¡Convivencia!: El Son Jarocho en California

ACTA - Posted on 22 June 2009

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By Lily Kharrazi, ACTA's Living Cultures Grants Program Manager

Musicians circle the wooden tarima while the dancers improvise and provide percussion to the mix at Galeria de la Raza's fandango.On Saturday June 13, 2009, Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco produced a free event, El Son Jarocho en California: Taller-Encuentro-Fandango, based on the music, dance, and poetry originating from the southern region of Veracruz, Mexico.  Funded by ACTA’s Living Cultures Grants Program, this rich cultural expression was in full bloom during the day and into the late evening hours as a multi-generational crowd participated in workshops and a presentation that explored the three essential elements of the son jarocho – music and playing technique, poetry, and dance.  Both beginners and veteran musicians were welcomed.  The evening concluded with a participatory party, or fandango.

This event is one of several son jarocho events that are occurring in California and are part of growing phenomenon.  The son jarocho is not only a distinct genre transported from its original home, but has come to represent a nexus of creativity involving an international and transborder dialogue between Mexico and American born Chicanos.  The form is supple enough to incorporate multiple experiences of Mexican and Mexican-American identity and this is being translated into the music and practice of the son jaracho.

The son jarocho allows for an ensemble both large and small to play together on various string instruments.  They include the guitarra de son which plays melody to the small guitar-like instrument, affectionately known as “mosquito,” which provides rhythm.  Other guitar-type instruments, or jaranas, also add to the textures of rhythm as do the bass-like leonas, tambourines, and donkey-jaw providing percussion.  These traditional instruments were in abundance as well as a few electric guitars and electric bass which were included in the presentation of one ensemble, Los Soneros del Este.  Indicative of the way in which the tradition can accommodate innovation, the influences of Carlos Santana’s clear melodic rifts as well as the music of Los Lobos, hailing from East Los Angeles, have all played a role in the musical influences of Mexican Americans and can find their way into the son jarocho.

Artemio Posadas performs with the ensemble.  He is a recognized culture bearer of the form and has taught many musicians throughout California.Over the strings and percussion, a lead vocalist will deliver poetry in song in a strong and extroverted manner.  The role of lead singer shifts between members of the ensemble.

In addition to the music ensemble, a tarima, or small wooden platform serves as a small “stage” where anyone can dance.  It is not unusual for a musician to take a break from playing, place his or her instrument on their back, and begin to dance.  The size of the platform determines how many people can comfortably be accommodated.  The footwork provides live percussion and is an accompaniment to the music as much as it is a performance in and of itself.  In fact, the performative aspect seems to be secondary to the interface of rhythmic patterns that the dancer can provide.  The movement, compared to the folklorico practices that are designed for the performance stage, are refreshingly simple and direct in their translation.  It is this improvisatory nature that allows for an individual to be both musician and dancer at the same time.  They contribute to both the visual and aural experience of the gathering.

One highlight of the event was a discussion and presentation by one of the lead organizers of the event, Russell C. Rodriguez, a musician and scholar actively involved in the study of ethnomusicology and history.  The presentation reflected upon the multiple influences in the jarocho movement that has led to a vibrant dialogue on both sides of the border.  In California, a number of political events laid the groundwork for creative impulse.  The early 1990’s saw racism unleashed with the L. A. riots, the passage of Proposition 187 designed to prohibit illegal immigrants from using social services, health care and public education, and the Zapatistas insurrection in Mexico, to name a few of the ongoing issues the Latino population faces to this day.  He writes in program notes, “…expressive culture has emerged as an alternative vision from which people of aggrieved communities have created networks and cultural production that voice the desires, opinions, and resistance to the conditions in which they find themselves”.

mprovisation on the tarima highlights footwork and percussion.As evidenced by this site visit, there is much about the structure of the jarocho experience that supports participation and deemphasizes a hierarchy of performance.  Alongside the master artists, young people and novices were encouraged to play, to sing out, and to improvise through footwork or verse.  This interactivity is as much part of the product as the form itself.  It is this intensive interconnectivity which is the magic and glue of this phenomenon.  Much like the integration of song, music, and poetry, the jarocho community of Mexicans and Chicanos can bring their multiple experiences together to contribute to this form.  It is a movement with energy and input including women and men, multiple generations and its peak is gladly not even in sight, it would appear.

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