By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
With their shoestring budget and strong ties to Santa Ana, Los Cojolites battle to save son jarocho, the Afro-Mestizo music of Mexico’s Gulf Coast
Every Thursday evening, Benito Cortés Padua, a handsome youngmusician with a voice that travels through the dusty little town of Jaltipan, Mexico, like a swirl of birds at sunrise, steps onto the dirt floor of the courtyard at the modest Center for the Documentation of Son Jarocho and waits.
He hugs his jarana terceraclose to his body and tunes it. With the small, handmade, eight- or 10-string guitar, Cortés can invoke some of the multiple influences of the music he plays: the contagious ardor of Senegalese drums; the scintillating, Arab-inspired inflections of Spanish guitar; the earth-rooted lyricism of Mexico’s indigenous Nahua. It is one of the central instruments of son jarocho, the 300-year-old Afro-Mestizo music of his native Gulf Coast state of Veracruz that Cortés and his band mates from Los Cojolites have dedicated themselves not only to learning, performing and teaching for the last 15 years, but also to preserving.
Half a continent away, on those same Thursday nights, Luis Sarmiento, a Mexican-born, U.S.-raised activist and musician with sleepy, inquisitive eyes, plucks at his jarana in one of the small, upstairs rooms at the Centro Cultural de México in downtown Santa Ana while he waits for his students to arrive. In front of him sits the tarima, a sturdy little wooden stage. It is used by dancers belonging to the son jarocho group he plays with, and it is adorned with thick black lettering: Cuando la cultura muere, la gente muere (When the culture dies, the people die).
It’s a fitting tribute to the work done by Los Cojolites (named after a native bird) and the handful of groups who came just before them in paving the way for a vigorous son jarocho preservation and revival effort known as the Movimiento Jaranero (the Jaranero Movement). The tentacles of the movement, which was spurred by young musicians in the 1970s, have reached not only Santa Ana, but also as far north as Milwaukee and Chicago and east into New York.
“Los Cojolites have been a real inspiration to us,” Sarmiento says. The group he plays with, Son del Centro, formed in 2002; they opened for Los Cojolites the last time the band were here, at a packed Yost Theater in 2007. Members of Son del Centro have traveled to Verarcruz numerous times in the past five years to study the tradition and history of the music with well-known musicians at the annual weeklong series of workshops known as the seminario, which Los Cojolites host at a rustic ranch next to a lazy river in Jaltipan.
This weekend, Los Cojolites will make their sixth visit to Santa Ana for the first multiple-son jarocho-group encuentro, or encounter, in Orange County. Musicians from Mexico, Mexicali and LA and other parts of California will crowd into the Centro to participate in a morning of roundtable discussions about their community work and to share musical ideas. They will then perform in an all-day showcase at the nearby Fiesta Marketplace.
The groups—and anyone else who wants to come along—will then return to the Centro for a traditional fandango. In their heyday, fandangos would draw in dozens to hundreds of town residents who would crowd around the tarimaas musicians took turns singing, playing and dancing. The spontaneous, intensely democratic, musical affair would last through the night—sometimes for days. Although they were nearly nonexistent by the late 1970s, fandangos have returned with a turbulent, multigenerational presence thanks to the work of Los Cojolites and like-minded groups on both sides of the border.
“We’re hoping it will be really good,” Sarmiento says of the encuentro, which mirrors those first held in the late 1970s in Tlacotalpan, a bucolic town surrounded by rivers and the ocean in southern Veracruz. What was once a gathering of maybe a dozen groups has grown to a massive, three-day affair, with hundreds of son jarocho groups from all over Mexico descending on the small town. Dozens of encuentros are now held annually throughout Mexico and California, including LA. “The whole thing with the encuentro is that it has gotten so big that, unfortunately, a lot of the other elements, like the roundtable discussions, or even the fandango, have been, in some cases, lost,” Sarmiento says.
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As 30-year-old Cortés paces the courtyard in Jaltipan and warms up his voice and hands, kids and teens from the neighborhood—as well as some from even farther away—begin to arrive with jaranas of varying sizes, requintos(tiny guitars that emit a luminous melody) and leonas(large, meaty, bass guitars)strapped to their backs.
Soon, the muggy night sky is crowded with their voices, the rasqueado of their jaranas (a kind of scratching strum that makes the jarana serve as percussion as well as a stringed instrument), and the lucid, syncopated thumping of their feet as they dance alone or in pairs on the tarima, around which the musicians gather. More than just a stage, the tarimaand the dancing feet upon them are said to have replaced African drums after Spanish slave-owners, frustrated by the spellbinding Central and West African music that mocked their authority, stripped them from their slaves’ hands.