Zack Is Back

And he's playing Mexican music?!

Sarmiento, along with Quetzal and others, began Fandango sin Fronteras (Fandangos Without Borders), an exchange of sorts between California and Veracruz to promote son jarocho in Mexico and the United States. Jaraneros in Veracruz visit the United States to perform and teach classes; Southern Californian jaraneros, in turn, buy handcrafted instruments and help support the Veracruzan economy.

"Part of our deal over here is how can we help them stay over there," Sarmiento says. "In many parts of Veracruz, son jarocho is alive but none of the young people are around to play it. They're all in the United States, working in factories, and they have no time to play."

Southern California jaraneros also offer free son jarocho classes to anyone interested. Son del Centro offers them every Thursday evening and Saturday morning at the Centro. Adults and children learn the basics of son jarocho—the chords, the lyrics and the history of the music.

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

On a recent Saturday, Ana Siria Urzúa patiently taught about 10 children how to properly strum a jarana. A third-year anthropology major at UC Irvine, Urzúa was once a student of son jarocho herself—she took lessons from other Son del Centro members before joining the group last year. In addition to teaching classes at the Centro, the group also performs everywhere, from community events to protests—the picture on their recently released debut, Mi Jarana es Mi Fusil (My Jarana Is My Gun) shows Urzúa and Son del Centro members Roxana Guajardo and Edlín López marching in Los Angeles during the pro-amnesty tides of the spring.

"When you start playing son jarocho, you don't want to stop," says Urzúa, who plans to study how raising cultural awareness through son jarocho lessons raises the academic performance of children. "You get into this groove—playing the songs again and again, but always changing things a little bit. There's no music like it. And the cool thing is son jarocho is still pretty unknown, still pretty non-commercial.

"But the more people know about it, the more that will change," adds Urzúa. "In the meantime, all we can do is play."

Each year, Son del Centro and other members of Fandango sin Fronteras reunite at the Encuentro de Jaraneros y Decimistas (Meeting of Jaraneros and Decimistas), a weeklong festival of all things son jarocho held each spring in the Veracruzan city of Tlacotalpan. De la Rocha attended this year, traveling from concert to concert but not performing.

"Zack and I and a member of Mono Blanco [a legendary son jarocho group] were traveling on a bus deep inside Veracruz," Carolina remembers. "I'm basically traveling with rock stars. At one stop, a guy tries to get our attention. I figure it's for Zack, or maybe the Mono Blanco member. But the stranger wants to talk to me. He asks, 'Are you with Son del Centro in Santa Ana?' I was blown away. We travel to Veracruz, and people know Son del Centro—people know about Santa Ana! And it's all because of son jarocho."

The parking lot of Santa Ana's Fiesta Marketplace is empty most Saturday nights, but Nov. 4 was different. That's when the Centro held its annual Día de los Muertos celebration. The Fiesta Marketplace parking lot filled with altars, vendors and curious people. Families took pictures alongside a woman dressed as a catrina (a well-dressed skeleton) and drank cups of champurrado to stave off the night's chill.

That night's main attraction was Son del Centro. Two days earlier, they played to a packed house at the Orange County High School of the Performing Arts in honor of their debut CD.

De la Rocha was there that night, and he was also at the Centro's Día de los Muertos ceremonies. Again, he joined Son del Centro. And again, he stayed in the background, while onlookers gawked and pointed.

Son del Centro played for about an hour, again rousing the crowd like they did so many months ago. Then they launched into "La Bamba."

The requinto player plucked out notes at once familiar and new. Another woman stomped on the tarima. And then a woman began to wail:

"Yo le cantó a la Bamba/Yo le cantó a la Bamba porqué se que es el himno/Porque se que es el himno de Veracruz y arriba y arriba!" (I sing to the Bamba/I sing to the Bamba because I know it's the hymn/Because I know it's the hymn of Veracruz and faster and faster!)

An onrush of jaranas and quijanas and singing and tapping became like a living thing that absorbed the dimly lit parking lot. The crowd tapped their feet, drummed their fingers on any flat surface. Some joined the dancers on the tarima and stomped; others grabbed jaranas and clumsily jammed.

It was "La Bamba" as it should be: unique yet the same, and still relevant. Son del Centro slowed only enough to allow each member to improvise a new lyric. Each did so effortlessly, mixing jokes and puns while keeping a frenetic, hypnotic pace.

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