Zack Is Back

And he's playing Mexican music?!

Fans at both shows roared their approval, but the crowds were limited to Chicano activists. The legions of Rage Against the Machine fans are still not satisfied. A viewer comment on YouTube sums it up best: “yo zack no matter what style or how many styles release a fkn album many of millions of fans and supporters are eagerlly [sic] waiting god bless.”

De la Rocha wouldn’t comment for this story, and did not respond to a phone call requesting an interview. It’s not that he’s a jerk: I know de la Rocha through his girlfriend, and we’ve talked about his experiments with son jarocho for hours and hours. But de la Rocha isn’t ready to publicly talk about it: he’s busy working on his debut, to placate millions of former Rage fans.

To most music fans, the idea of de la Rocha spending his talents as a backup player to groups who play an obscure Mexican music form is heresy, like Michael Jordan wasting a year of his life to play minor-league baseball. They want Rage. They want the catalyst for one of the most incendiary, influential mainstream bands of the past 25 years to roar again, to emerge from years in the wilderness, to return to the world he left just as it took a totalitarian turn for the worst.

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

Rage was political but lots of people are political: Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” says as much as Rage did with fewer and less-explicit words. But Hendrix also got to write for a world that had never heard a sound-bite, and Rage had to push through waves of media noise. So they dropped any suggestion of subtlety for lyrics and music built on Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production: sirens, screaming and a vicious martial beat. That made rap-rock out of much better record collections than the guys in Korn ever had but it also confined them to their time in ways that more flexible political artists escaped. Dylan (whom Rage covered) sang about Hattie Carroll and it makes sense today; de La Rocha sang about Mumia and Al Gore and it makes mostly for guilty nostalgia. But Rage’s immediate impact when they existed was tremendous—maybe they decided to sacrifice long-term generalities to make their own moment more potent, or maybe they felt like the band wouldn’t last that long anyway. If it’s dated now, it was up-to-the-minute then, and if it’s a little heavy-handed now, well, consider the subject matter and admire how well the music matches—at least you could always tell exactly what they meant.

None of this seems possible anymore with de la Rocha dabbling in son jarocho. But a closer examination of both de la Rocha and son jarocho shows that the two match up better than one expects.

While son jarocho’s gorgeous melodies and chords sound innocuous, it’s actually one of Mexico’s most politically charged musical genres. Its instruments—the wooden plank known as the tarima, the box called a cajon, a donkey’s jaw (quijana), the jaranas and requintos—are legacies of the Conquest; Veracruzan tradition has it that the Spaniards took instruments from African and Indian slaves, and the slaves used common-day items as replacements.

Son jarocho songs are difficult to decipher even for Spanish speakers—the lyrics (called decimas) are usually sung in an ABBA format and an informal rural Spanish. The lyrics contain many seemingly nonsensical phrases and words—one song by Los Cojolites, “El Presidente,” sneaks in, “Me gusta la leche, me gusta el cafe/Pero más me gusta los ojos de usted” (I like milk, I like coffee/But I like your eyes better) between direct attacks against the perpetually ineffectual Mexican government. The jumbled lyrics allow singers to cleverly code messages from authorities, and the falsetto, rapid-fire voice customary to a group’s lead singer allows for further concealment. Son jarocho also encourages jaraneros (the name given to son jarocho players) to improvise lyrics and melodies at every performance, further creating a platform for musicians to comment on the news of the day. And the music is traditionally performed only during fandangos, all-night parties where the music, dancing, drinking and love flowed freely.

As a result, Spanish and then Mexican authorities tried to isolate and suppress son jarocho. The Catholic Church banned son jarocho during the 18th century on the grounds it was immoral; Mexican politicians co-opted the music’s revolutionary potential by transforming it into a harmless folk curio on the level of the Hawaiian hula. The most famous case is son jarocho’s signature song, “La Bamba.”

If Americans know son jarocho at all, it’s because of “La Bamba.” It’s the prototypical son jarocho tune: looping, irresistible with goofy lyrics (the infamous “yo no soy marinero/soy capitán"—“I’m not a sailor/I’m a captain”) masked in centuries of intrigue. Some scholars think its lyrics refer to efforts by Spanish authorities to conscript Veracruzans into the navy; others say it’s a satirical take on a 17th-century siege of Veracruz by pirates that left hundreds dead—and a cute dance that accompanies the song.

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