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.
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).
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.
* * *
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.”
Since then, he says, the constant communication maintained between Son del Centro, Los Cojolites and other groups has created a kind of transnational bond. “When groups come from Veracruz, the idea is to really support them, because they’re all sister projects,” Sarmiento says. He and members of Son del Centro who teach son jarocho workshops in Santa Ana on Thursdays and Saturdays now work to educate young people locally and dream of having a similar impact to the work Perry and Los Cojolites have had down south.
“The workshops have been the bridge to the history and understanding of our son,” Perry says. “And students have learned to play at the same time, [which] has led to the growth and recovery of this manifestation of our culture at all the important events in our daily lives. I’m actually thrilled to see that son jarocho is never missing at any of the regional festivals because without son jarocho, these events are incomplete, and 15 years ago, son jarocho simply didn’t exist anymore at these events.”
However, their musical trajectory doesn’t wrap up neatly with record deals, money and a move to the big city. Los Cojolites had one of their songs featured on the Oscar-nominated Frida soundtrack and have toured throughout Europe and the U.S. Two years ago, when they returned to Santa Ana for the third or fourth time, they packed the Yost Theater and dazzled hundreds of fans with their turbulent, sparkling son jarocho style, which has earned them a global following.
Although they’ll be recording their third album in San Francisco during this year’s round of tour dates—which includes stops in San Diego, San Bernardino, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Sacramento—the band are in no way living large off their music. The Center for the Documentation of Son Jarocho in Jaltipan is also where Perry, Cortés, González and Lara (and the couple’s two young boys) all live. It’s a small, lovingly decorated compound that smells of wood chips and home-cooked frijoles that houses hundreds of old son jarocho photographs and books, dozens of instruments, and the workshop where González and his father-in-law turn out handmade jarocho instruments.
But the path the group have chosen was never intended to lead them away from Jaltipan, Perry says. “Our role is to be here, in Jaltipan and in the pueblos where some of us live. Here, they appreciate not only our musical work, but also our educational work around the conservation of our customs, our way of eating—because like the music, we have to preserve all the expressions that make up our culture, our way of being,” he says. “Son jarocho is a music that is intricately tied to its pueblo, to its home. In that, we find the basis of our identity, our spiritual sustenance—our music is inspired by that particular daily-ness, our lyrics are inspired by it.”
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Still, he dreams that someday they will be able to buy the small buildings that house the Centro and perhaps find a way to live off of their music without having to worry about where next month’s rent will come from.
“The difference between the old musicians and today’s musicians is that they didn’t live from their music, they lived from the land. . . . Today, there are a lot of us who dedicate ourselves to maintaining our music and our culture. It’s not easy, there are some months where it doesn’t feel like we’ll make it . . . but we don’t let it get to us too much. We will continue as ourselves, as Los Cojolites, and that’s what this tour is partially for, to also earn some pesos to see us through the end of the year.”
Al Ritmo de Un Mismo Son presented by El Centro Cultural de México and Son del Centro at the Fiesta Marketplace, 300 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana. Sat., 2-9 p.m. Workshops to be held prior and a fandango after at El Centro Cultural de México, 310 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-0095; www.el-centro.org.