Zack Is Back

And he's playing Mexican music?!

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Centro Cultural de Mexico hosted a grand reopening party for its new downtown Santa Ana location. Performance troupes of every possible Mexican region and culture—Oaxacan brass bands, Aztec dancers, child baile folklorico groups from Michoacán, punk bands, mariachi ensembles, hip-hop artists—gathered in the Centro’s already crowded concert room and waited their turns.

The heat inside the Centro was tropical that evening—the windows dripped with condensation, and attendees desperately fanned themselves with programs, hands, anything to produce a gust. But no one complained. Mingling with the performers and the crowd that night was Zack de la Rocha, former lead singer for Rage Against the Machine. Rumor was de la Rocha would perform that night, something he had rarely done in the five years since Rage broke up.

Around 10 p.m., de la Rocha climbed onto the Centro’s stage. He held a small, double-stringed guitar called a jarana. Surrounding him were about 20 other people, each also holding jaranas. De la Rocha stepped to the back.

The happiest man in the world. Photo by Zach Cordner
The happiest man in the world. Photo by Zach Cordner
Are you with Son Del Centro? Photo by John Gilhooley
Are you with Son Del Centro? Photo by John Gilhooley

In the front of the stage were members of Son del Centro, the Centro Cultural’s house band. The group consists of Santa Ana teenagers and young adults who perform son jarocho, a musical genre native to the Mexican Caribbean state of Veracruz. The men were dressed in baptismal white guayaberas; the women wore modest dresses.

A tall, skinny teen began to furiously pluck a guitar with a pick chiseled from the shell of a tortoise. The long, narrow-necked guitar (called a requinto) emitted a deep reverb-heavy twang, like a high-pitched bass. Someone else smacked a wooden box the size of an orange crate; a girl stomped on a wooden plank; another guy rattled a donkey’s jaw. A boy began wailing lyrics of love in a garbled falsetto. Soon, de la Rocha and the other jarana players began strumming their ukulele-like guitars. The room filled with the shimmering, crisp chords of about 20 jaranas.

Son jarocho is unlike anything you’ve ever heard: a primitive, herky-jerky, repetitive rush of strings and percussion, something the human body cannot help but to sway to slowly, sensuously, endlessly. It’s a sound so precious but foreign you assume it’s performed only for special occasions. It couldn’t possibly be contemporary.

Yet here were the youngsters and de la Rocha, playing for almost two hours nonstop, mesmerizing an audience of about 100.

If the crowd waited for de la Rocha to take center stage, they waited in vain.

He strummed, sang along with the chorus, and smiled. The crowd stared, bewildered. They waited for de la Rocha to step out in front, to lead them into an angered frenzy as so many times before with Rage.

But de la Rocha stayed put. He just smiled.

De la Rocha’s cameo at the Centro’s reopening confirmed what many music fans have whispered about for years: the spokesperson for a generation of activists has eschewed the political rap-metal of Rage and gone Mexican.

Since Rage Against the Machine broke up in 2000, de la Rocha has worked with artists ranging from DJ Shadow to Trent Reznor on a long-delayed solo debut that’s rumored to finally appear early next year. But de la Rocha spent most of the past year immersing himself in son jarocho—practicing the music with Son del Centro and other youth son jarocho groups, traveling to Mexico’s major son jarocho festivals, even playing backup to the genre’s major artists during concerts.

But de la Rocha is also quietly planning something more profound: the fusion of son jarocho and his unique brand of rapid-fire spoken-word into one of the most stunning musical creations since Dylan went electric.

De la Rocha debuted his new style last fall at a most unlikely venue—the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He was billed as a guest artist for that night’s headliners, the Chicano group Quetzal and leading son jarocho group Son de Madera.

Video of the performance on YouTube shows the de la Rocha of old: fierce, nimble with words and revolutionary couplets. The music was as foreboding as Rage, but all acoustic and based on son jarocho’s centuries-old rhythms. Son de Madera strummed the same chords, pounded the same drumbeats, shook the same bead-covered gourd—acoustic hip-hop, if you will—while de la Rocha launched high-pitched bromide after high-pitched bromide about Hurricane Katrina, Iraq and the injustices of the world.

“The marriage of [de la Rocha’s] angry punk-rap ethos with son jarocho’s lyrical, joyful spirit seemed incongruous at first—until you heard the startling results,” Los Angeles Times writer Agustín Gurza gushed in a review of de la Rocha’s Natural History museum show. “It was like liberating a beloved tradition. The essence of the earthy, acoustic sound was preserved while being transformed, even radicalized. The performance left the exciting impression that something totally new was being created.”

De la Rocha has performed this stunning show only once since—at a November 2005 concert to save the now-destroyed South Central Farm. This time de la Rocha rapped original material while backed by another famous son jarocho group, Los Cojolites. Then de la Rocha slinked into the background again and joined in the call-and-response to the son jarocho standard “Luna Negra.” Again, de la Rocha smiled.

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