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Music and Dance

Old songs full of life

Mexico's son jarocho is an irresistible amalgam of sounds venerable and vibrant. At an annual festival, the music moves the feet, warms the soul and just may revive a village.

February 16, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Tlacotalpan, Mexico — Now that the river has been fouled by pollution and the local economy has flat-lined, this introspective pueblo of 12,000 has put its hopes for the future in three things: rampaging bulls, the Virgin Mary and a uniquely exhilarating brand of roots music that many people thought was headed for the boneyard barely a generation ago.

The music, son jarocho (pronounced ha-RO-cho), is a classically structured but insanely catchy fusion of lyrical forms from Spain's golden age, wild and woolly Afro-Cuban beats, and a type of wisecracking, improvisational wordplay that connects Mexico's rural past with its increasingly urbanized, cosmopolitan present.

Originally imported by African slaves to the nearby port city of Veracruz, son jarocho later retreated into the brackish wetlands of this sizzling coastal plain, where it dozed contentedly, virtually unchanged, for two centuries. A fleeting revival occurred in the 1940s, when former Veracruz Gov. and future Mexican President Miguel Aleman adopted the most famous of all son jarochos, "La Bamba," as his campaign theme, spurring an exodus of musicians from Veracruz to the nation's capital. Later, Ritchie Valens hit pop stardom with an even slicker, more commercialized version of "La Bamba."

Jaunty though it is, however, Valens' well-known rendition only hints at the raw exuberance of a musical-dance genre once considered so aggressively sensual that the Spanish Inquisition tried to ban it. Built around 6/8 and 3/4 time signatures, traditional son jarocho has a hypnotic lilt that derives from its lickety-split strumming of 10-string jaranas and four-string requintos, its celestial shimmer of diatonic harps, and its spooky scrapings of quijadas (donkeys' jaws).

"The rhythm of son jarocho doesn't exist anywhere else outside here, except in Africa," says Jacques Riviere, a French filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the music.

As recently as the late 1960s, son jarocho was largely forgotten and tottering toward extinction. But a frenzied three-day music festival that wrapped up here earlier this month suggests that the music is not only surviving, but also suddenly thriving in the backyard of its birthplace. The reason? A remarkable alliance of grizzled campesino musicians, academics who've helped chronicle and preserve the music's long, complex heritage, and a growing number of young jaraneros (son jarocho performers) eager to bring their forefathers' culture into the 21st century -- without compromising its archaic soul.

Close encounters

For the son jarocho faithful, the festival synthesizes all these elements in what organizers like to refer to as an encuentro, or encounter. As they see it, the 24th annual Encuentro Nacional de Jaraneros y Decimistas (a decima is a 10-line lyrical poem) presents not only a great excuse to throw a blowout 72-hour party, but also a rare opportunity to bring together obsessive fans and curious newcomers, lured by a seductive sound that partially dates to the Renaissance.

"We call it the Woodstock of son jarocho, because everybody's here," says Rafael Figueroa Hernandez, a Mexico City musicologist whose father, Rafael "Don Fayo" Figueroa, plays bass for the veteran son jarocho group Siquisiri, one of the encuentro's main organizers.

Two weekends ago, the local population tripled as thousands of day-trippers converged on this town of pocket-sized parks, palm trees swept by Atlantic breezes, and modest one- and two-story houses painted in Crayola hues, a town UNESCO has designated a Cultural Endowment of Mankind.

Many had come to witness two cash-cow spectacles that also take place in late January and early February: a gruesome ritual slaughter of six Brahman bulls, which are first allowed to chase the terrorized and giggling locals through narrow streets; and a solemn water-borne procession honoring the Virgin of Candelaria. Some pilgrims also came to pay tribute to the memory of native-son composer Agustin Lara (1900-70), the Cole Porter of the Mexican romantic music called bolero.

Hundreds more came to listen -- and to dance. In jaranero culture, even the music is secondary to the fandango dancing that accompanies it. Like son jarocho, fandango is formally disciplined but emotionally uninhibited, channeling rhythmic movement, stylized eroticism and social custom into a single interactive experience. "The encuentro is a display window for the [musical] groups, but the essence is the fandango," says Diego Lopez, the encuentro's general coordinator.

To understand dance's primacy in jaranero culture, recall that the first words of "La Bamba" are "Para bailar la bamba/se necesita / Una poca de gracia y otra cosita" -- in English, roughly, "In order to dance the bamba, it is necessary to have a little bit of grace and a little something else." That something else is a working knowledge of the musical and social conventions that inform fandango.

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