Mono Blanco, one of the groups who helped to revitalize traditional son… (Betto Arcos )
In 1958, San Fernando Valley native Ritchie Valens climbed the U.S. pop charts with a butt-kicking little tune called "La Bamba." According to the song's Spanish-language lyrics, dancing to it properly required "a little grace" and a little bit of something else.
Few teenagers bopping to "La Bamba" probably realized they were jumping around to a rock-a-fied version of son jarocho, a structurally elegant but high-spirited fusion of Afro-Caribbean beats and often wise-cracking wordplay on timely political topics.
Over the centuries son jarocho (pronounced ha-RO-cho) has traveled thousands of miles in search of new places to settle. Now, the largest son jarocho festival in Southern California, the 11th annual Encuentro de Jaraneros, returns to downtown Los Angeles this weekend after an absence of several years.
The festival opens Saturday at noon and will run through midnight at the Plaza de Cultura y Artes, with a lineup that includes traditional jarocho bands such as Mono Blanco as well as jarocho-influenced Southern California groups like Quetzal and Las Cafeteras. Another participating group, Las Conchitas del Mar, specializes in huasteco music, a kissing-cousin of son jarocho from Veracruz.
Rooted in the Mexican Atlantic coastal state of Veracruz, son jarocho's origins go back to the Renaissance and the colonial slave trade. The sound's instrumental core consists of small jarana and requinto guitars, diatonic harps, the box-like percussive cajón and the quijada, a donkey or horse's jawbone that's played with a scraping stick. It's accompanied by fandango dancing on the tarima, a small wooden platform originally devised by slaves to tap out exuberant rhythms that contained a subversively explosive edge.
"Son jarocho just makes you want to move," says Daniel French of Las Cafeteras. "It's just so fierce and energetic and full of urgency."
The event's hosts will be Betto Arcos, a native of the Veracruz capital of Xalapa and host of KPFK’s world music show "Global Village," and Rafael Figueroa of Radio Más in Veracruz. Arcos says there has been a musical dialogue between Los Angeles and Veracruz for decades. Mexican immigrants to the U.S. have transported son jarocho to California. Meanwhile, numerous local groups like Hermanos Herrera and Quetzal have made pilgrimages to Veracruz to study with jarocho masters.
"If you look at Los Lobos, going back to the early ‘70s, they were always interested" in son jarocho, Arcos says. "Their first album, ‘Just Another Band From East L.A.,’ has a couple jarocho songs on it. The next generation after Los Lobos -- Quetzal, Los Cenzontles -- started exploring it too. And the Chicanos have been a source of income for the jarochos, because they buy instruments, they take lessons. Now you have this incredible exchange between jarochos and Chicanos."
In its early years, the Encuentro was held at the kiosk on Olvera Street; later it shifted to Plaza Mexico, a Lynwood shopping mall. Ximena Minotta Martin, registrar and education curator at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, says she's pleased the Encuentro is returning to the Olvera Street area, the historic heart of L.A.'s Mexican American community.
Las Cafeteras' French says that a number of L.A. bands, including his, strive to maintain son jarocho's traditions of community engagement. "For us, music is definitely a vehicle for social change and telling our stories," French says.