Where There is Hope: Son Jarocho and Collective Songwriting at Corcoran State Prison

ACTA - Posted on 24 March 2015

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Quetzal Flores (midddle back) and Cesar Castro (far right) with participants in their son jarocho workshops taught at Corcoran State Prison from September-December 2014.

My first day of working as a music teacher with ACTA's Arts-in-Corrections program began on a Monday, September 29, 2014, at 4:00 am.  I crept through my house preparing while trying not to wake my family.  As I packed my lunch, I found myself recounting my past experiences as a performer in various correctional institutions.  I tried to remember why I was about to drive three and half hours each way for the next ten weeks to teach son jarocho and Participatory Music to level four inmates at Corcoran State Prison.  Just as I was about to walk out the door, my son woke up, walked over to me, and assured me that I was going to have a great time.

As a traditional arts practitioner for twenty years, I've prided myself on a deep commitment to humanity and community practice.  Much of my musical trajectory has been tied to struggle, and teaching in prisons is a variation on the same theme.  The questions that were traveling from my heart to my brain were putting this commitment to the test.  As I mentioned, I had performed in prisons before.  One experience that stands out was during a residency with Viva El Arte in Santa Barbara, when we were invited to present our music at the Santa Maria Juvenile Hall on the Central Coast of California, performing in a cellblock for thirty-something youth between the ages of 11 and 17.  Our musical collaborator and brother, Quincy McCrary, ended the presentation with an acapella version of Donny Hathaway’s Someday We Will All Be Free.  I'm emotionally attached to this moment because it broke down so many barriers in a space surrounded by three feet thick cement walls, racial tension, and compounded violence.  The tears shed by both the audience (inmates) and the musicians that day irrigated hope even if just for that brief moment.

Flash forward, and I find myself driving north on I5, heading towards Corcoran in the Central Valley.  Our traditional arts workshops were designed to utilize two principle methods of engendering hope through participation.  The first is the fandango (son jarocho), a participatory music and dance celebration from Southern Veracruz, Mexico.  The second is Collective Songwriting, a Chican@ Artivista method for producing knowledge.  During the 1950's and 60's, the practice of fandango suffered in the wake of a national Mexican project to "modernize."  Many traditional participatory practices became obsolete in the face of an attempt by Mexico to build a first world economy.  In the 1970's, Gilberto Gutierrez and the group Mono Blanco forged a project that would reinvigorate the practice of the fandango across the southern part of Veracruz.  By the 2000’s this project, now widely known as "El Nuevo Movimiento Jaranero," was several generations deep.  In 2001, a community of musicians from Southern California were introduced to the fandango celebration and immediately sought to engage this movement in a translocal dialogue.  The broad participatory nature of the fandango resonated deeply with us.  So much so that we spent a great deal of time and energy to transplant the fandango into our communities in California, all the while harvesting relationships across borders.  Embedded in the practice of fandango is a convening methodology.  It is a way to bring people together and encourage participation at many levels.

Son jarocho workshop participants.

My co-instructor Cesar Castro and I were excited to bring these practices into a space so ripe with possibility.  As we stood in front of our students for the first time, it was clear to me that we needed to make an immediate impact.  Before handing out jaranas (small 8-string, 5-course guitar from the fandango son jarocho tradition) we performed a couple of sones for them.  We began with El Cascabel which usually draws a positive response.  Then we played La Bamba to drive the energy home.  I must admit I was a little concerned because several participants were not Mexican and it is no secret that race wars are part of prison culture, but the feedback was nothing less than positive.  For some people this was the first time they had held an instrument in their hands.  Then we began teaching sones.  To my surprise, everyone was cooperative and fully participating.  As soon as everyone could navigate the basic three chords we began to play our first son, El Colas.  This is an important moment, and I’ve seen it repeatedly during fandangos.  Let’s call it "the realization of a sonic dialogue."  It’s not perfect or fluid.  It doesn’t look or sound sexy.  But at that moment, everyone’s voice offers an important contribution to the whole.  Occasionally Cesar and I would demonstrate the music at full speed and volume.  In one instance a participant expressed that he'd never been that close to live music and that it was a powerful experience.  In another instance, a participant requested that we play another piece.  We happily obliged as they sat attentively.  When we were finished, the participant had tears in his eyes.  He gave three solid claps and shouted, "THERAPY!!!"

After several weeks of focusing on fandango and the son jarocho, Cesar and I decided it was important to adjust our teaching according to the interests of the participants.  Many of them owned guitars and showed a dedication to further developing their skills.  We felt that Collective Songwriting would be a perfect way to challenge them technically while continuing to provoke thought about collective expression.  I first learned the Collective Songwriting method in 1997 from former-nun-turned-radical singer/activist, Rosa Marta Zarate, in Chiapas, Mexico, for the Primer Encuentro Chicano Indigena Por La Humanidad Y Contra el Neoliberalismo.  This encuentro consisted of a group of Chican@s convened with a group of Indigenous Rebels known as the Zapatistas.  Our two communities spent several days discussing and relating, connecting each others' struggles and triumphs.  We then created works of art based on the discussions.  The collective songwriting method relies upon broad participation, dialogue, testimony, and finally poetic and musical expression.  Participants at Corcoran were very receptive to this process and demonstrated a consistent willingness to participate and more importantly to be vulnerable.  In one particular session, the men chose to discuss the theme of love.  When arriving at the point in the process where words and ideas become poetic phrases, there was a passionate dialogue about whether fears or tears come first in the sequence of emotional development in a relationship.

    There was a time we used to say                  There was a time we used to say
    Our love is strong, never fade away             Our love is strong, never fade away
    What we had was everlasting             OR     What we had was everlasting   
    Sharing hopes, fears                                        Sharing hopes, tears
    First came laughter then came tears            First came laughter then came fears

After coming to a consensus about the lyrics, we began working out the melody and the music.  Instantly, one participant assumed the role of the singer and began to improvise his way through the changes.  I thought to myself, If only I had a camera or something to record this with.  Then, I thought about it a little harder, and felt an even greater satisfaction knowing that this was our moment.  However fleeting, it was something we collectively created by committing to one another and to hope.  This was a community building moment that generated a sense of belonging for everyone involved.  We played and sang the same song repeatedly for an hour.

In a separate session, due to administrative snafu, we ended up with only one student.  This situation turned opportunity allowed us to spend concentrated time with one participant who responded magnificently.  Using the Collective Songwriting method once again, we created a piece about his best friend, Miles, who had committed suicide a few months earlier.  Much of the dialogue was about his memories of simpler times and being close to nature.

     Early long mornings
     Raining down
     Another part of me
     That’s being drown

     Wash away
     The night before
     Driving through the woods
     To a place the touches my core
     Point St. George
     Paddling for Miles
     Through the channel
     Of lost souls

These moments of connection were no accident and were experienced many times over the course of ten weeks.  Convening methods like the ones we facilitated have been used for many years to create horizontal spaces for broad participation.  Embedded in traditional arts practices are processes that lead us to community.  In this way, traditional arts are not only outlets but vehicles that can afford the students spiritual, intellectual, and emotional mobility in an otherwise immobile environment.  Each day I left the prison needing to make sense of my time spent with these men.  Why was it so easy to connect?  Each session seemingly created new connections.  Each connection gave path to new possibilities.  Each possibility, hope.  Where there is hope, there is a sense of belonging.  It is this sense of belonging that is so desperately needed for the well being of all humanity.

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