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
Other instruments may include the stirring rattle of a donkey jawbone known as the quijada, which is played with a wooden stick; the deep, somnambulant timbre of the marimbol; upright harps; and occasionally the wooden, box-shaped cajon. There is no limit to the instruments used or improvised—musicians past and present have experimented by including the Cuban tres, congas, snare drums, even trombones.
Not more than three decades ago, the music that fills the sky tonight—in its purest, oldest, most squarely Afro-indigenous-Iberian form—was all but dead. The tradition was viewed locally as the music of the uncouth, cultivated on cantina corners by disruptive coteries of disgruntled farmers singing of their dalliances. Nationally, a remnant of the original style had been popularized in the 1940s during Mexico’s filmic golden age and become a commercialized mockery of its former self.
It was a style that “made a stereotype out of us—with everyone dressed in white, playing a speedy son jarocho that sounds like so many other types of son—and with a dance that separates itself from the tarima,” says Ricardo Perry Guillen, a whimsical, portly lyricist, historian and poet who founded the Center for the Documentation of Son Jarocho. He also founded Los Cojolites, whom he also manages.
Perry is the mastermind behind the original son jarocho community workshops in Jaltipan and the nearby town of Cocoleacaque in the 1990s, which would eventually give birth to several bands, including Los Cojolites. His workshops catered to a lost generation of kids and teens who had little or no familiarity with the musical traditions that, he says, had once bound their communities together.
To teach the kids, he brought in aging musicians who had long been isolated and nearly forgotten and whose rich, musical repertoires lived only in their minds. He also brought in young bands, like Chuchumbé, which he also founded and who were active in the jaranero movement.
“It’s important for the young people to be exposed, like I was, to the older musicians and to listen to them and pay attention to what they have to teach us about the traditions and culture of son jarocho,” Cortés says.
Los Cojolites members Nora Lara Gómez, Joel Cruz Castellanos and Cortés all got their start at Perry’s workshops. Other group members—such as Noé González Molina and Esteban Gonzalo Vega Hernández—came from families that had been passing down son jarocho lyrics and traditions for generations.
“All of the communities in southern Veracruz are the result of cultural clashes,” says Cruz Castellanos, the youngest member of the group at 24, whose infectious smile has become a staple of Los Cojolites’ performances. “When I first started playing the jarana, I asked myself, ‘What is the origin of this instrument?’” he recalls. “For me, son jarocho provides a window into a bygone insight that I might not have come to know or understand any other way.” It’s the most complex of Mexico’s musical traditions—and the only one that is most deeply touched by the country’s African legacy, a fact that Mexico has been slow to acknowledge.
* * *
Once upon a time in Mexico, former African slaves and the indigenous population outnumbered the Spanish and a mixed, Afro-Iberian-Mestizo population was surging despite efforts by the Spanish to wipe out such blending with an aggressive caste system. It was then that a pounding, defiant, exquisite music was born.
From its beginnings, this music had to fight for its life: In the mid-1700s, the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain tried to wipe it out by prosecuting those who sang or danced to the first son to have come out of the sticky, sultry coast of Veracruz, home to one of the earliest and busiest slave ports in the Americas.
The son jarocho that eventually evolved from these lyrics was as influenced by Spanish/Moorish musical traditions as by African and indigenous ones and is sometimes mistakenly characterized as being “too sensual” for Spanish Catholic mores. But in reality, it was the music’s witty, political derision of the Church’s hypocrisy that wound the Spanish up into a knot and prompted them to suppress it the only way they knew how: by referring to it as “devil’s music” and prosecuting in Inquisitorial trials anyone who sang or danced it.
That first son, the one that gave birth to nearly all of Mexico’s popular son styles, but most specifically to the Afro-Mestizo son jarocho of Veracruz, was the “Chuchumbé,” a song whose incisive lyrics and accompanying dance ridiculed a two-faced Catholic Church that raged on with its Inquisition, while also clandestinely trying to manage the sexual conduct of its priests, who at the time were scandalously soliciting sex during confession. (Some things never change.)
The playful song told the story of a priest waiting in the corner of his parish of “La Merced” for passersby, where he would lift his habit and show off his Chuchumbé (derived from the African word “cumbé,” which means belly button, but may have also served as a euphemism for the priest’s other parts).