Jaranas in New York City: Lute Making and Creating Musical Communities
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