Over the winter holidays I traveled once again to the southern Mexican state of Veracruz. Since summer, I’ve been learning a traditional style of string music known as Son Jarocho.
It’s music that in the last decade or so has gained popularity among young Mexican-Americans in U.S. cities, in large part because of how it’s played. Jam sessions called fandangos begin in the evening and if all goes well, last until sunrise. The chords of small guitar-like instruments called jaranas are accompanied by the clack, clack, clack of hard-soled dancing shoes keeping the rhythm upon a wooden platform, and high-pitched voices singing improvised verses about love, nature, life and death.
Participants like myself find comfort in the ritual’s communal aspects. Fandangos can include 50 musicians or more all playing at once, or they can be as small as four or five people. Even the largest fandangos feel intimate, because they require that you listen closely to those around you. In the best fandangos, if you’re perceptive, you start to notice narratives emerging from the verse, friends or romantic interests singing to each other, rivals sizing each other up, usually in good fun. You don’t find this kind of community much in urban modern life.
I’ve filed a couple of reports about this music before: about the community of musicians in the San Diego-Tijuana region, and about a trip I took to Veracruz over the summer.
One of the prevailing narratives that’s emerged about the new jaranero movement – which takes its name from the instrument – is that the interest in Son Jarocho outside of Veracruz has driven the music’s resurgence. Some have even gone so far as to say it’s rescued the music, because in the rural communities where the fandango has been a way of life for many generations, old musicians were dying and young ones were not replacing them.
That notion has sparked plenty of debate within the community of jaraneros, because some have countered that it’s not the new generation of outside musicians who are "saving the music," but rather the other way around. The reality is probably that the relationship is at least somewhat mutually beneficial.
And then there are cases like that of my friend Gaudencio Escribano, who worries less about outsiders and more about his community. Born and raised in Veracruz, he lives in a small town called Ohuilapan, at the end of rugged road in the hills outside a medium-sized city. His grandfather was a well-know musician in his community, and his father also plays and makes instruments. But until a few years ago, Gaudencio, who’s in his late 30s, didn’t himself have much of an interest in Son.
And then one day, he told me, he realized that yes, this tradition was at risk of being lost in his town. So with the help of his father and other musicians, he learned to play, dance and sing. And then he started teaching children in Ohuilapan and in other places.
He visits schools and neighboring towns, and he hosts workshops at his home. When I visited with a group of friends from San Diego right after the New Year, he used a rotating loudspeaker perched at the top of a wooden post to invite the entire town to a fandango.
That afternoon was the highlight of my trip. As Gaudencio walked us through the town from home to home to extend personal invitations to the fandango, we were greeted by mothers who said their children had heard the announcement and had already left for his house.
Indeed, when we got back to Gaudencio’s home, the kids were waiting for us. A few of the town’s older musicians joined us too, and we all spent a beautiful evening playing, singing and dancing with Ohuilapan’s next generation of musicians.
For more Fronteras Desk news, visit fronterasdesk.org.