Zack Is Back

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Centro Cultural de Mexico hosted a grand reopening party for its new downtown Santa Ana location. Performance troupes of every possible Mexican region and culture—Oaxacan brass bands, Aztec dancers, child baile folklorico groups from Michoacán, punk bands, mariachi ensembles, hip-hop artists—gathered in the Centro’s already crowded concert room and waited their turns.

The heat inside the Centro was tropical that evening—the windows dripped with condensation, and attendees desperately fanned themselves with programs, hands, anything to produce a gust. But no one complained. Mingling with the performers and the crowd that night was Zack de la Rocha, former lead singer for Rage Against the Machine. Rumor was de la Rocha would perform that night, something he had rarely done in the five years since Rage broke up.

Around 10 p.m., de la Rocha climbed onto the Centro’s stage. He held a small, double-stringed guitar called a jarana. Surrounding him were about 20 other people, each also holding jaranas. De la Rocha stepped to the back.

In the front of the stage were members of Son del Centro, the Centro Cultural’s house band. The group consists of Santa Ana teenagers and young adults who perform son jarocho, a musical genre native to the Mexican Caribbean state of Veracruz. The men were dressed in baptismal white guayaberas; the women wore modest dresses.

A tall, skinny teen began to furiously pluck a guitar with a pick chiseled from the shell of a tortoise. The long, narrow-necked guitar (called a requinto) emitted a deep reverb-heavy twang, like a high-pitched bass. Someone else smacked a wooden box the size of an orange crate; a girl stomped on a wooden plank; another guy rattled a donkey’s jaw. A boy began wailing lyrics of love in a garbled falsetto. Soon, de la Rocha and the other jarana players began strumming their ukulele-like guitars. The room filled with the shimmering, crisp chords of about 20 jaranas.

Son jarocho is unlike anything you’ve ever heard: a primitive, herky-jerky, repetitive rush of strings and percussion, something the human body cannot help but to sway to slowly, sensuously, endlessly. It’s a sound so precious but foreign you assume it’s performed only for special occasions. It couldn’t possibly be contemporary.

Yet here were the youngsters and de la Rocha, playing for almost two hours nonstop, mesmerizing an audience of about 100.

If the crowd waited for de la Rocha to take center stage, they waited in vain.

He strummed, sang along with the chorus, and smiled. The crowd stared, bewildered. They waited for de la Rocha to step out in front, to lead them into an angered frenzy as so many times before with Rage.

But de la Rocha stayed put. He just smiled.

De la Rocha’s cameo at the Centro’s reopening confirmed what many music fans have whispered about for years: the spokesperson for a generation of activists has eschewed the political rap-metal of Rage and gone Mexican.

Since Rage Against the Machine broke up in 2000, de la Rocha has worked with artists ranging from DJ Shadow to Trent Reznor on a long-delayed solo debut that’s rumored to finally appear early next year. But de la Rocha spent most of the past year immersing himself in son jarocho—practicing the music with Son del Centro and other youth son jarocho groups, traveling to Mexico’s major son jarocho festivals, even playing backup to the genre’s major artists during concerts.

But de la Rocha is also quietly planning something more profound: the fusion of son jarocho and his unique brand of rapid-fire spoken-word into one of the most stunning musical creations since Dylan went electric.

De la Rocha debuted his new style last fall at a most unlikely venue—the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He was billed as a guest artist for that night’s headliners, the Chicano group Quetzal and leading son jarocho group Son de Madera.

Video of the performance on YouTube shows the de la Rocha of old: fierce, nimble with words and revolutionary couplets. The music was as foreboding as Rage, but all acoustic and based on son jarocho’s centuries-old rhythms. Son de Madera strummed the same chords, pounded the same drumbeats, shook the same bead-covered gourd—acoustic hip-hop, if you will—while de la Rocha launched high-pitched bromide after high-pitched bromide about Hurricane Katrina, Iraq and the injustices of the world.

“The marriage of [de la Rocha’s] angry punk-rap ethos with son jarocho’s lyrical, joyful spirit seemed incongruous at first—until you heard the startling results,” Los Angeles Times writer Agustín Gurza gushed in a review of de la Rocha’s Natural History museum show. “It was like liberating a beloved tradition. The essence of the earthy, acoustic sound was preserved while being transformed, even radicalized. The performance left the exciting impression that something totally new was being created.”


De la Rocha has performed this stunning show only once since—at a November 2005 concert to save the now-destroyed South Central Farm. This time de la Rocha rapped original material while backed by another famous son jarocho group, Los Cojolites. Then de la Rocha slinked into the background again and joined in the call-and-response to the son jarocho standard “Luna Negra.” Again, de la Rocha smiled.

Fans at both shows roared their approval, but the crowds were limited to Chicano activists. The legions of Rage Against the Machine fans are still not satisfied. A viewer comment on YouTube sums it up best: “yo zack no matter what style or how many styles release a fkn album many of millions of fans and supporters are eagerlly [sic] waiting god bless.”

De la Rocha wouldn’t comment for this story, and did not respond to a phone call requesting an interview. It’s not that he’s a jerk: I know de la Rocha through his girlfriend, and we’ve talked about his experiments with son jarocho for hours and hours. But de la Rocha isn’t ready to publicly talk about it: he’s busy working on his debut, to placate millions of former Rage fans.

To most music fans, the idea of de la Rocha spending his talents as a backup player to groups who play an obscure Mexican music form is heresy, like Michael Jordan wasting a year of his life to play minor-league baseball. They want Rage. They want the catalyst for one of the most incendiary, influential mainstream bands of the past 25 years to roar again, to emerge from years in the wilderness, to return to the world he left just as it took a totalitarian turn for the worst.

Rage was political but lots of people are political: Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” says as much as Rage did with fewer and less-explicit words. But Hendrix also got to write for a world that had never heard a sound-bite, and Rage had to push through waves of media noise. So they dropped any suggestion of subtlety for lyrics and music built on Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production: sirens, screaming and a vicious martial beat. That made rap-rock out of much better record collections than the guys in Korn ever had but it also confined them to their time in ways that more flexible political artists escaped. Dylan (whom Rage covered) sang about Hattie Carroll and it makes sense today; de La Rocha sang about Mumia and Al Gore and it makes mostly for guilty nostalgia. But Rage’s immediate impact when they existed was tremendous—maybe they decided to sacrifice long-term generalities to make their own moment more potent, or maybe they felt like the band wouldn’t last that long anyway. If it’s dated now, it was up-to-the-minute then, and if it’s a little heavy-handed now, well, consider the subject matter and admire how well the music matches—at least you could always tell exactly what they meant.

None of this seems possible anymore with de la Rocha dabbling in son jarocho. But a closer examination of both de la Rocha and son jarocho shows that the two match up better than one expects.

While son jarocho’s gorgeous melodies and chords sound innocuous, it’s actually one of Mexico’s most politically charged musical genres. Its instruments—the wooden plank known as the tarima, the box called a cajon, a donkey’s jaw (quijana), the jaranas and requintos—are legacies of the Conquest; Veracruzan tradition has it that the Spaniards took instruments from African and Indian slaves, and the slaves used common-day items as replacements.

Son jarocho songs are difficult to decipher even for Spanish speakers—the lyrics (called decimas) are usually sung in an ABBA format and an informal rural Spanish. The lyrics contain many seemingly nonsensical phrases and words—one song by Los Cojolites, “El Presidente,” sneaks in, “Me gusta la leche, me gusta el cafe/Pero más me gusta los ojos de usted” (I like milk, I like coffee/But I like your eyes better) between direct attacks against the perpetually ineffectual Mexican government. The jumbled lyrics allow singers to cleverly code messages from authorities, and the falsetto, rapid-fire voice customary to a group’s lead singer allows for further concealment. Son jarocho also encourages jaraneros (the name given to son jarocho players) to improvise lyrics and melodies at every performance, further creating a platform for musicians to comment on the news of the day. And the music is traditionally performed only during fandangos, all-night parties where the music, dancing, drinking and love flowed freely.

As a result, Spanish and then Mexican authorities tried to isolate and suppress son jarocho. The Catholic Church banned son jarocho during the 18th century on the grounds it was immoral; Mexican politicians co-opted the music’s revolutionary potential by transforming it into a harmless folk curio on the level of the Hawaiian hula. The most famous case is son jarocho’s signature song, “La Bamba.”


If Americans know son jarocho at all, it’s because of “La Bamba.” It’s the prototypical son jarocho tune: looping, irresistible with goofy lyrics (the infamous “yo no soy marinero/soy capitán”—“I’m not a sailor/I’m a captain”) masked in centuries of intrigue. Some scholars think its lyrics refer to efforts by Spanish authorities to conscript Veracruzans into the navy; others say it’s a satirical take on a 17th-century siege of Veracruz by pirates that left hundreds dead—and a cute dance that accompanies the song.

Americans had embraced the song even before Ritchie Valens recorded a rock version in 1959. A 1945 Time magazine article excitedly noted that American big band leaders were taking the song north and described it as a “studied love ritual of Spanish-Indian origin” in which dancers “sing their own improvised, often risqué and not always intelligible love lyrics.”

The Time article also mentioned that native Veracruzan Miguel Aleman was using “La Bamba” as a campaign song for his successful 1946 presidential run. The PRI machine that ruled Mexico for nearly 75 years turned “La Bamba” and son jarocho into a commodity, something to spread as emblematic of Mexican culture. Mariachis across Mexico and the United States incorporated it into their repertoire. The song’s popularity and familiarity on both sides of the border inspired Valens to record his own take, which helped expose the song further.

With “La Bamba,” son jarocho finally had an international audience, yet the resulting popularity conversely killed the music form in its native state; the only way son jarocho groups could make a living was if they played “La Bamba.” In addition, poverty in Veracruz forced jaraneros to migrate across Mexico and perform according to the whims of the audience. Soon, son jarocho became as formulaic as mariachi—the same songs, always played the same way. This bowdlerized style even received a name: jarocho blanco (white jarocho), so named after the white peasant clothes musicians wore as uniforms while playing son jarocho to satisfy the expectations of audiences.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, Mexican academics began collaborating with musicians to make son jarocho vital again. It worked: son jarocho became the music of choice for Mexican and Chicano activists, and groups incorporated its sounds as a defiant stance against Mexican authorities and American audiences who dismissed son jarocho as harmless. The East Los Angeles punk group the Plugz rescued “La Bamba” from its American novelty status by recording a high-speed version that politicized the song anew—lead singer Tito Larriva added his own couplet to the hundreds on record for “La Bamba” when he snarled, “No soy fascista, no soy capitalista, soy ANARQUISTA!”

But it was Los Lobos who did the most to popularize son jarocho in Southern California. In 1978, the band included three son jarocho classics on their debut, the all-Spanish Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (Just Another Band From East Los Angeles): “El Canelo” (The Brown-Skinned Man), “La Iguana” and “María Chuchena.” The recordings are remarkable for their faithful covers, down to the peasant Mexican Spanish vocals and swirling jaranas of the originals.

Los Lobos frontman Cesar Rosas has always been up-front about why his group dabbles in son jarocho.

“We were the first East LA band—a group of East LA kids who enhanced this Mexican music because we felt that it was something that was really important to do at the time,” he told UCLA professor Steven Loza for Loza’s 1993 book Barrio Rhythms: Mexican-American Music in Los Angeles. “Important for our peers, important for our culture, important for the community, and to awaken a lot of people and say, ‘Look-it man, Mexican music is a beautiful thing, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it.’”

Almost every album Los Lobos has recorded since its debut has featured the jarana or another son jarocho instrument. And, of course, there was their 1987 remake of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.” While America rocked anew to the song, most radio stations cut the song off at the end, when Los Lobos dropped their hard rock in favor of a wave of twinkling guitars rushing in—the jaranas of son jarocho.

Son jarocho's influence on Southern California Chicano musicians waned after Los Lobos' “La Bamba”—the song and music form again became clichés that Chicano musicians tried to avoid. The only major group that incorporated son jarocho into its music was the eclectic East Los Angeles ensemble Quetzal.

Years ago, I interviewed Quetzal Flores about his group's use of son jarocho (see “Have Jarana, Will Travel,” Nov. 27, 2003). His response is still one of the best endorsements of son jarocho's power. “We performed at an academic conference in Kentucky about the influence black culture had on the Americas earlier this year,” Flores told me. “One of the professors made the point that, as maniacal and genocidal as slavery was, black culture survived and thrived. That's son. The slaves had drums, the Spaniards took them away. The slaves said, 'All right, fuck you. I'll stomp on wood then,' and created this wondrous music. It shows how rich humans are. Human resilience will always prevail. And that's what we try to convey—the problems and beauty of Los Angeles.”


But more than just incorporate son jarocho into their repertoire, Quetzal transformed Southern California into a breeding ground for the music. In 2000, Flores and his wife joined Jarabe Citlali, a group of UCLA students who performed Afro-Caribbean music. Among its members were Carolina Sarmiento, de la Rocha's girlfriend and a member of the Centro Cultural's board of directors and Son del Centro.

“We had heard that son jarocho was super different from what we were used to—you know, 'Bamba, bamba,'” she says with a laugh. “So we connected with musicians in Veracruz. What we heard and learned from them about son jarocho was amazing. They used it not just as music but also to organize communities. There's very much of a punk-DIY vibe that's underlying in son jarocho—you make your own instruments, your clothes, and build community out of it.”

Sarmiento, along with Quetzal and others, began Fandango sin Fronteras (Fandangos Without Borders), an exchange of sorts between California and Veracruz to promote son jarocho in Mexico and the United States. Jaraneros in Veracruz visit the United States to perform and teach classes; Southern Californian jaraneros, in turn, buy handcrafted instruments and help support the Veracruzan economy.

“Part of our deal over here is how can we help them stay over there,” Sarmiento says. “In many parts of Veracruz, son jarocho is alive but none of the young people are around to play it. They're all in the United States, working in factories, and they have no time to play.”

Southern California jaraneros also offer free son jarocho classes to anyone interested. Son del Centro offers them every Thursday evening and Saturday morning at the Centro. Adults and children learn the basics of son jarocho—the chords, the lyrics and the history of the music.

On a recent Saturday, Ana Siria Urzúa patiently taught about 10 children how to properly strum a jarana. A third-year anthropology major at UC Irvine, Urzúa was once a student of son jarocho herself—she took lessons from other Son del Centro members before joining the group last year. In addition to teaching classes at the Centro, the group also performs everywhere, from community events to protests—the picture on their recently released debut, Mi Jarana es Mi Fusil (My Jarana Is My Gun) shows Urzúa and Son del Centro members Roxana Guajardo and Edlín López marching in Los Angeles during the pro-amnesty tides of the spring.

“When you start playing son jarocho, you don't want to stop,” says Urzúa, who plans to study how raising cultural awareness through son jarocho lessons raises the academic performance of children. “You get into this groove—playing the songs again and again, but always changing things a little bit. There's no music like it. And the cool thing is son jarocho is still pretty unknown, still pretty non-commercial.

“But the more people know about it, the more that will change,” adds Urzúa. “In the meantime, all we can do is play.”

Each year, Son del Centro and other members of Fandango sin Fronteras reunite at the Encuentro de Jaraneros y Decimistas (Meeting of Jaraneros and Decimistas), a weeklong festival of all things son jarocho held each spring in the Veracruzan city of Tlacotalpan. De la Rocha attended this year, traveling from concert to concert but not performing.

“Zack and I and a member of Mono Blanco [a legendary son jarocho group] were traveling on a bus deep inside Veracruz,” Carolina remembers. “I'm basically traveling with rock stars. At one stop, a guy tries to get our attention. I figure it's for Zack, or maybe the Mono Blanco member. But the stranger wants to talk to me. He asks, 'Are you with Son del Centro in Santa Ana?' I was blown away. We travel to Veracruz, and people know Son del Centro—people know about Santa Ana! And it's all because of son jarocho.”

The parking lot of Santa Ana's Fiesta Marketplace is empty most Saturday nights, but Nov. 4 was different. That's when the Centro held its annual Día de los Muertos celebration. The Fiesta Marketplace parking lot filled with altars, vendors and curious people. Families took pictures alongside a woman dressed as a catrina (a well-dressed skeleton) and drank cups of champurrado to stave off the night's chill.


That night's main attraction was Son del Centro. Two days earlier, they played to a packed house at the Orange County High School of the Performing Arts in honor of their debut CD.

De la Rocha was there that night, and he was also at the Centro's Día de los Muertos ceremonies. Again, he joined Son del Centro. And again, he stayed in the background, while onlookers gawked and pointed.

Son del Centro played for about an hour, again rousing the crowd like they did so many months ago. Then they launched into “La Bamba.”

The requinto player plucked out notes at once familiar and new. Another woman stomped on the tarima. And then a woman began to wail:

“Yo le cantó a la Bamba/Yo le cantó a la Bamba porqué se que es el himno/Porque se que es el himno de Veracruz y arriba y arriba!” (I sing to the Bamba/I sing to the Bamba because I know it's the hymn/Because I know it's the hymn of Veracruz and faster and faster!)

An onrush of jaranas and quijanas and singing and tapping became like a living thing that absorbed the dimly lit parking lot. The crowd tapped their feet, drummed their fingers on any flat surface. Some joined the dancers on the tarima and stomped; others grabbed jaranas and clumsily jammed.

It was “La Bamba” as it should be: unique yet the same, and still relevant. Son del Centro slowed only enough to allow each member to improvise a new lyric. Each did so effortlessly, mixing jokes and puns while keeping a frenetic, hypnotic pace.

Near the end came the climax—not the “bamba, bamba” muttered by too many musicians, but the following decima:

“Le cantamos a la Bamba para que vea que somos de la gente/Que somos de la gente presevando cultura/Presevando cultura pa' que no se los muera/Pa' que no se los muera le hechamos ganas aquí en SanTana” (We sing “La Bamba” so it can be seen we're of the people/That we're of the people preserving culture/Preserving culture so it won't die/So it won't die, we try hard here in SanTana).

The crowd roared; Son del Centro played faster and faster. And all the while, de la Rocha smiled like the happiest man on Earth, a man at peace.

To hear tracks from Son del Centro's Mi Jarana es mi Fusil, click here. 


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