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.
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.
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.
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: