January-February 2007


An Interview with Jorge Mijangos

Son Jarocho Musician and Luthier

By Sonia Kroth

Son - Literally a sound that is agreeable to the ear, it is a Mexican regional song/dance style, usually in 6/8 rhythm.

Jarocho - "of Veracruz" Applied to the people and music of Veracruz, the term originally meant "irreverent," but the jarocho people have turned it into an assertion of pride.

Born and raised in Chiapas, México, Jorge Mijangos is a self-taught multi-instrumentalist and luthier. He began performing as a soloist in local theaters and radio stations at the age of five. During his formative years, he played guitar and sang in the traditional estudiantina. He has been in numerous groups, playing such varied musical styles as salsa, rock, Andean music, canto nuevo, and son jarocho, and has recorded and performed throughout Mexico and the US. In his early 20s, he studied percussion in Havana, Cuba, and became fascinated with the rhythms and nuances of African-influenced music. Around the same time, he first encountered the music of Veracruz (son jarocho) as part of the group Matraka. In the early 1990s, he and a colleague formed the experimental ensemble Matanga, performing son jarocho with only drums and vocals.

His father wanted him to become an engineer and enrolled him in a technical high school to study metalwork using the lathe. Although he dropped out due to family difficulties, he returned with great commitment ten years later (as a 26 year old) to complete his final year of high school and graduate.

In 1994, he constructed his first jarana, a small guitar-shaped fretted stringed instrument with 8 string in 5 courses, which received an honorable mention from the state of Chiapas Annual Competition of Traditional Crafts. Since then, he has continued to build jaranas as well as guitarras de son otherwise known as requinto jarocho.

When he moved to the US in 1998, he was introduced to Tim Harding, a retired professor of ethnomusicology, who has dedicated the past 45 years of his life to teaching and promoting son jarocho. Ironically, under the guidance of this American professor, he learned more about the history, music and art forms surrounding son jarocho than he had ever learned in Mexico.

In California, Jorge began making cajón drums for a small company, and for the past few years has made strings in a shop specializing in hand-wound strings for folk instruments, including jaranas and requintos. During these years, encouraged by colleagues and friends, he made jaranas at his kitchen table in his free time, borrowing tools and equipment to complete each instrument.

He was recently awarded a two-year apprenticeship of Peruvian guitar through the Durfee Foundation, and for the past four years has played with the LA-based band Conjunto Jardin. In 2001, he co-founded the jarocho duet El Son del Pueblo. He has performed in such venues as Salón México, the Getty Museum, The Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Ford Theater, among others.

In January 2005, the Fund for Folk Culture gave Jorge a grant to establish his luthiery workshop.

FW: How would you describe yourself and your art?

JM: I am a luthier. My art belongs to a tradition known as son jarocho, which refers to a vibrant folk music and dance style from Veracruz, Mexico. For the past nine years, in addition to playing son jarocho, I have dedicated myself to learning the construction of the jarana, which is the traditional musical instrument that forms the basis of son jarocho. A direct descendant of the baroque guitar, the jarana came into use in Mexico during the colonial period. The traditional, labor-intensive technique of jarana construction that I continue, involves carving the entire instrument from a solid piece of wood, much like a sculpture. This solid body construction, onto which the soundboard and fingerboard are added, results in the particular sound quality that is characteristic of the jarana.

FW: Son jarocho is not widely known in the US. Can you describe it for us?

JM: One of Mexico's richest artistic expressions, son jarocho encompasses a tradition of music, dance and vocal improvisation that traces its roots to African, Spanish and indigenous influences. Jarocho music thrives on improvisation, humor and spontaneity and is continuously evolving to reflect the experiences, witty sarcasm, politics and heroism of each generation.

FW: What are the instruments played in son jarocho?

JM: Jaranas are the fundamental instruments used in son jarocho, and their complex strumming techniques provide the rhythmic framework of this music. Jaranas are traditionally made of Spanish cedar or mahogany, come in various sizes and typically have eight strings (three pairs flanked by two singles). The requinto jarocho, or guitarra de son, has just four to five strings, which are plucked with a sliver of cow horn to improvise the bold and percussive melody lines. These instruments are often accompanied by the exuberant jarocho harp, and on occasion by the quijada (donkey jaw), pandero (wood frame tambourine) and marimbula (large bass kalimba).

FW: How did you become involved in building jaranas?

JM: I came to jarana construction by way of the music. In my late teens, some musician friends visiting from Veracruz introduced me to jarocho music and invited me to join them. I became enamored with the jaranas's sound and rhythms and a few years later, decided to attempt to make one for myself. Although my knowledge lacked in many areas, my first instrument turned out well, and even received an honorable mention from the state of Chiapas's Annual Competition of Traditional Crafts.

Inspired by the process and a desire to learn more, I continued to study jarana construction after moving to California, finding to my surprise a rich and growing jarocho community here. Following years of observation, reading books, asking questions, and many hours of trial and error, I have mastered the traditional techniques and achieved high quality, richly toned jaranas and requintos that are very much in demand.

FW: Do you use traditional tools in building jaranas?

JM: The use of modern tools such as the band saw and drill press facilitates the initial stages of hollowing the instrument and cutting out the basic form, allowing me to make the jarana in the traditional way using new technology. After these rough cuts, hand tools are essential for precision, and are used in every step from carving the neck to applying the finest detail.

FW: Do you see son jarocho growing in popularity?

JM: In recent years, son jarocho has experienced significant resurgence throughout modern Mexico and beyond. Together with friends and colleagues, I've organized fandangos (public gatherings in which people come together to play, improvise and dance to jarocho music) and helped establish a jarocho network in California. This has brought me into contact with many wonderful musicians, dancers and people who share my interest in preserving this valuable tradition.

In California alone, there are at least thirty different groups that play jarocho music. Only a few luthiers in the US make jaranas however, and since they are primarily guitar makers by trade, none of them make jaranas in the traditional style. In fact, I don't know of any other luthier outside of Mexico who specializes in jarocho instruments. Because of this, there is a great need for jarocho instruments and even musicians visiting from Veracruz have expressed interest in having one of my instruments.

FW: You're still actively involved in playing the music as well. What are you involved in now?

JM: Son jarocho is fundamental in my life and work. I am part of two jarocho groups (one of which I founded) and have recorded and performed son jarocho throughout California. My success as a luthier has been directly linked to my relationship with jarocho music. As a musician in the jarocho tradition, I am able to comprehend musicians' needs and can create a balanced jarana with the optimal projection and tone that the musician is seeking. Moreover, my understanding of the music, the lyrical improvisation and the role of each instrument within the ensemble, adds a multi-dimensional perspective on how to approach making each instrument.


Jorge may be reached at 805-962-5059 / 805-636-3803 or  sonia@rain.org