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!

 

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