Inside a hilltop house in City Terrace a few months ago seven musicians recorded a son jarocho version of The Clash's "Straight to Hell." Lots of bands have covered the song since it was released in 1982. Lilly Allen took a stab at it with Mick Jones. MIA's sampling of the song is the version you probably remember most.
The Clash released the song during a dark time in the United Kingdom. The economy was tanking, unemployment was at record highs, the conservative government was cutting social spending to make up the deficit at the same time that it went after labor unions. The former glory of empire was dead and buried. Sound familiar? Jimmy Alvarado, a writer for Razorcake magazine, believes there is no better song by The Clash.
"I humbly consider that tune -- specifically the long version -- their masterwork, one of those rare moments where 'punk' aspires to be bona fide art without drowning in pretentious excess. So many vivid images in that song, which to me (everything's up for interpretation, right?) is a pointed indictment of the abuse and exploitation of immigrants and the results left in the wake of wars waged to feed the voratious addiction called capitalism. References to the shit immigrants have to go through, from steel miners in the UK to firebombed Puerto Ricans in the US, to the "ni de aqui/ni de alla" existence of Southeast Asia's "bamboo kids," all mixed in with xenophobia ('Lemme tell ya 'bout your blood...it ain't Coca-Cola, it's rice;' 'There ain't no asylum here/King Solomon never lived 'round here'), disillusionment, and bitterness."
So why the big deal about another cover song from City Terrace? It's more than a cover and the song's a clue that son jarocho has deep roots in Southern California and that a younger generation of musicians are pushing the boundaries of the music.
The song's called "Al Infierno." It's performed by the Cinco De Mayo Septet. That's the day they recorded the song. And that's the day that its creation brought together Chicana feminist theory, folk music from Veracruz, punk rock, and music as social activism. The orchestrator of all these overlapping circles is George Sanchez, a former news reporter at the Daily News, who grew up in Arcadia raised by parents from Guatemala and New Mexico.
"Al Infierno" is part of George's graduate studies at Cal State Northridge. Son jarocho's probably best known as the style of music that produced La Bamba. The music's ukele-like jarana is sprouting like weeds in the Los Angeles area. You can't go to an activist Chicano event without someone breaking out the jarana or a son jarocho group providing the entertainment. The instrument has become a status symbol for a younger generation of Chicano activists. The are virtuoso players and there are DIY jarana players.
The L.A. musician Quetzal Flores and his band Quetzal have been central to the jarana explosion in SoCal. The band has recorded son jarocho songs and created Chicano versions of the music while going to Veracruz as Chicano ambassadors of sorts. They've brought back the fandango, the hours-long community celebration in which jarana players contribute music and lyrics while the pueblo, the people tap their heels as a rhythmic-heartbeat answer. Quetzal's hosted many Mexican son jarocho groups in L.A.
Here's the song "La Deportada" by Rebecca Whiting, one of the "Al Infierno" musicians. It's about a woman separated from her US-born child after being deported.
Cesar Castro, former member of the Veracruz band Mono Blanco, lives nearby in El Sereno. George got the idea for "Al Infierno" while taking a zapateado workshop with Castro. "I did not want to do a son jarocho version of "Straight to Hell" but I wanted to use these instruments and create something different," George said. He added lyrics about borders and bridges, finding a road in the darkness from a Gloria Anzaldua text and mixed in the concept of Nepantla. Here's what George wrote in the Powerpoint presentation for the class:
Musically, the sound embodies Nepantla - my own Nepantla as a Chicano punk studying the centuries-old Son Jarocho tradition of Mexico's Sotavento region. I will draw upon Gloria Anzaldúa's theory of autohistoria in the lyrical arrangement, combing the original words of Joe Strummer, Anzaldúa, and my own content. This project is fitting as a conclusion of my course studies in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge and as homage to Professora Cervántez, who introduced me to the concept of Nepantla.
Nepantla is the experience of transition - not transition from one point to another - an awareness and consciousness to change and disruption, prompting contemplation and critical wonder. Nepantla is a site of "conflict, negotiation and growth (Cortez, 15)." The vulnerability of Nepantla is inherent in my own project by the anticipated reaction of Son Jarocho musicians and punks alike. Neither will like my arrangement of our history and sound. However, I exist in this place -as a Suburban Chicano raised in a mostly white neighborhood, as a cancer survivor, as a practitioner of mestizaje consciousness; Nepantla is familiar. At the same time, I will engage Anzaldúa's practice of autohistoria; in telling my own history, I must speak to the history of the people, place and culture from where I come...
That place includes a lot of son jarocho groups. Conjunto Jardin, Las Cafeteras, and Chicano Son to name a few. All believe that the folk music from Veracruz is so rich it can tell the life experiences of people far from the pueblos of Veracruz.