Updated: Apr 30, 2019
By Emily J. Williamson
In the fall of 2013, I was invited by a friend to the annual Encuentro de son jarocho (Son jarocho gathering) in New York City. Since my concentration in ethnomusicology was Mexican music, I was already familiar with the musical structure and technical elements of son jarocho (a regional folk music from Mexico). However, I was not familiar with the community aspects in contemporary son jarocho, let alone the status of a son jarocho community in New York City. The night was a gathering of local New Yorkers, some commuters from New Jersey, and visiting musicians from Mexico. Throughout the evening, amateur performers presented the music they had recently learned and played for the audience. In some cases, a new singer mumbled a word or a player missed a chord on their instrument, but these errors were not seen as “mistakes.” Rather, this evening was dedicated to the learning experience of performing—for the first time for some—and to the celebration of a living musical tradition. After my first encuentro experience, I decided to research how son jarocho operates as a community music in New York City.
Son jarocho is a music, dance, and poetry tradition, originally from the region of southern Veracruz, in southeastern Mexico, bordering the Gulf. The principle musical instruments of son jarocho include: the jarana, a strummed, fretted chordophone that comes in a variety of sizes with eight strings in five courses (the three middle courses are double-coursed) which plays the harmonic cycle; the requinto, a plucked chordophone with four strings that plays the melody; and zapateado, the heel-tapping dance that is the rhythmic accompaniment. While additional instruments such as the harp or violin can be played, the jarana is the most common instrument one will find at a son jarocho event and is central to the recent movement to sustain and revive the music. Even the name for a son jarocho musician has its root from jarana: jaranero.
In 2007, Radio Jarocho, one of the first son jarocho groups in New York City, formed and began to play concerts and provide music workshops on son jarocho jarana playing, zapateado dance, and singing. As the time passed, more son jarocho musicians began their own ensemble projects and contributed to the emergent jaranero community across the city. By 2010, musician and luthier Sinuhé Padilla Isunza, who is one of several leaders in New York City’s son jarocho community, established weekly workshops around New York. One workshop that began in 2013 was in Sunset Park, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. While the workshops are open to anyone in the community, Padilla aimed to attract the Mexican and Mexican American youth of the neighborhood (most students were 14-16 years old). Padilla sought not only to continue the dissemination of son jarocho in New York, but also to bring a piece of Mexican culture to young students in the form of an after-school activity, and to provide a space for these students to explore cultural heritage of their parents’ home country.
In addition to musical workshops that taught students the singing and instrumental practices of son jarocho, Padilla led a luthier workshop series which taught students to make their own jaranas. Students constructed their jaranas from scratch, using repurposed wood pieces and scraps from New York, breaking from the jarana-making tradition, wherein instruments are made from one central piece of wood. Traditionally, the body of the lute is carved from a single piece of wood, usually cedar, and then two other pieces of wood are used to cover the body and the neck. This traditional method of jarana making is difficult to replicate in a site like New York City. Additionally, as many musicians know, some instruments tend to warp, quickly lose tuning, and simply do not sound good in certain climates. The wooden jaranas from Veracruz are well suited for Veracruz’s humidity and warmth, but not for a cold and dry New York City winter. Part of Padilla’s luthier projects is to create instruments for New York jaraneros with good sound quality. More central to the jarana-making workshops is the sense of empowerment a student experiences when making their own instrument. In many cases, the student (youth or adult) is learning about instrument making for the first time and learning about the son jarocho tradition from instrument up. In the case of the Sunset Park youth, their handmade jaranas gave them pride in their musical work and a physical symbol of the Mexican tradition with which they were engaging.
During the summer of 2014, the musician Claudio Vega (from the son jarocho ensemble Los Vega) was invited to visit the New York City son jarocho community, perform concerts and teach various musical workshops on jarana, requinto, and singing. After attending Padilla’s Sunset Park workshop as the guest instructor, Vega was impressed with the musical work of the youth who attend weekly workshops, both with their jarana playing and their singing of son jarocho. Vega interacted with the Sunset Park youth, where each of them showed him their personal jaranas, which they had made earlier that year. They were all very proud of the instruments that they had made themselves. Vega commented after seeing their jaranas, “Listen, this isn’t normal. Children in Mexico don’t even make their own instruments.” The youth confidently responded, “Well, we’re really good.”
The son jarocho activity of New York City is not unique. Rather, since the late 1970s in Mexico, musicians, intellectuals, and others who are dedicated to the dissemination of son jarocho have developed a systematic “revival” of the musical tradition. The revival, known as the movimiento jaranero, has evolved over the past several decades and since the early 2000s, has spread to the United States in the form of small son jarocho communities that continue musical workshops and community fandangos. It is important to note that within the movimiento jaranero, there are prescriptive “actions” that were developed to ensure the successful transmission and continuation of son jarocho. These actions include musical workshops that teach the playing of jarana, dancing zapateado, and singing, the making of son jarocho instruments, the development of new son jarocho recordings and presentational performances, and, most importantly, regular community fandangos. Some of the U.S. son jarocho communities are in Los Angeles, CA, Seattle, WA, Austin, TX, Chicago, IL, and Washington, D.C.
The son jarocho community in New York City is still regularly holding fandangos and weekly workshops, but luthier workshops are more difficult to sustain on a regular basis. In many cases, the community must find financial support and space to host new luthier workshops—two elements that are sometimes difficult to acquire in New York. The workshop in Sunset Park lost its space, which was donated by a non-profit group in the neighborhood, and most of the youth have graduated high school. Without a consistent set of students or space for a workshop, the Sunset Park site unfortunately has ceased to hold son jarocho workshops. However, regular son jarocho workshops still occur every Monday night at City Lore, an urban folklore center in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and fandangos are held at different locations throughout the five boroughs frequently throughout the year.
Despite the precarious nature of sustaining community music in an expensive and difficult city, the jaranero life is well integrated in New York City as it is elsewhere in Mexico and the U.S. More and more, Mexican organizations and communities are requesting son jarocho performances, much like the way mariachi performance has been a go-to live performance accompaniment to civic and community celebrations. In an interview with Julia del Palacio, a member of the group Radio Jarocho, she mentioned how she has experienced an increase in requests for son jarocho groups to perform at quinceañeras (the 15th birthday celebration) and other family-centered parties. Aside from the community life that has incorporated son jarocho, the local night life in New York City has incorporated this music in stage presentations. Latin and world music-type bars and venues regularly schedule son jarocho concerts and often offer workshop space when possible for the jaranero community. One such venue is Terraza 7 in Elmhurst, Queens. Terraza has been a frequent host to son jarocho encuentros, music workshops, and performances.
With a new mainstream popularity of son jarocho on the rise in both Mexico and the U.S., I wonder how son jarocho will further change over time. Like any folk music, son jarocho has already been extracted out of its traditional setting in rural Veracruz since at least the 1940s and 50s when son jarocho was incorporated into Mexican film and used by politicians. The hard work of organizing community music will certainly sustain the music of son jarocho, but will the character of the community change? The character of the son jarocho community in New York City is thoroughly middle class. Indeed, the community makes a significant effort to include working-class immigrant communities and less advantaged New Yorkers, but these efforts can only go so far. And in Mexico more and more often, rural communities are depleted of their local musicians who move to urban centers for consistent musical work. Overtime, the upwardly mobile musicians who can access visas and travel to places like New York City, essentially contribute to the further development of son jarocho as a middle-class taste and life style. Will it be a community music for the middle class only?
These contradictions are generally inherent to community music projects. As New York City becomes more and more difficult for even middle-income people to find affordable housing, let alone find the time for activities outside of the obligations of work and family, the material access to music and the performing arts is more restricted. Thankfully, in spite of the current financial conditions, son jarocho community members are finding ways to continue the son jarocho tradition by bringing son jarocho to less advantaged communities through public school, non-profit, and church performances. The audiences may not have the opportunity to construct their own jaranas or regularly attend a music workshop, but they can at the very least experience the music, poetry, and dance of son jarocho in their own community setting.
Additional Resources and Reading:
Higgins, Lee. 2012. Community Music: In Theory and in Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Madrid, Alejandro L. 2012. “Chapter 2: The Transnational Resurgence of Son Jarocho,” in Music in Mexico: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Example of the Fandango in Veracruz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bb7TuVPOytw
“Vientos del mar” by Los Vega https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFYUbqsELpU
Emily J. Williamson is an ethnomusicologist and educator based in the Bronx, New York. She teaches music courses, such as Introduction to World Music and Music of Mexico at Lehman College and Bronx Community College within the City University of New York (CUNY). In her dissertation “The Son Jarocho Revival: Reinvention and Community Building in a Mexican Music Scene in New York City,” she analyzes the issues of participation and of community music within the New York son jarocho community.
 Other instruments include the bass instrument called leona, percussion instruments such as quijada de burro (donkey jaw) and pandero (an octagonal frame drum, similar to a tambourine), and marimbol (a Caribbean llamelophone that is used as a bass instrument).
 Zapateado, coming from the word that means shoe in Spanish, “zapato,” is a heel-tapping dance that is performed on top of a wooden platform called a tarima. The tarima is placed in the center of a fandango circle and participants take turns executing rhythms with their feet as the circle of musicians play jaranas and sing poetic verses of son jarocho.
 In addition to teaching son jarocho, Padilla works on various musical projects, including Jarana Beat a son jarocho-fusion group.  Son jarocho performers like Andrés Huesca and Lino Chávez were some of the early pioneers in son jarocho recordings in the 1940s and 50s who were also featured Mexican films. Additionally, Mexico had two consecutive Veracruzan presidents Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946-52) and Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952-58). Alemán, in particular, was instrumental in promoting son jarocho and launching it into the Mexican mainstream through the founding of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Fine Arts Institute) which was one of the institutions that sought to preserve Mexican folk music and art. For a summary of this time period, see Madrid 2012, pp. 28-32.
 For more analysis on issues regarding “community music,” see Lee Higgins 2012.