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.
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:
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: