New Town, New Guitar

Since moving to Xalapa, Veracruz, I have been studying with a new music teacher: Ramón Gutiérrez of the band Son de Madera. He holds classes in the same workshop where he builds his studentsʼ instruments, like this jarana.
Since moving to Xalapa, Veracruz, I have been studying with a new music teacher: Ramón Gutiérrez of the band Son de Madera. He holds classes in the same workshop where he builds his studentsʼ instruments, like this jarana.

Greetings from Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz! This is where I”ll wrap up the
final months of my Fulbright year (which, for the record, is going by way too fast) by
looking at two very vibrant, and very different, styles of regional music: the son jarocho
and danzón. Iʼm a few weeks into my son jarocho lessons (along with a bunch of 11-
year-olds) and have just brought home my new jarana, a small guitar hand-carved by
my teacher.

Ramón tunes up a studentʼs 8-stringed jarana before class.
Ramón tunes up a studentʼs 8-stringed jarana before class.

Xalapa is at the center of the thriving son jarocho revival movement, which has gained
lots of steam since the 1970s among young, educated, and urban Mexicans. Similar to
other forms of Mexican son, the son jarocho is originally country music that evolved
from a mix of Spanish, Indigenous, and African influences. Its claims to fame include
syncopated vocals, blues-style lyrical improvisation, and wicked harp solos.

Before taking hold in Mexican cities, the son jarocho was played in a communal festival/
jam session-style format called a fandango. Traditionally, musicians strummed their
jaranas and harps while dancers stomped the zapateado (percussive footwork) on an
elevated wooden platform called a tarima. These days it”s common to attend a modern
version of a “fandango” in a university auditorium, at an urban music festival, or cultural
center (below).

A modern fandango in the Cultural Center OllinKan in Tlalpan, Mexico City. A screen projects images of Mexican country life to simulate a more traditional fandango in a rural setting.

The modern fandango is as much about enjoying music as it is about evoking a simpler
way of life. In the remembered “pueblo” setting that son jarocho recreates, modern
listeners can contemplate a place where communities were strong, time moved more
slowly and nature was supreme. Whether you”re a wealthy Mexican bogged down by
the pressures of career and technology, or an average citizen from the countryside
trying to make a living in the crowded city, it”s easy to see why the son jarocho has such
a strong appeal.

Listen to an example of son jarocho played by my teacherʼs band, Son de Madera.

  • Track: “El Pájaro Cu” (5:15)
  • Album: Las Orquestas del Día (available on Amazon)
  • [audio:http://media.mtvu.com/sitewide/promoimages/uber/fulbright/2008/katie_good/041309/ElPajaroCu.mp3%5D

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