SoCal Tug of War Over Son Jarocho and Fandango

This week the glossary needs to be at the beginning.

jarana: a guitar-shaped instrument from Veracruz; looks like a 4-stringed ukele but packing double the punch with 8 strings; in recent years has become popular among mostly Mexican American activists.

son jarocho: the African-inspired, percussive music from coastal Mexico; made popular by songs like "La Bamba" and played with jarana, harp, and violin.

fandango: a participatory hours-long music celebration in Veracruz, convened for an important event during which son jarocho is played, and rhythmic stomping by men and women on a low wood riser called a tarima. In recent years Latino musicians have traveled to Veracruz to take part in, study the form, and organize fandangos in Southern California.

There's a debate going on right now in Southern California among dozens of musicians and activists who play and practice the above. The debate ranges from expletive pissing matches online to a philosophical debate over the nature of community music building and the process by which a musical practice that's spiritual to many is carried out.

It's a complicated debate about the son jarocho scene, about musicianship, when is a music student ready to breakout, and who can claim to be part of a music process that traces its roots to the indigenous, African, and European melting pot of Veracruz in the colonial period.

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The debate came to a head after members of the group Las Cafeteras expressed their rebel, punk, do-it-yourself, approach to son jarocho in a recent L.A. Weekly article.

The group's don't-tell-us-what-we-can-or-can't-play position upset enough of the older (in their 30s and 40s) son jarocho players that these older players called a meeting last week at a guitar string-making shop near El Sereno.

Two dozen people sat around a tarima, the wooden riser. They included Raul Pacheco of Ozomatli, Quetzal Flores of the band Quetzal, Domingo Siete founder Gabriel Tenorio, and Veracruz native Cesar Castro, seen by many as the most accomplished son jarocho players in Southern California. Son jarocho musicians from Santa Ana, Santa Barbara, and San Diego also attended.

The meeting was partly about reining in wayward young musicians perceived as not ready, not accomplished enough to play the music. The complaints about Las Cafeteras gave way to introspection about all the community-center organized fandangos that used to be organized four and five years ago.

I wondered, going into the meeting, what sets the son jarocho scene apart from any of the other music scenes in SoCal in the last 50 years; I mean, Topanga Canyon in the 70s, the soul scene in East L.A. in the 60s. Everyone has the right to pick up aninstrument, learn it, form a band. Who anoints you as good? In the scenes of the past the community of like-minded musicians served this function.

It's like some Karate Kid shit, they'll tell you when you're ready, Flores says. For about six years Flores and his wife Martha Gonzalez have been going to Veracruz as Chicano musicians and activists to learn the fandango. And they've organized fandangos in Southern California structured like those in Veracruz.

Is it the difference between religious music and secular music? Is this like taking music played in a Santeria ceremony and performing it, before you master it, in a secular setting?

No, Flores tells me, think about Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra of 30 years ago.

Flores says that at stake over how and who practices fandango in Southern California is a very important mechanism that gives people a moment of clarity amidst a crumbling system and this includes not just Chicanos, blacks, Africans, Mexicanos, Central Americans, South Americans. Bringing the fandango from the towns of Veracruz to Southern California turned it into a powerful social movement not based on protests or political platforms. It's democratic in that it folds in anyone but there's a definite hierarchy atop which sit the most experiences musicians.

As the meeting wrapped up Tenorio, who's working with Veracruz musicians, put the pan on the stove, heated up the tortillas and filled them up as he passed them around. In the center of the room people walked around and stood on the tarima. Flores calls it the womb, the center of the fandango, that's the first thing you hear, the drum, communicating a message.

Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

About the Author

Adolfo’s been a reporter at NPR affiliate KPCC since 2000. He’s reported on three L.A. mayors, four L.A. Unified superintendents, and covered the LAPD batons and rubber bullets flying at the May, 2007 MacArthur Park immigrant marc...
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The Arkestra is still active after Tapscott died in 1999. Here's a great description of Tapscott's epiphany in 1961: http://www.panafrikanpeoplesarkestra.com/history.htm