Radio Jarocho brings rural Mexican party music to the big city
Son jarocho, a Mexican rural music that is enjoying a cosmopolitan revival, has very specific roots: in the farmland and fishing villages of southern Veracruz state, along the Caribbean coast, where Spanish, African, and indigenous populations mixed. It has history and conventions, including distinct string instruments, a wooden platform for dancing, and lyrics written in décimas, 10-line stanzas with eight syllables per line.
Another thing about son jarocho: It’s raucous.
“It can get loud,” says Julia del Palacio, cofounder of Radio Jarocho, the New York City-based band that’s the most established son jarocho outfit on the East Coast. “People will call the police. That has happened!”
That’s because son jarocho took shape as a festival music, performed hours on end at weddings, wakes, saint’s days, and other occasions, in a celebration called the fandango. At the center is the tarima — the resonant platform on which dancers in wooden heels execute the zapateado, tap-style steps that provide the music’s percussion.
“The dance, the song, and the music are all part of the son jarocho,” says Zenen Zeferino, a son jarocho master from Jaltipán, Veracruz, who is currently on an extended artistic visit to Radio Jarocho. “And the essence of son jarocho includes everything that’s happening around the fiesta: the food, even the work people did that day in the fields.”
With Zeferino as special guest, Radio Jarocho plays on Nov. 4 at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, as part of a music series put on by Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, the South End’s historic Puerto Rican community group. Lately, son jarocho has found aficionados beyond Veracruz natives, first elsewhere in Mexico, and now in the United States, including among other Latino communities.
“There are fandangos being held outside the Veracruz context,” says Zeferino. “People have learned about it.” In Mexico City, Los Angeles, or Chicago, bands play traditional son jarocho or mix it with jazz or electronica — not unlike the revival and experimentation that has flowered around Colombian cumbia.
Jordi Savall, the viola da gamba master, has combined son jarocho with Mexican baroque and Spanish early music. And every year, a huge fandango takes place on the US-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana, with dozens of musicians and dancers playing on either side of the fence.
Music from the son jarocho tradition has seeped out before. “La Bamba,” which Ritchie Valens, Los Lobos, and many others adapted, is a song from Veracruz and a fandango staple to this day. But the contemporary movement is a more thorough affair that builds on work by Mexican researchers to document folk styles, and on efforts by local musicians to learn the tradition from elders.
“When [Zeferino] started out, his friends used to make fun of him for playing the music of their grandparents,” says del Palacio. “He and other musicians of his generation were crucial in the revival of son jarocho.”
“Nowadays, there’s a pride in being jarocho,” Zeferino says. The tradition is even being taught in music schools, not just informally. “Before, that was unthinkable!”
Radio Jarocho, which formed in 2005 in New York, is a case in point of son jarocho’s influence. None of its members is from Veracruz. Del Palacio, the dancer, comes from Mexico City, as does Juan Carlos Marín, who plays requinto guitar. Bassist Victor Murillo is Californian. And Carlos Cuestas, who plays the jarana, the string instrument central to the sound, comes from Colombia.
Del Palacio grew up hearing folk music, as her father was a researcher in the field. But it was a visit to Veracruz that brought her to her first fandango and cemented her love. “I saw the women dancing and thought, I can’t go another day without learning this,” she says. “I’ve been dancing for 20 years now, and it keeps nourishing me.”
The band plays son jarocho classics and originals, sometimes mixed with styles like flamenco or baroque. “We consider we play traditional son jarocho, but we’ve taken it outside,” del Palacio says. There is always a part for improvisation, and the program can adapt to different settings. Flexibility is itself part of the tradition, Zeferino explains.
“We have to take from the moment and nourish ourselves with what we live every day,” he says. “For instance, I could write a song about living in New York, because I’m spending time here.” His lyrics are typically décimas — the classic style, in which singers face off in off-the-cuff décima challenges — but sometimes use other verse forms.
For Zeferino, working with Radio Jarocho has been a welcome break from Veracruz, where conditions have deteriorated in recent years. The state has seen high levels of violence and corruption; its governor is currently facing charges and is on the lam. “It’s difficult to live there now,” Zeferino says.
Radio Jarocho, meanwhile, gets the benefit of playing with one of its musical heroes. “I knew of [Zeferino] for many years; when I first started to dance, I would listen to him,” del Palacio says. “I feel lucky he is with us. Sometimes I say to him, ‘Don’t leave us, don’t leave us for another band!’ ”
At: Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, Nov. 4 at 7 pm
Tickets: $9. Information: 617-927-1707, ibaboston.org