the addition of a pandero, which moved the already lively, propulsive music into overdrive.  It was, I soon learned, only in the town of Tlacotalpan that the symphonic assemblage of son jarocho stringed instruments was accompanied by the pandero – a blur of rattling castanets attached to an octagonal drum frame with a face of animal skin.

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It was not long after I first heard the CD of son jarocho that I made an overland trip to Tlacotalpan. The journey was long, beginning in New York, and proceeding via train and bus through Chicago, Lawrence, Kansas, Dallas and Alpine, Texas, the little border town of Ojinaga, and the cities of Chihuahua, San Luis Potosi, Xalapa and Ciudad de Veracruz.  I do not now recall a lot about that brief visit to the town, but some impressions remain: The plaza set before a pink and white church after a rain; the deep aqua paint thickly applied to the walls of a miniature zoo; the dark hall of the Casa de Cultura de Tlacotalpan where the children of the town learned to play and sing son jarocho under the tutelage of Cirilo Promotor and Evaristo Silva; an arpista, dragging his arpa—his harp—through a field of grass en route to the waterfront restaurants where he would entertain diners; the antics of the teenagers I met who gathered together daily in a square in a residential neighborhood.

The kids were like something out of a Rockwell painting. It was fairly unbelievable, the age of innocence on display in that old town … a plastic spider was suspended from a string flung over a telephone wire and lowered remotely into a group of girls, eliciting screams from the girls and much laughter from the boys responsible. Not a half-hour later this same bunch placed a beer can over a piece of rebar sticking up out of the green grass. As predicted–and to my complete disbelief–a boy from another neighborhood happened by, saw the can before him like a wide-open invitation to rowdiness and kicked it hard. The boys in my crew laughed hysterically as the stranger limped off.

I did not see a lot of music during my brief visit, only a couple of music classes at the Casa de Cultura, and a trio performing for cheerless diners at a waterfront restaurant on a rainy day. By the time I had returned to New York, however, I had resolved to revisit Tlacotalpan with the intent of photographing the town and the musicians. As it turned out, whenever I next found myself in the town I was armed with a recorder and gave only incidental thoughts to photography. Audio recording, not photography, had become a passion of mine, and more than anything I wanted to record the music of Evaristo Silva … which I eventually did.

That was La Bamba, as performed by Grupo Casa de Cultura de Tlacotalpan, in April 2002.

The band:
Cirilo Promotor Decena:  requinto
Marco Gomez Cruz:  jarana, vocal
Evaristo Silva:  pandero, vocal
Victor M. Palacios Molina:  arpa

In terms of the instrumentation, this is a classic lineup for a son jarocho band in Tlacotalpan.  All the basic elements are present.  In addition to the pandero, there is an arpa (an instrument I will discuss more in the next post), and the typical stringed instruments which are present in nearly every son jarocho band: the jarana and the requinto.  The jarana is most similar to what the rest of the world knows as an acoustic guitar, but this instrument is smaller, often with four courses of two strings each (that is, each single string of a “normal” guitar would be represented on a jarana by two strings, either tuned alike or an octave apart). The varies in size from the tiny jarana mosquito to the considerably larger jarana tercer; the instrument is always strummed and provides the rhythmic backbone and chordal structure of the song.  Its sidekick, the requinto, is the lead instrument, providing the melodic structure and improvisational lead lines.

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Grupo Casa de Cultura de Tlacotalpan, as the name implies, was the house band of the cultural house in Tlacotalpan. Evaristo Silva and the group’s requinto player, Cirilo Promotor gave lessons every day at the Casa de Cultura to anyone who wished to take them. Students, for the most part, consisted of the town school kids and, upon rare occasion, a 42-year old gringo who could barely muster an occasional coherent Spanish sentence. My presence was awkward to say the least but Cirilo and Evaristo tolerated it without question and no doubt found it highly entertaining in moments. Once, inspired to take a quick picture of the children learning jarana, I backed into a bush and disrupted small hive of bees. One of the insects managed to come between my camera and my face and left its stinger squarely in my eyelid. This event Cirilo found hugely amusing, loudly guffawing all the way to the office to which he led me, there to have the stinger gingerly extracted by the kind office ladies (who displayed considerably more sympathy). Ludicrous misadventures aside, the musicians eventually become convinced of the sincere appreciation I had for the music, and conceded to play for my recorder.

I actually recorded the band twice, once in 2002 and again in 2005. The 2002 session was the superior of the two, performance wise (Evaristo was due for an operation the day after the 2005 recording session and was not really in the finest of form). In both sessions, however, the band played fine, joyfully letting it rip before an audience of one on the back porch of the Casa de Cultura. For me, it was a privilege, a rare opportunity to hear classic son Tlacotalpeno as played by some of the last of their generation … by the teachers of nearly all the younger musicians in town, by the living repository of all the old songs. Their collective knowledge and experience with the genre was profound and no younger musician I spoke with in Tlacotalpan regarded them as anything less than the standard by which the local music should be judged.

Evaristo had a swagger about him, a broadness in his gestures and confidence in speech that shone despite his advancing age. He was remarkably friendly, and always found the time to suffer through a broken-Spanish conversation with me should I drop by the Casa de Cultura for an unscheduled visit. Locals knew him as “Varo” (short for Evaristo I believe), and everyone who strolled or pedaled by the building when he was standing out front called out this name as they passed (I marveled at the inscrutability of the street language in the old town, communication to which I will never be privy). My friend in New York, Rene, himself a Mexican and fan of son jarocho, called Evaristo the Iggy Pop of Veracruz, which may have been an exaggeration but Rene did find some awfully cool pictures of the fellow online that prompted the moniker.

Here is one of my own:

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Music of Southern Veracruz, part 2: Arpas

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In addition to the pandero, the recording in the previous post also featured some nice arpa playing. The arpa—the harp—was not a common instrument in Tlacotalpan during the time of my visits, and I learned that some musicians regarded the instrument as being somewhat old fashioned, or, worse, that groups utilizing the instrument played a style some musicians termed “son comercial” – son music played only for money.  I believe I can shed some light on this criticism:

Arpa detractors claim the instrument lacks authenticity.  The instrument, it is claimed, is not an instrument that is played in the countryside, from whence son jarocho arose and where it is thought to remain the most traditional.  Furthermore, the arpa is associated with the style of son jarocho played in restaurants by groups wishing only to entertain diners, most notably in Boca del Rio, the Ciudad de Veracruz suburb noted for its restaurant scene and theatrical son jarocho performances. The style is flashy and fast, and highly technical in its execution. This same style manifests itself in “ballet folklorica” performances – heavily choreographed and rehearsed facsimiles of son jarocho, performed on a stage in an urban setting largely for the benefit of tourists. If one is of the opinion that son jarocho is a strictly rural phenomena, then it is easy to fling accusations of inauthenticity at these citified offspring.

Arpa music becomes an even easier target for purists when one considers that the construction of the arpa as it currently manifests itself sprang from its time in the bright light of the Mexican film industry. In order to achieve a more spectacular presence onscreen, the original arpas—small-bodied instruments played sitting at a table—were substituted with the larger upright instruments seen today … a sell-out if ever there was one. (This site discusses this topic more in-depth: https://floppybootstomp.wordpress.com/tag/mexican-film/)

If the harp is considered an old-fashioned instrument it is not because it is ancient but only because its heyday as a commercial prop has past; accusations of inauthenticity may be harder to defend, however –  no less than Evaristo Silva, for example, claimed that only his band played proper traditional Tlacotalpeno music, and, as observed, his band definitely includes a harp. Another musician I met, Andres Aguirre, himself a harp player in Tlacotalpan, is equally adamant about the legitimacy of the harp, claiming that the instrument is no less than “the soul of the group.”

Andres’ band, comprised of himself and his two sons Fernando and Eddie, perform most regularly at the waterfront restaurants and thus could arguably be dubbed “son comercial.” Nonetheless, the band is well-respected by the younger musicians who would otherwise champion more rural styles. This is partially due to the fact that Andres’ father was a major figure in the modern Tlacotalpan music scene. He was most well-known by his nickname “Viscola,” a reference to the fact that he was cross-eyed (I have asked Mexican friends about this word and pretty much drew a blank stare, so its possible I’m not understanding this accurately; these Mexican nicknames were a continual source of confusion and fascination for me). I have not found a recording featuring Viscola, but I did record his son and grandson’s band. Here is a recording of Grupo Tlacotalpan performing La Manta:

The band:
Jose Andres Aguirre Chacha:  arpa, jarana, vocal
Erick Aguirre Decena:  jarana, vocal
Fernando Aguirre Decena:  jarana, vocal

This was an enjoyable, if low-key, recording session. I had met Fernando at a cafe early one morning and together we walked to a nearby bakery where we collected one of four harps the group stashed about the town (a troubadour tactic intended to diminish the need to drag the cumbersome instrument from their home to destination every day). From there we took a taxi to a modest house located on an unpaved, tree-dense callejon on the outskirts of town. We recorded on the patio in the backyard, a cement covered square patch surrounded by vegetation-covered walls. The interior of the house was dense with figurines and decoration of a religious nature but also with a multitude of black and white photographs showing Viscola himself, always sporting dark sunglasses and exercising a debonair attitude. Andres, taciturn during the recording session itself, opened up afterwards and talked a blue streak. Much of talk I did not understand due to my lack of Spanish but one story I did understand quite clearly – the story of the fantastic performance in which Andres participated in the Veracruz capital of Xalapa, one in which the group consisted of one hundred harps! Someone, evidently, still has an interest in the instrument!

 

Music of Southern Veracruz, part 3: Jaranero Movimiento

In recent decades son jarocho has been in the midst of a revival.  While the music remains centered in the Sotavento–the coastal area and eastern inland area of the southern half of Veracruz–son jarocho has been riding a wave of popularity worldwide.  Bands have popped up not only in towns and cities across Veracruz but also in the rest of Mexico, in the United States and in Japan and Europe as well.

This revival is generally known as the jaranero movimiento (the jarana movement), and the movement’s goal has been to both revitalize son jarocho’s more authentic forms while simultaneously pushing the genre into the future by expanding its participatory base and encouraging social commentary in the lyric.  As touched upon in the posting on arpas, use of authentic instrumentation is paramount.  Furthermore, musicians have taken to the Veracruz countryside with recorders and notebooks in an earnest attempt to learn songs and styles from those whom they feel are the true owners of the genre.

Recordings by some of the more prominent bands of the genre (those whose CDs were more likely to be found in a North American record store bin when such a thing existed), I frankly am not crazy about. Though I would never call to question the integrity of any of these bands, their sound I consider too detailed, too studied, too much of a sit-down in a concert hall and applaud politely type of affair … too dreary, I dare say, not fun enough.  My own preferences definitely tend towards the more lively, edging into the raucous, entertaining styles of the son comercial. To my own relatively uneducated ears, the Tlacotalpan band that most effectively bridges the gap between the two poles would be Estanzuela – my favorite of all the Tlacotalpan bands I recorded.

Comprised of students and former students of the Casa de la Cultura teachers, and led by requintista and vocalist Julio Cesar Corro Lara, members of Estanzuela were an extremely friendly and accommodating bunch and I enjoyed my time with them immensely. Julio’s patience with my Spanish bordered on saintly and he was very open to letting me record his band both in 2002 and again 2005. Furthermore, it was Estanzuela that introduced me to some of the more exotic instrumentation used in son jarocho, notably the cajon, the marimbol and the quijado del burro. The cajon and marimbol are both wooden boxes.  The cajon one sits upon and the sound is made by striking one hands against the box face between the legs; the marimbol is affixed with metallic keys and played like an over-sized thumb piano.

Here is a nice closeup of the Estanzuela marimbol:

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The quijado del burro is literally the jawbone of a burro, stripped of flesh, laid out to dry, and played by striking the bone with the butt of the hand and causing the teeth to rattle. In Estanzuela, to play the quijada del burro was jokingly thought of as a hazing ritual. The player was often the youngest member of the group, sitting slightly removed from other band members at one rehearsal I attended. Why? Because the quijada del burro stinks!

In the following excerpt from a track recorded in 2002 you can hear the rattle of the quijada del burro:

Julio César Coro Lara:  requinto, vocals
Juan Manuel Rodriguez Domínguez:  jarana tercera, vocals
José Lidencio Aguirre Fierro:  marimbol, vocals
Rafael de Jesus Vazquez Marcelo:  quijada del burro
Xóchitl Elena Torres Herrara :  jarana segunda, vocals

And here is a complete recording of Estanzuela playing the son El Valedor in 2005:

Julio Cesar Corro Lara:  requinto, vocals
Jose Fidencio Aguirre Fiero:  marimbol
Juan Manuel Rodriguez Dominguez: jarana tercera, vocals
Huematzin Pulido Romero, jarana mosquito, vocals

The momentum this band can achieve is phenomenal, their songs just roll along unstoppable as a flooding river and I always wondered if that aggressiveness came from the experience of listening to rock and roll music. This band, after all, was of at least a generation or two younger than members of Grupo Casa de Cultura de Tlacotalpan, and growing up I bet they definitely rocked out from time to time.  In regards to this particular son, El Valedor, I’ve never heard another like it.  I think it is the only son I’ve ever recorded, or heard on record, that possessed such a distinctive two-part structure (verse/chorus song structures are not really a son jarocho characteristic).  After recording the track, Julio pointed out to me that it was a particularly old son, one not commonly played anymore.  When asked where he learned it, he simply answered “Cirilo Promotor.”

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Siquisiri

Siquisiri is another influential Tlacotalpan band. Siquisiri (named after a famous jarocho son) seems to exist in a universe parallel to the fellows at Casa de Cultura and its offspring, as the intentions of this band are more scholarly, and their style more technical if not bordering on the virtuoso. While equally rooted in tradition they are more willing to push its boundaries. Instead of a harp or marimbol picking out the songs bass lines Siquisiri features an actual upright bass, played by the group’s founder Rafael Figueroa Alaves, a feature that combined with the improvisational nature of son jarocho gives the band something of a jazz feel at times.

Rafael is a kind, thoughtful man. I felt always welcome to drop by and sit in the cool, airy salon of his home and enjoy the gracious hospitality displayed by him and his lovely lovely wife. He was unfailingly informative and clear with his answers to my awkwardly phrased Spanish questions. In addition to being a musician, Rafael was a woodworker, and he made the instruments played in his band. This, I learned, was not unusual. Marco Gomez, the jarana player in Grupo Casa de Cultura de Tlacotalpan and Julio in Estanzuela were also luthiers, as was Emilio Hernandez, the musician I will discuss in the next post. I concluded that it was of course only reasonable that a folk musician should be making his own instrument. From nearly all of these musicians, in fact, I ended up purchasing something, and all were fine instruments. Here is a picture of a jarana shell I saw in Rafael’s workshop in the courtyard of his home (notice that the jarana body is comprised all of one piece of wood):

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On the evening of my recording session with Siquisiri, I arrived at Rafael’s home with my portable recorder and a stereo microphone in a bag slung over my shoulder to find the band members scrutinizing the latest bass track they had just laid down in Cool Edit. Given my own simplistic approach to recording I was a little taken about by this display of sophistication. I was also a little surprised when the requinto player Diego grilled me with questions regarding the the impetus for my recording session – a perfectly reasonable line of questions which no one else had ever so pointedly asked. I was fine with the request, and I appreciated the scrutiny for it gave me the opportunity to recite my desire to open up American listeners to a world of music outside their own commercial tastes (I spoke very broadly, I confess, and I fear in retrospect that I may have gone as far as to claim it was my wish to use my recordings to save our very world). A language translation program on the computer got us over communication rough spots.

With motivational issues settled to everyone’s satisfaction, we left the echoey salon to record in the courtyard. Once I had set up my equipment and the band began to play I was flabbergasted by the level of musicianship exhibited. It seemed absurd to me that I should be recording such musicians in someone’s backyard … what an honor! I present here are a track from that session to give you an idea (Cascabel, recorded April 2005):

Rafael Figueroa Alavés:   contrabajo
Diego López Vergara:   requinto (left), vocals
Raúl Martínez Acevedo:   requinto (right), vocals
Margarito Pérez Vergara:   jarana tercera, vocals

Instrumentation-wise, the band is noteworthy not only for the upright bass (the contrabasso), but also for the dueling requintos. This was not something I had heard either before or since, as a single requinto is the typical standard for a group. In all, Siquisiri provided a textbook example of the expanding boundaries of the genre, and I wonder to where the music has gone in the 12 years since I made this recording.

Music of Southern Veracruz, part 4: Emilio and El Son Que Faltaba

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My embarrassment is that I can hardly speak Spanish. True, I can bumble along at a level adequate enough to learn something about the instrumentation of son jarocho, and I am able to communicate well enough to negotiate a recording session with musicians. My Spanish abilities, however, are not at the level necessary to understand one of son jarocho’s most important features: lyrics and lyrical improvisation. The degree of improvisation in the son jarocho instrumental performance is in fact matched by the degree of lyrical improvisation displayed by the singers. This improvisational exercise would mostly like be encountered not in a recording session but at a fandango.

A fandango is simply a gathering of musicians, formed either formally (perhaps sponsored by the town and held in the main plaza) or informally (a block party, for example, thrown by group of musicians), and featuring casual performances, food and drink. Likely there will be the presence of a tarima, a wooden platform upon which dancers will stomp their feet in a manner reminiscent of flamenco dancing and adding yet another percussive element to the son jarocho performance. A fandango may last well into the night, and indeed there is a variety of sones known as son de madrugada, the son of the dawn – melancholic, quieter melodies sung as the parties are winding down. Further, a fandango is where one may witness two singers exchange improvised lyrics in a nearly competitive manner (and sometimes definitely competitive manner) until one of them has simply run out of things to say. All this, alas, is lost on me.

It’s a shame, really, because the jarocho approach to lyrics, especially at the improvisational level, is likely revealing. A fellow named Daniel, who I met at fandango held in front of Julio’s home, spoke about what he termed the “blackness” of son jarocho, meaning he saw great similarities between the son jarocho lyric and the lyrics of American blues music. Both, he noted, seemed to speak in a “secret code” (a notion mirroring that of my friend Kirk, an aficionado of blues music, who feels that nearly all blues lyric is innuendo). The observation of the similarity between the genres is not unfounded, as music historians have settled on the idea that son jarocho is firmly rooted in the musical traditions of the Spanish, the indigenous of the region, and the Africans who were brought to Veracruz as slaves.

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I first met Emilio Hernandez at a fandango in the town of Santiago Tuxtla, a bustling little city located in the Tuxtla mountains, a little over an hour east of Tlacotalpan. The fandango was held in the central square of the town, the beautiful Parque Juarez (home to the largest Olmec heads ever found, incidentally), and appeared to be organized by local officials. A polite audience sat in rows of plastic chairs set up for the occasion and there was even a public address system in place.

I’d come to Santiago in hopes of encountering son jarocho played Tuxtlas style, which, I had been informed, differed from that of Tlacotalpan, mostly due to its emphasis on jaranas, the occasional use of guitars (as in the 6-string variety), and the complete absence of arpas. What I saw in the square, however, was pretty disappointing. Twenty jarana players all strumming the same chords, and no requintos. There was little subtlety, just a big mush of sound. When the official fandango was over, however, and the sound system and chairs were being hauled away, things became a little more interesting. The mass of musicians splintered into small, animated groups, around which I wandered and listened and was able to appreciate more the capabilities of the individual players. One jaranero in particular I thought to be especially talented, a dynamic, charismatic fellow surrounded by an admiring small crowd and with a right hand that so cleanly strummed the jarana that I felt compelled to approach him and ask about lessons. As it turns out, I had approached the right man.

Emilio Hernandez taught son jarocho to schoolkids at the Santiago Tuxtla version of the Casa de Cultura, and was a member of one of a prominent local son jarocho band, Rio Crecido. Furthermore, he was a luthier, and when I expressed an interest in buying a jarana he invited me to drop by his home the next day.  This I did, of course, and an enjoyable couple of hours was spent in his little front yard in a picturesque neighborhood a few blocks away from the zocalo, discussing jarocho music and arranging the purchase of a jarana.  All these years later, however, the only detail I recall was when his ridiculously friendly dog, a big lab mix, jumped onto my freshly laundered jeans with his muddy paws.  I forgave it.

Emilio invited me to come observe a jarocho music class he taught in town, in the local Casa de Cultura.  In Santiago, this institution is housed in an imposing castellated structure located at the top of a hill on the edge of town in a neighborhood known as Colonial El Jardin. The road leading to the building segued into a four ascending rows of concrete benches which served to seat an audience attending outdoor performances. I sat in the top row with my back to a white-washed wall, absurdly hoping for inconspicuousness. Behind me I could watch the afternoon sun setting over the Sierra de la Tuxtlas and before me were twenty schoolkids—the majority being girls—holding jaranas and facing their teacher Emilio who stood before them and directed the tuning process.

As opposed to the jolly, talkative Emilio I had met at the plaza and his home, the teacher Emilio was a stern taskmaster. With the tuning accomplished, Emilio pointed out my presence in the back row and impressed upon his students that the visitor had come all the way from New York to observe them and so they should try to play their very best. Their heads all turned to solemnly stare at me.

(As an aside, I have some nice pictures of this class, but in slide form.  If I ever get them scanned I’ll insert them here)

There were two classes. The first was composed of beginning students and was comprised mostly of kids learning to strum a jarana. The second was for more advanced students and included not only a dancer stomping upon a tarima, but singers as well, including Emilio’s son, a six-year old who belted out a song with unexpected strength. To Emilio’s left, a girl sat on a cajon, and a serious young boy, maybe all of 6 or 7 years old, held a quijado del burro in his little hands. Emilio, I noticed, tolerated little in the way of inattention, and the kids, despite their predilection for rowdiness, did their best to contain themselves and listen to their teacher. About an hour after class begin, mothers and fathers began to arrive to pick up their children.

One afternoon I recorded Emilio, his wife Rosa, and two of his friends in the courtyard of the Hotel de Castellanes where I was staying. The hotel is borderline outrageous, a contemporary tubular structure dominating the southwest corner of the plaza. Someone told me—and I forget the details—that it was built to house participants in a Hollywood film that was made in the district not long before. It looked nothing like any of the old Colonial structures surrounding it, except perhaps in the interior, where a very traditional Spanish aesthetic ruled with heavy dark wood dining tables and endless tile. It echoed like a canyon, and so the musicians and I moved outside, where conditions were not much better – cold and rain, but if we all gathered together beneath the arcading it wasn’t unworkable. I only had a cassette recorder with me at the time, so the quality is not pristine. Furthermore, I don’t have release forms signed by the musicians, so I feel I can only give you a small taste of the sound (hopefully no one will mind). The highlights of the recording must be the wonderful, bell-like sound Oscar got out of his 10-string, double-coursed, requinto.  This is an excerpt from El Zapateado, recorded March 2003:

Emilio Hernandez Valentin: jarana tercer, vocals
Rosa María Xólot Cóyolt: jarana primer, vocals
Oscar Castellanos Quinto: requinto

Two years after I made this recording I walked into the dining room of a family home in Tlacotalpan and saw a group of ten men and women, young and old, sitting around a huge bowl of shrimp – one of whom, I was surprised to see, was Emilio. Julio of Estanzuela, who had directed me to the home, informed me that a young man named Cristobal, a former student of Julio’s, lived in the house and that he led a band called El Son Que Faltaba. Julio thought the band was promising and that it might behoove me to give them a listen. So, after an awkward few minutes of speechifying in Spanish about the noble ambitions I had for my potential recordings, I was invited to sit down and enjoy some shrimp (big, beautiful, sweet-tasting things, pink with black eyes) with the happy bunch. Emilio, it turned out, commuted from Santiago to Tlacotalpan a few days a week to play with El Son Que Faltaba, and with Emilio’s vote of confidence, Cristobal was happy to let me record the band.

El Son Que Faltaba (“the son that we lack,” a title of a poem, in fact, referring to the disappearance of authentic son jarocho) was a fun bunch to hang around with.  More than any of the other bands I met in Tlacotalpan, El Son Que Faltaba personified the resurrection of the genre as a positive, and dare I say hip, thing for young people to do with their time. They were the coolest kids in town, no doubt. Band members strutted down the street, jaranas in hand and dressed in traditional white, and met with the approving gaze of everyone from old people happy to see the traditions continue to young people wishing that they too could join a son jarocho band.  Here is a picture of Cristobal regarding a passing marching band:

christobal.jpg

I recorded the band in their rehearsal space, which was a recording studio owned by the husband of band member Xochi (who, incidentally, I had recorded several years earlier when she played with Estanzuela). The session was good. At times the band appeared a little unrehearsed (which seemed to irritate Cristobal to no end), but it was an enthusiastic performance and when we listened to the tapes afterwards everyone was very pleased with what the microphone had captured. Afterwards (in typical El Son Que Faltaba fashion, I learned), the band members and I all strolled back to Cristobal’s home, strumming all the while, and once there we procured some beers and proceeded to play music in the street until late. As pretty as they played, I hardly see how any neighbors could complain.

Here is El Son Que Faltaba playing Toro Zacamandu April 2005:

Cristobal Cuitlahuac Torres Herrera: requinto, vocals
Emilio Hernandez Valentin: jarana tercera, vocals
Rosa María Xólot Cóyotl: jarana segunda, vocals
Ender Jesus Carmóna Gamboa: jarana
Citlallit Torres Herrera: pandero, vocals
Rodolfo Espinosa Licona: cajon de percución
Xóchitl Elena Torres Herrera: jarana segunda, vocals
Ana María Morales Reyes: vocals

——————————————————

Of course, these four posts are only a small introduction to son jarocho music – a glimpse into the scene that occurred in one Veracruz town many years ago. Given the vitality of the genre I witnessed, and its ever-rising popularity amongst a younger generation, I would not be surprised to see a much-changed musical scene if I were to visit Tlacotalpan today.

It is also worth pointing out that while Tlacotalpan is a major center of son jarocho music in Veracruz it is not the only one. As I briefly mentioned above, the cities in the Tuxtlas—Santiago, San Andres, and Catemaco—have their own distinct style of playing jarocho music which I hardly even touched on. Likewise, a distinct style can be found in Boca del Rio, as well as Alvarado, Tierra Blanca (the City of Harps), Jaltipan and Coatzocoalcos (this according to a list provided by Rafael Alaves). There is much to be explored.

Finally, if anyone wishes to learn more about the genre after reading this small account, I would point English speakers in the direction of a man named Alec Dempster. Alec has researched and recorded the music of Veracruz as I have done, except times fifty. He has numerous albums of recordings made in the field available to hear, has performed internationally with various well-known son jarocho groups, and makes wonderful artwork illustrating son jarocho themes. He is actively involved with the music on a daily basis, and I cannot recommend looking him up strongly enough.

Here is his blog:
http://www.alecdempster.org/blog

 

Music of the Garifuna, 1 of 4

primero

I am again going to move away from recordings of the natural world and delve into some ancient recordings I made of indigenous musical culture.  Most of these tracks I will be posting can be found on commercial CDs I released over a decade ago but which I have since pulled from the market for a variety of reasons.  So you can hear a few of them now if you didn’t catch them the first time around.

The four posts of Garifuna music presented here are mostly comprised of recordings I made in Belize, one of four Central American countries where the Garifuna reside.  If you don’t already know the history of the Garifuna people I’ll provide a little background in the next two paragraphs.  It will go a long way towards appreciating the music I think.  It should be apparent even from my brief version of their story that the Garifuna are nothing if not resilient, and the fact that their culture is alive and kicking to this very day is a testament to this.

The Garifuna who now inhabit the Caribbean coastal region of Central America from southern Belize down to northern Nicaragua are the product of a melding of two groups which occurred on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent sometime in the 17th century.  It was there that African survivors of a wrecked Spanish slave ship encountered and intermingled with the indigenous Arawak and Kalinago communities, themselves descendants of people originating around the Orinoco river in what is now Venezuela.  A perhaps more radical telling of their history describes the Garifuna as the descendants of the indigenous, and of Africans said to have come to the Americas – on their own accord – as early as the 14th century.  In either case, the Garifuna, while free from colonial interference for a sufficient time to allow the roots of the present day Garifuna culture to take root and thrive, eventually fell prey to British colonial expansion.  In 1797, after suffering a defeat by the British and the death in battle of their great leader Chatoyer, the Garifuna were deported en masse to the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.  Large numbers of the defeated Garifuna did not survive this horrendous event, and those that did found themselves on an inhospitable and unfamiliar island, there to struggle for survival and salvage what they could of their culture.

The need for cheap labor eventually drew the Garifuna to mainland Central America, primarily to the town of Trujillo, Honduras.  In time Garifuna communities sprang up along the coast in either direction.  In 1832, boats filled with Garifuna escaping political events in Honduras arrived in Stann Creek, Belize, an event now celebrated every November 19th – Settlement Day – a day which has been declared a national holiday in Belize.  In 1937, another migration of Garifuna, escaping persecution and massacre in Honduras, settled the village of Hopkins, Belize.

* * * *

I recorded a lot in Belize.  My ambition was to record examples of every extant Garifuna traditional musical style, and to record musicians in all the towns and villages in Belize with significant Garifuna populations, and in this I nearly succeeded.  The recordings in this first post were made in Hopkins, a seaside village an hour or so south of Belize City.  When these were recorded, in May 2001, Hopkins was a village with some tourist presence in resorts on the outskirts of town, but more importantly was known as the foremost cultural center for the Garifuna people in Belize.

This first track is a medley of three songs sung to a drum pattern called hungu-hungu.  Hungu-hungu is something of an oddball drum pattern and dance in Garifuna drum music in that it is in 3/4 time and not the usual 4/4; additionally, it is the secular version of the adugurahani, the drum beat, dance and song used to accompany the sacred dugu ceremony practiced by the Garifuna in order to communicate with their ancestors.  The three songs in this medley are Kaba San Iñurana (“Who is going to help me?”), Ka San Uban To Gibeboun Ewigi Tura (“Who owns that colorful house?) and Anihan Sandi (“The Illness is Here”).  These titles and translations were provided to me by the singer and drummer, Conrad Lino, who was accompanied by Belaine Flores, Nuta Flores and Kirk Martinez.

I remember this recording this track well.  It was the first track of the first recording session I ever made with serious recording equipment and with the intent to possibly create a documentary CD of the music.  We recorded on a hot, sunny morning on the white sand yard of Belaine’s home on the beach in Hopkins, with grackles chirping in the trees that lined the road.  A few tracks into the session, I recall, Belaine saw a friend walking down the road, waved hello, and walked away from her drum to go speak with her … and that was the end of the recording session.  No matter, I still managed to record some great performances.

(Recorded May 10, 2001)

Following is a recording I made in Hopkins on less sophisticated equipment (a cassette recorder) and of a more casual performance.  King Kasava was (and maybe still is) a restaurant and bar (a “cool spot” as they call them in Belize) located at the entrance to Hopkins Village.  The owner of King Kasava kept a set of garaon – the Garifuna hand drums – at the bar so that anyone who wished could play them.  The purpose of the drums was two-fold, I believe:  One, it was his wish to help further Garifuna culture in the town, and in this it was effective.  Drummers who couldn’t afford to buy their own set would come by the bar and sit down on a little bench out in the sandy yard to play a little if they had the time, and I recall more than one occasion when I saw a father giving lessons to his young son there.  Secondly, it was economically strategic to have the drums.  On Friday nights a good crowd might show up to drum and dance and sing, and with any luck a van load of tourists from one of the nearby resorts might come by for an evening of entertainment.  Such was the occasion when I made this recording.  A group of about ten tourists (aside from myself) were present, looking on and drinking beer, but it hardly mattered – the locals were having a fine time all by themselves (which will be obvious upon hearing the recordings) and the music and dance continued long after the tourist van drove away.

I am not certain who the two drummers are on this particular track, though quite possibly it was Conrad (whose voice I definitely hear in this track) and his friend Phillip Lewis, a local police officer who was also one helluva a good drummer (and whom I later had the opportunity to record more carefully).  The smooth, driving rolls coming from the primera drum on this track certainly sound like his.

(Recorded Spring, 2000)

Music of the Garifuna, 2 of 4

Punta Gorda is the southernmost town of Belize.  With a population of about 5000 people it is a bigger place than Hopkins and features a more diverse population.  Kekchi and Mopan Maya, Belizean Kriol , Chinese, Asian Indian and even some Middle Easterners all join the Garinagu on the town’s busy streets.  Punta Gorda is also home to two Belizean musical celebrities – Leela Vernon, the “Queen of Brukdown,” a kriol musical style, and Paul Nabor, a Garifuna guitar player and singer who sadly passed away a couple of years ago.  As my own interest in visiting the town was to learn about traditional Garifuna drumming styles, I sought out a man by the name of Phillip “Subas” Nicholas, a well-known drum teacher in the town back in the early 2000s.

Subas was great.  He was a patient, clear drum teacher, and he and his wife Sherraine were wonderful hosts, eager to share what they knew of Garifuna culture and their country and town.  Many an hour I would spend in their modest home out the outskirts of town learning drum patterns or recording, or just plain hanging out.  The following track features Subas and Sherraine playing drums and singing, and John Flores playing shaker, on a song titled Sarah Sarah.  The language is Garifuna.  The drums are the two typical of a Belizean Garifuna drum combo: the primera (the higher-pitched lead drum responsible for the rolls and fills), and the segunda (the lower-pitched, larger drum which holds down the basic beat).

(Recorded March 24, 2002)

This next track is an interesting one.  “Good Neighbor/Bad Neighbor” I found exceptional on two levels.  One, it features English lyrics (which are pretty darn funny actually), which might point to an origin that is not strictly Garifuna (this is pure conjecture on my part); and two, the dichotomy explored in the lyrics is actually reflected in the song structure:  That is, the drum pattern alternates between a hungu-hungu and a punta (punta being probably the most common of all Garifuna drum/dance rhythms, and has evolved into an amplified, pop music style, punta rock, that can be heard throughout the Caribbean and beyond).  This, I should point out, is a structure that I have only heard performed by Subas.

Lead singer and primera player Subas is here accompanied by Clifford Rosa (segunda), John Flores (shaker), Senovia Nicholas, Julia Nicholas and Sheraine Petillo (vocals).

(Recorded March 22, 2002)

* * *

Subas was instrumental in arranging a recording session with some of the ladies in town who perform a woman’s a capella song style known as abeimahani.  The performers (Andrea Gabriel, Dominica E. Lambey, Catalina Casimiro, Genevieve Ramirez and Julia Nicholas) were sweet and enthusiastic – eager to record what they deemed to be a disappearing musical style.  After the excruciatingly slow process of renting a car and gathering up the performers from their homes to take them to Subas’s sister’s house to record, we all had some brandy and milks and proceeded to have a fine time of it.  This was definitely among my most enjoyable recording sessions.

abeimahani

Abeimahani is described as a song of welcome. It is semi-religious in nature and most often performed in the initials stages of the dugu ceremony.  It is traditionally performed by the women, standing in line, with hands joined and arms swinging in time to the music.  There is a men’s equivalent to the abeimahani, the arumuhani, but in Belize this form seems to have disappeared completely.  In contrast to the abeimahani, which the present performers characterize as consistently good-natured, “nice” songs, the arumuhani was apparently quite risqué.

This is a recording of an abeimahani song titled Ineru:

(Recorded December 17, 2003)

Music of the Garifuna, 3 of 4

I had the great privilege of recording Paul Nabor, the famed parrandero of Punta Gorda.  Mr. Nabor is a legend of the Garifuna parranda style music, and he is perhaps the most lauded of the diminishing number of parranderos who have serenaded generations of Garinagu.  He played on stages in major cities across the world, from Rome to Mexico City.  At home in Punta Gorda he is respected not only as a musician but also as the town buyai, the medium who serves in dugu ceremonies, thus commanding respect not only for his musical abilities but for his work in the spiritual realm as well.

Nabor was easy to talk to, and several times during my stays in Punta Gorda I would stop by his home to chat with him.  There are a couple of impressions I remember most vividly:

“Nabor,” he once told me, was not his real name.  “Nabor” was the nickname of Mr. Paul Santino, though everyone in Belize knows him simply as “Nabor.”  In explanation, he recalled his youthful days as a rough and tumble character, an amateur boxer in fact, living across the border in Livingston, Guatemala.  It seemed there was a fellow about town at the time who always wanted to mix it up with Nabor but circumstances never allowed for it.  He was a considerably larger man than Nabor and so Nabor was not particularly willing to engage him, wisely preferring to avoid his antagonist altogether.  When the inevitable finally did occur and they came to blows, Nabor got the best of him.  “ … and I knocked him down, just like that!”  There was a gleam in his old eyes as he recalled his triumph.

When later asked about the fight, the loser responded helplessly “he nabored me! he nabored me!”  And thus was born the moniker.  To be honest, I have no idea exactly what this term “nabor” means in this context, nor am I entirely sure if I understood the story correctly – but it was certainly a pleasure to hear him tell it.

He also told me something about his concert tours in North America and Europe.  Rome, he said, was his favorite city of all, home to the most beautiful women and the friendliest people.  He confessed he didn’t care much for Washington, D.C. – too big to walk around, he claimed, one needed a car to get anywhere.  A common problem in United States cities, I sympathized.  “But I tell you, it was something to play in front of thousands of people – that makes you think!”  Asked how he overcame the nervousness he replied “well, I just thought about the only thing that mattered, my guitar here, and I know how to play my guitar, so I just went out and played my first song like I always do.”

And did the people like it?

“Oh yes, they clapped and clapped and everything went alright from there.”

Parranda is a form of Garifuna song that has received much press back in the 2000s (and maybe still does, I am not certain).  The word actually describes two distinct but related types of music.  The first is the drum rhythm and accompanying dance and song, which, alongside punta, is perhaps the favorite form of Garifuna drummers.  The second is a guitar-based ballad song, accompanied usually but not always by a drummer playing the typical parranda drum pattern, albeit in a less spectacular fashion then in the drum music.  It is this second type of parranda which the world music press has hailed of late as a triumph of Africanicity in Central America.  While I would never decry the African heritage of the Garifuna – an idea from which they gain great strength and pride – I feel in this case the claim has been made at the expense of the Latin influence.  To my ears, the influence of Spanish balladry seems at least as prevalent, if not more so, than the African.

Nabor’s songs, all of his own composition, stung with yearning and loneliness, melancholic reveries on subjects thick with romance:  imploring for the love of an ungiving woman, studying the waterfront of an unknown town as your boat enters port, finding oneself walking home as the sun rises after a night of adventures.  The four musicians featured in the following recordings played in a dugú temple, a cool, shadowy place with wooden walls and packed earth floor lit only by an open door and a window.  Bright red striped towels fluttered in the sun on a clothesline outside.

Every song began on a bouncy minor-key arpeggio of suspect intonation, due in part to the weathering of the fingerboard as well as a slight pulling of the strings by the player.  The songs then progressed through verse and chorus, the latter of which evolved into a montuno section, replete with increased primero fills and rolls, and aggressive guitar strumming.  Asked to comment on this feature, Nabor said simply, “Carib music is a little rough you know.”*

His last song was my favorite, a tune he titled simply “Ayodao.”  Gone was the recognizable snapping primero drum pattern, replaced by a slow, gentle beat in six.  “Not a parranda,” said Nabor, “but a bolero.”  Such a sad melody, played with the barest hint of drums to carry it along.  “Ayodao” was a heartbreakingly beautiful song, and easily my favorite of the day.  Like every other song Nabor played, he finished with a simple one-string slide of the fingerboard.

After the session, I let the musicians listen to the playback.  Nabor listened longer than the others and when he listened he held the headphones tightly to his ears and closed his eyes.  When he was finished he carefully lay the headphones on the table and turned to me and smiled, “oh, that is pretty music.”

Here are two tracks from this recording session.

Niri:

Ayodao:

 The musicians were Paul ‘Nabor’ Santino (guitar, lead vocal), Jihon Petillo (primero, vocal), Ismael Moreira (shaker, vocal), and Cristina Franzua (clave, vocal).

(Both recorded December 23, 2002)

*Perhaps it was just a testament to Nabor’s age, but his usage of the word “Carib” is interesting.  The word is a remnant of the Caribbean’s colonial past and has fallen out of favor.  Considered derogatory by some, it is uncommon to hear nowadays.