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It was sung and danced by a mix of Afro-indigenous soldiers, sailors and the working class in public and at religious festivities. Versions of Spanish guitars and African drums were used to create a pulsating drum-and-string-based calling-out that humiliated and deeply infuriated the Church.
In Inquisition documents sent to Rome in 1766 from Veracruz, Friar Nicolas Montero, who oversaw the actual convent of La Merced, angrily wrote, “They have also informed me that this is danced in ordinary houses inhabited by mulattos and people of broken color (de color quebrado), not by dignified people, nor between prudent men, but by soldiers, sailors and riffraff (broza).”
He asked that he and the convent be given permission to confiscate any outfits worn for the dance, as well as any found lyrics, so that the entire “Chuchumbé” could be wiped out of existence. After years of perpetrating an effective campaign, which punished those found performing, carrying or dancing to the lyrics, the Church managed to effectively wipe out the lyrics and the song—but not for good. The foundation had already been formed for the defiant, deliciously multi-ethnic, improvisational music that would become son jarocho.
Ironically, Friar Nicolas maintained a meticulous record of the lyrics he so abhorred, which were discovered a couple of centuries later by son jarocho researchers in Mexico’s Inquisitorial archives. The “Chuchumbé” was reintroduced into the son jarocho repertoire and became the name of the first group Perry founded in the early 1990s. Los Cojolites musical director/singer/requinto player Noé González Molina, who comes from an Afro-Mexican family from Minatitlan that has played son jarocho for generations, was the youngest member of Chuchumbé.
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In the late 1970s, a handful of musicians became curious, in the same way Cruz Castellanos had, about the deeper origins of the jarana and son jarocho. They heard traces of the way the music was once played and were mesmerized—it sounded nothing like the popularized version performed on ballet folklorico stages in the port of Veracruz and Mexico City or on records.
The musicians, some of whom later became members of seminal groups such as Mono Blanco and Son de Madera, began the task of finding isolated old musicians and son jarocho families who played the oldest, most crackling, Afro-indigenous form of the tradition known as son jarocho campesino—a style that has its roots in the “Chuchumbé” and is tied to those who worked the land.
“Son jarocho would accompany our lives. It was at the birthday parties of our grandfathers or in the fandangos, which persisted in Playón del Sur, where I was born,” says Perry, 53. “But then the crisis hit, and we saw the loss of jobs, extreme poverty and the migration of more than half of the population in Jaltipan, an exile prompted by the inability to find work.”
According to Perry, a mix of the music’s commercialization in the 1940s and years of economic disintegration and industrial devastation in southern Veracruz sent young would-be musicians packing in the mid-1960s, withering a tradition that had once been the pounding center of hundreds of communities throughout the region. Perry’s workshops became not just about addressing the problem of a tradition that was being lost, but also about discovering how the music could help rebuild a crumbling social fabric—a perspective that came from his work as an organizer and historian.
Dedicating themselves in one form or another not only to evolving musically, but also to actively helping to re-establish son jarocho’s presence as a way of life are Perry, Cortés, González; Lara, the band’s intoxicating percussionist/dancer and Noé’s wife (the two met at Perry’s son jarocho workshops); Cruz Castellanos, who plays the leona; and Jacobo Hernández Pacheco, who lives in the U.S. and plays the African-inspired marimbol. They give free workshops, gather historical materials, perform, build instruments, and sponsor and attend fandangos. They try to teach the younger generation about the important differences between fandangos and stage performances, which should not be confused, says Perry. They are also active in educating youngsters about the environmental and economic devastation caused in Veracruz by agricultural industrialization and oil exploration.
It is this explicit bond to the community that inspired members of Son del Centro to model their approach after the work of Los Cojolites. “They’ve written songs, recorded albums, toured—but they also represent this really important community project,” Sarmiento says of Los Cojolites. “Recovering their ecological habitat, the indigenous environment, and how, for generation’s economic and political shifts have kind of destroyed the local rivers and a lot of the local sources of food—all of this is part of the discussion. We share in that idea of responsibility; it’s fundamental for Son del Centro.”
Son del Centro was born in 2002, when a musician friend of Sarmiento’s, Marco Amador, brought six jaranas and a requinto back from Mexico and began to teach them in the same way he was taught. “We started a workshop in 2002, and he talked to us about the music—not just how to play, but also about these other groups and the community projects in Veracruz,” Sarmiento says. “It inspired us.”