Zack Is Back

And he's playing Mexican music?!

Americans had embraced the song even before Ritchie Valens recorded a rock version in 1959. A 1945 Time magazine article excitedly noted that American big band leaders were taking the song north and described it as a “studied love ritual of Spanish-Indian origin” in which dancers “sing their own improvised, often risqué and not always intelligible love lyrics.”

The Time article also mentioned that native Veracruzan Miguel Aleman was using “La Bamba” as a campaign song for his successful 1946 presidential run. The PRI machine that ruled Mexico for nearly 75 years turned “La Bamba” and son jarocho into a commodity, something to spread as emblematic of Mexican culture. Mariachis across Mexico and the United States incorporated it into their repertoire. The song’s popularity and familiarity on both sides of the border inspired Valens to record his own take, which helped expose the song further.

With “La Bamba,” son jarocho finally had an international audience, yet the resulting popularity conversely killed the music form in its native state; the only way son jarocho groups could make a living was if they played “La Bamba.” In addition, poverty in Veracruz forced jaraneros to migrate across Mexico and perform according to the whims of the audience. Soon, son jarocho became as formulaic as mariachi—the same songs, always played the same way. This bowdlerized style even received a name: jarocho blanco (white jarocho), so named after the white peasant clothes musicians wore as uniforms while playing son jarocho to satisfy the expectations of audiences.

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 1960s and 1970s, however, Mexican academics began collaborating with musicians to make son jarocho vital again. It worked: son jarocho became the music of choice for Mexican and Chicano activists, and groups incorporated its sounds as a defiant stance against Mexican authorities and American audiences who dismissed son jarocho as harmless. The East Los Angeles punk group the Plugz rescued “La Bamba” from its American novelty status by recording a high-speed version that politicized the song anew—lead singer Tito Larriva added his own couplet to the hundreds on record for “La Bamba” when he snarled, “No soy fascista, no soy capitalista, soy ANARQUISTA!”

But it was Los Lobos who did the most to popularize son jarocho in Southern California. In 1978, the band included three son jarocho classics on their debut, the all-Spanish Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (Just Another Band From East Los Angeles): “El Canelo” (The Brown-Skinned Man), “La Iguana” and “María Chuchena.” The recordings are remarkable for their faithful covers, down to the peasant Mexican Spanish vocals and swirling jaranas of the originals.

Los Lobos frontman Cesar Rosas has always been up-front about why his group dabbles in son jarocho.

“We were the first East LA band—a group of East LA kids who enhanced this Mexican music because we felt that it was something that was really important to do at the time,” he told UCLA professor Steven Loza for Loza’s 1993 book Barrio Rhythms: Mexican-American Music in Los Angeles. “Important for our peers, important for our culture, important for the community, and to awaken a lot of people and say, ‘Look-it man, Mexican music is a beautiful thing, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it.’”

Almost every album Los Lobos has recorded since its debut has featured the jarana or another son jarocho instrument. And, of course, there was their 1987 remake of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.” While America rocked anew to the song, most radio stations cut the song off at the end, when Los Lobos dropped their hard rock in favor of a wave of twinkling guitars rushing in—the jaranas of son jarocho.

Son jarocho's influence on Southern California Chicano musicians waned after Los Lobos' "La Bamba"—the song and music form again became clichés that Chicano musicians tried to avoid. The only major group that incorporated son jarocho into its music was the eclectic East Los Angeles ensemble Quetzal.

Years ago, I interviewed Quetzal Flores about his group's use of son jarocho (see "Have Jarana, Will Travel," Nov. 27, 2003). His response is still one of the best endorsements of son jarocho's power. "We performed at an academic conference in Kentucky about the influence black culture had on the Americas earlier this year," Flores told me. "One of the professors made the point that, as maniacal and genocidal as slavery was, black culture survived and thrived. That's son. The slaves had drums, the Spaniards took them away. The slaves said, 'All right, fuck you. I'll stomp on wood then,' and created this wondrous music. It shows how rich humans are. Human resilience will always prevail. And that's what we try to convey—the problems and beauty of Los Angeles."

But more than just incorporate son jarocho into their repertoire, Quetzal transformed Southern California into a breeding ground for the music. In 2000, Flores and his wife joined Jarabe Citlali, a group of UCLA students who performed Afro-Caribbean music. Among its members were Carolina Sarmiento, de la Rocha's girlfriend and a member of the Centro Cultural's board of directors and Son del Centro.

"We had heard that son jarocho was super different from what we were used to—you know, 'Bamba, bamba,'" she says with a laugh. "So we connected with musicians in Veracruz. What we heard and learned from them about son jarocho was amazing. They used it not just as music but also to organize communities. There's very much of a punk-DIY vibe that's underlying in son jarocho—you make your own instruments, your clothes, and build community out of it."

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