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A Family With Plenty of Pluck

Two generations of the Herreras of Oxnard have mastered the folk rhythms of el son jarocho.

September 06, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

The love affair began in a darkened Oxnard theater almost 50 years ago.

Fermin Herrera, then 7, sat mesmerized as the musician on screen appeared to magically caress the strings of a harp, filling the air with beautiful and inspiring music.

"I really didn't think it was possible to do that," said Herrera, now a 56-year-old Oxnard grandfather.

"I never got that image out of my mind."

Watching Mexican harpist Andres Huesca sparked a curiosity that eventually led two generations of Herrera family musicians to perform at music halls and festivals all over the country.

Conjunto Hueyapan -- the group Herrera formed with three brothers and his sister, and which now includes two of his adult sons -- has been practicing almost daily in his living room for 30 years now.

This week, they were preparing for a performance Sunday at Fiesta Mexicana at the Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. Herrera's daughter, Ixya, a 23-year-old singer, is the event's featured artist.

Fiesta Mexicana, which raises money for scholarships for Latino students, is a way to highlight home-grown talent and give these artists an opportunity to perform locally, said Raul Ruiz, event organizer and Cal State Northridge Chicano studies professor.

Traditional Mexican music "is just as complex and just as beautiful as other types of music," Ruiz said. "We just want people to appreciate that."

For decades, the Herreras have marveled audiences with el son jarocho.

The folk music originated in southern Veracruz and is characterized by fast-paced, percussive rhythms.

The sones, or lyrics of unconnected verses, are often improvised, and accentuations and syncopation change constantly. Jarocho musicians use three main instruments: the harp, and two guitar-like instruments known as the requinto jarocho and the jarana.

Although Herrera can play all the stringed instruments in the son jarocho now, he didn't begin learning to play the harp until his mid-20s. He tracked down a harpist in Los Angeles and later took trips to Veracruz where he learned from the best.

He taught his brothers, Andres, Jorge and Tomas and sister Maria Isabel, and in 1973 Conjunto Hueyapan was born. Hueyapan, an Aztec name meaning place by the coast, seemed an appropriate name for the Oxnard natives.

Conjunto Hueyapan has performed at prestigious venues and events such as the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at former President Reagan's inaugural ball. They are well known and highly regarded in artistic circles, but for Herrera, who also teaches Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, it's never been about fame or money. The group is not big on self-promotion and it took lots of prodding before they began performing publicly.

For Herrera, it's always been more about perfecting an art, and then passing it on to his children.

"There's something almost indescribable about the feeling that you get from mastering an instrument," he said. "Money can't buy that."

The Herrera children said they loved being raised in a creative environment. Their musical training gave them a sense of focus and purpose other children didn't have, they said, and they're grateful for that."If I could do it all over again, I would participate in this journey that my father began,"said Herrera's son, Motecuhzomah, 27, who began learning to play the instruments at age 8.

"It helped me appreciate music and now music is with me. I live it."

Their musical style has never been "in," but growing up, their friends appreciated their talent.

"When I was in grade school, my father would come in and perform and my friends all thought I was very lucky," said Ixya Herrera. "I always felt proud."

Ixya's passion is to sing and her parents always encouraged her, paying for years of extensive vocal training.

Herrera's son Xocoyotzin is lead vocalist in the group and also plays the harp.

Herrera's two other daughters, Xilomen and Ixchel, are not in the group, but both play the son jarocho instruments and can do the zapateado, the son jarocho's dance element.

And it seems there might soon be a third generation of musicians practicing in Herrera's living room.

Ixchel Herrera's 2-year-old son, Maxtla, is already taken by all the music at grandpa's house and loves the sounds of Cachao, the Cuban bass player credited with inventing the mambo.

Herrera smiles as he tells a visitor about Maxtla's very first word. It wasn't mommy or daddy.

Perhaps taking after his grandfather, who at a very young age fell in love with the instrument of the angels, the toddler uttered the word harpa.

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