Blistering Exchange

Photo by Tenaya HillsCHUCHUMBÉ

Latino LA still loves to caricature Orange County as the white, conservative armpit of the 5, so what small miracle brought such Chicano all-stars as Zach de la Rocha and members of Quetzal to Santa Ana's fine El Centro Cultural de México last Friday night? That would be Zenén Zeferino. He's the lead singer for Chuchumbé, a six-man/one-woman group from the Mexican Caribbean state of Veracruz who are sort of the young Turks in the region's son jarocho movement. The folk style is famous for its ululating falsettos, a-b-b-a improvisational lyrical format and high-tuned midget guitars, yet on Friday Zeferino traded the mic with local hip-hoppers in a blistering, tongue-twisting musical exchange that crossed cultures, languages and even centuries.

Chuchumbé started with traditional son jarocho tunes: laments about poverty, winking odes to the "perfume" of a woman's "rose" and—of course—the genre's most famous song, "La Bamba." The members yodeled and stomped on wooden floors, rattled tambourines and donkey jawbones for percussion, and strummed and strummed and strummed their sonorous jaranas (midget guitars) until the room seemed to float. And then the jarocho hip-hop began: Chuchumbé's bassist twanged out a rumbling, pendulous beat; a woman stomped barefoot on a wooden platform; the DJ spun long, staccato scratches; the lead guitarist furiously played a set of twinkling arpeggios on his requinto, a long-necked, deep-voiced five-string guitar; and lastly, an audience member pounded on a cajón, a wooden crate modeled after those brought across the Atlantic by slaves that forms son jarocho's distinctive sound—the original beat box.

Zeferino threw some shout-outs to SanTana, his home state and the world's workers, but quickly invited anyone interested to approach the stage. White, black and Latino rappers soon joined Zeferino. They toasted and boasted in English and Spanish, fast and slow, political and apolitical, as Chuchumbé kept the rapid, bubbling rhythm. The crowd stayed silent, too mesmerized by the combination of seemingly disparate music styles to do little more than nod their heads and give a standing ovation when everything was finished. But Chuchumbé and their spontaneous guests didn't stop until late into the night, and even when the show ended, it continued: long after the crowd cleared, Zeferino and others traded rhymes in the Centro's parking lot, illuminated only by the Santa Ana halogen night sky.

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