Leader in Son Jarocho Revival Tells His Music's Story

Leader in Son Jarocho Revival Tells His Music

Gilberto Gutierrez discusses the making and playing of the jarana, an eight-string instrument carved from a solid piece of wood. He thinks of it as a "drum with strings."

Gilberto Gutierrez, a Son Jarocho singer-poet and master of the stringed jarana, explained how this once-popular music of southern Veracruz has not only come back, but begun to spread.

They're not pieces. They're rhythymic and harmonic structures that permit musicians to improvise, and that's why a "son" doesn't have a time limit.

Although he's from a family of musicians in Veracruz, the home of son jarocho, Gilberto Gutiérrez Silva took up the musical genre in the 1970s as a young man in Mexico City. Son jarocho and the all-night fandango festivals that give it life had been dying out in the southeastern Mexican countryside.

Even now that these traditions have staged a major comeback, due in no small part to Gutiérrez's efforts, "there aren't many musicians my age," he told a UCLA audience on Sept. 9, 2009. Nearly all son jarocho musicians are much younger or older than the 51-year-old Gutiérrez, who was invited to campus by the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies, Latin American Institute, and Chicano Studies Research Center.

In 1977 Gutiérrez and two musical partners founded Mono Blanco, which is still one of the most important son jarocho groups. At the time it was a lifeline for a dying tradition.

"We realized that what we had to do to revive the tradition was to have fandangos," said Gutiérrez in his native Spanish. "It wouldn't help for [son jarocho] to exist on the stage or in ensembles of folkloric ballet if there were no fandangos. That would be like teaching people to play soccer, but without soccer fields."

Traveling from town to town in about 1980 with the aging musical legend don Arcadio Hidalgo, known today as the "father of the son jarocho Renaissance," the founding members of Mono Blanco met musicians whom don Arcadio had not seen for decades and put on fandangos. They also began teaching young people to play the jarana, an eight-string instrument that looks like a small guitar, and to compose décimas, improvised short poems that are sung to the music.

Gutiérrez explained that fandangos are participatory festivals with music and flamenco-like dancing, or zapateado, that are remarkable for ignoring social distinctions. Children and old people join in. The musicians accept food and somewhere to sleep, while acts come and go during the night, but they are not paid.

The lyricists sing of lost love, requited and unrequited love, religion, and – in the tradition don Arcadio, who lived through the 1910 revolution and disappointments that followed – social injustice. These songs are not usually written down or fixed in their form. A famous exception is "La Bamba" in the version by Ritchie Valens.

"They're not pieces," said Gutiérrez. "They're rhythymic and harmonic structures that permit musicians to improvise, and that's why a son doesn't have a time limit. Within a fandango a son can last half an hour, an hour, as much as two hours – in theory until someone decides it's over."

Son jarocho is now performed in fandangos, more and less traditional in nature, not only in many Mexican states but also in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, the Bay Area, and locales in Texas, Argentina, Colombia and Spain, according to Gutiérrez. He also reports that this music, which has strong African influences, is now reaching Africa.

Wherever it's played, son jarocho is percussive music that invites the audience to dance along.

"I see the jarana as a drum with strings," Gutiérrez said. "Really what we do is pure percussion. And so there's a dialogue among various instruments, and with the zapateado."

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Duration: 53:49

Published: Thursday, September 10, 2009