“Son jarocho is not a cultural expression that should be locked up in a museum or in the archives of a library. It is a living manifestation of Veracruz’s culture that has evolved just as our own existence has. We can’t measure how ‘traditional’ a jarocho band is because they are living the tradition; we all inherit it and generate it too. The kinds of arrangements we make in our songs are a lucid manifestation of the way we see life. It’s the game of moving back and forward, a very important aspect in our music.”
So asserts an impassioned Ricardo Perry Guillén, founder of Mexican band Los Cojolites. The name may be familiar to some. They have been performing Stateside (alongside Afrobeat dons Antibalas and Latin funk outfit Yerba Buena), and also provided songs for the soundtrack to the movie Frida, the recent biopic on the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (wife of celebrated muralist Diego Riviera). The Cojolites are one of a growing number of bands responsible for bringing one of Mexico’s most ancient and vivacious folk sounds to a global audience—they’re doing it in fine style.
The members of the group—whose ages range from between 12 and 20—hail from Cosoleacaque in the state of Veracruz, where son jarocho was initially developed around 300 years ago. The eponymous capital city of the state has been a key Mexican port for 500 years and hence an active filter for anything coming into the country from outside. The region thus steadily acquired a mix of indigenous and imported—Spanish, Arabic, Gypsy, African, Caribbean—traditions.
This cultural mélange resulted in a syncretic form of local folk music: son is the Spanish word for folk music, jarocho the slang term for the people of Veracruz. From Spain came harmonic structures, verse forms, the staccato heel dance style (zapateado) associated with the music and stringed instruments; from Africa the call and response vocal style, slurring of the notes in characteristic intervals in the scale, use of onomatopoeias and jitanjáforas and irreverent/subversive lyrical content; an indigenous influence was present in the staccato eighth-note rhythm repetitions and certain aspects of the singing style.
After some time, regular instrumentation began to appear, and the genre began to consolidate. The harp (arpa), the jarana (five string guitar) and the requinto (small four-string guitar) became the mainstays of the jarocho ensemble, with added percussion instruments such as the octagonal tambourine (pandero), donkey jawbone (quijada) and wooden box (cajón). Armed with these instruments, soneros gave the music everlasting qualities: