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Veracruz' Little Guitar Grows Big in Southern California

The Yoda of son jarocho was in town the other day. 81 year-old Don Andres Vega Delfin - he's more than earned the three letter title - was in L.A. from Veracruz with his quartet Mono Blanco.

Son jarocho's ukelele-looking guitar, the jarana, is everywhere in California. It's become the de rigueur instrument for the current generation of college - age activist Chicanos.

I've written a few times about son jarocho in this space, and I didn't really want to write anything else about it for a while but it just keeps pulling me back in. I knew I had to after I walked into Jones Coffee in Pasadena for the Don Andres show and a young Latina told me a Facebook friend said son jarocho was everywhere this summer. You can't turn around without running into a jarana. That same night Las Cafeteras were performing in Macarthur Park, and I was told Cesar Castro- a Veracruz transplant who's influencing the musicians born and raised in L.A. - was playing with his group Cambalache somewhere in L.A.

Photo by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
Photo by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

It certainly seems that this is the time and the place for son jarocho. There's a critical mass of groups, some stick to the traditional Veracruz sound, there's plenty of DIY jarana players, while others take the music and fuse it in this great L.A. licuadora of sounds and influences. Las Cafeteras infuse their lyrics with cultural pride and corrido-like references to social changes.

In the interview I've included Don Andres told me that in the many times he's come to L.A. he's heard a lot of son jarocho, some of it good, some of it bad, a lot of it too fast. You gotta slow it down, he said. He's like Alexander Calder, creating art , and tapping into the spirits of his father and grandfather who'd paved the way for what he does. The string quartet music you hear in the background of the interview is the group that played Mendelssohn and some tangos before Don Andres got on stage.

Don Andres | Photo by Rodrigo Vasquez
Don Andres | Photo by Rodrigo Vasquez

I wanted to ask first if son jarocho was more than music. I don't think I asked it right. Don Andres talked about the tarima, the wood riser that a female usually stomps on in percussive rhythm to accompany the guitars.

Son jarocho hasn't died, Don Andres said, the old musicians die but father passes it on to son and to grandkids. His granddaughter is the latest addition to the Mono Blanco band and she was there at Jones Coffee to perform.

What song reminds you of your father, I asked. El Pajaro Cu, he said, and he played it. That's the continuity he was talking about and it took me back a few years ago when I asked my father what his father's favorite song was. Tampico Hermosohe said, because it was a tour in song of his old stomping grounds in the northern part of Veracruz.

The advice Don Andres gives to the newbies picking up the jarana for the first time is to take the time to learn son jarocho from Veracruz. He doesn't hear many of these new musicians playing or knowing las raices del son, the root of the son from Veracruz. That observation opens up a much larger discussion about the authentic and about what happens to a musical form when it's taken from one location to another. In a new location it has to change, no? Son jarocho can meet punk rock on the Red Line and fall in love.

Or in some forms son jarocho, as a purely folkloric music can cure nostalgia, replenish the memories of the home country, and help heal the cuts of migration. Maybe it can keep people from going crazy. I think that's one of the reasons Don Andres was given a recognition in Lynwood about a week ago.

Son jarocho in Southern California will create its own authenticity. Its roots will find nourishment in the riverbeds of the Arroyo, the Santa Ana River, and Compton Creek. Some people pick up the jarana for a cultural longing. Others pick it up after years of studying other instruments and wonder if they can get down with son jarocho as well as they can with a Fender Stratocaster. I'd like to be there in a pre-dawn concert as a yet unborn jarana player plugs in his wood instrument and plays the Star Spangled Banner to welcome the new day.

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