July-August 2010


Part 2 - Families of the Son

By Audrey Coleman

When I entered Alfredo Lopez's tiny studio apartment, he began by introducing me to the family jarocho. Across the pillow side of his neatly made bed lay the main instruments you would find in a performance of son jarocho one hears in Veracruz State. Deftly picking up the oversized guitar-like, jarana leona, he plucked a melody which resonated like a harp. Then he gave a few percussive strums to the smaller jarana seconda beside it. Next, he picked the still smaller four-string requinto jarocho using a piece of bull's horn for a pick. Complementing the strings was a tambourine-like percussion instrument called a bandero.

"You hear son jarocho in L.A., in Mexico and everywhere," says Alfredo. "The reason is the rhythm is very attractive and it's easy to make the sound rich and adapt it, which is really great. But a lot of people are doing that. I want people to understand that there is more than just son jarocho. The rest of the music is also important - like son huasteco and son tabasceno...Son tabasceno is close to son jarocho in rhythm and it's very danceable. In Tabasco, they dance to it with flutes and drums. The Indians and some mestizos use the flute."

I gazed at other instruments he had assembled in clusters on the bed and noticed still more instruments peeking out from closets and poised on shelves. "I've been collecting instruments my whole life. My instruments are my babies," says the youthful, 51-year old musician. "I have families of instruments and each family corresponds to a different place in my country, and of course, each state has a different type of weather and (that weather influences) the kind of wood they use to make the instruments." He picked up another type of guitar. "This instrument is very delicate, for example, and the wood is from a tropical climate. It's a very typical wood of Michoacan - ojole paharito."

Each regional son has its particular character, but that character is not rigid but rather in a state of flux, according to Dr. Timothy Harding, Professor of Latin American Studies, retired from Cal. State Northridge. "There are similarities in all the regions and (one is that) the son tends to have a six-eight rhythm," says Dr. Harding. "But the most well known son from Veracruz is La Bamba and it's in four-four or two-four rhythm. In Veracruz, you have a lot of pieces that are in two-four because Veracruz has a very strong African influence. And in the Northeast region of Mexico, called La Huasteca, there's a style that (has) a violin as its lead instrument and the two accompanying instruments are types of guitars; one is an eight string large baritone-sounding guitar and the other one is a small five string guitar used for chords. I don't mention a harp, but in certain parts of La Huasteca they have a harp. The (mariachi ensembles) in Jalisco, around Guadalajara, have the same basic things; the violins are the lead. Nowadays you hear the trumpet, but that's a modern invention. Traditionally, it was violins - two or three violins playing in harmony instead of just one. And (originally) the harp played the bass and treble, and then you had two different kinds of guitar-like instruments. But as it's evolved, the harp has kind of died away and there are only a few mariachis that still use harp."

One important element of the son missed by listeners who don't understand Spanish is improvisational rhyming. With Spanish origins, this poetic tradition took on regional variations in the New World. Rhyme schemes differ in the quintilla, quarteta, terceta, sexteta and so on. Alfredo Lopez studied this art of the versador in Mexico with the acclaimed Adrian Nieto. "It's very complex to rhyme decimas, for example. It rhymes the first with the third, the first with the fifth, the first with the seventh, the second with the fourth, and the second with the sixth...If you go to an area and (perform without using the traditional) rhyme scheme, people will say you don't know how to do it right - ‘No es versador.' In La Huasteca we have a contest between bands of their versadors...It's very tough because it's not just (putting together) words but responding to the other guy...It's not a confrontation in a bad way, but a way of creating something new together."

The many variations of the son are also a specialty of Sones de Mexico, the group that performed at the Getty Villa on April 10 with Alfredo Lopez as guest artist. Some of the sones they play take their names from places like son jaliscienses, from smaller communities like the indigenous-based son alajenos of Michoacan or from the instruments used such as the sones de marimba found in Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Chiapas. "What is common among the many styles of son is that it is festive music. Generally, son is a danceable style," says Sones musician/producer Juan Dies, who holds a degree in ethnomusicology."

One piece on the group's CD, Esta Tierra es Tuya (Sones de Mexico Ensemble, Inc. 2007) highlights the danceable aspect of the genre with a son de tarima. "Tarima is a wooden surface that the dancers use as a foot tapping board," explains Dies. "Tarimas are very important for the dances I was telling you about, because a lot of the dance to the son is percussive dance. It cannot be done on the ground or on a cement floor or on tile. It is done on a raised wooden box. (That is) used in Veracruz and other places. But in the Costa Chica, where that particular son de tarima comes from, they make a special kind of tarima where they dig a hole in the ground, and they put buckets of water underneath to bounce the sound back and then they cover the hole up with planks of wood. It's only a space big enough for one or two dancers. So they dance on top of that hole and. And as the musicians are playing, the dancers take turns coming up on that plank. We bring our own wooden tarima with us and our dancers dance on it even if the stage floor is made of wood."

Although the ensemble has delved deeply into the traditions of Mexico for performance material, it also has experimented with provocative musical fusions. One piece they perform is their interpretation of a Led Zeppelin number. Another on the Getty program was a jarocho version of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #3 in G major. "We have been criticized by some people who don't like that we make these experiments but...we don't want to remain insular in the Mexican community. We continue to play all those Mexican songs that they enjoy but we like to appeal to new generations of Mexican- Americans. We like to appeal to non-Mexican Americans, to people who would never normally pick up a Mexican folk music record but who might see Led Zeppelin on the cover and that might spark their curiosity or they may see the Brandenburg Concerto and want to take a listen to it. It's a novelty song, but they see that we take it seriously and they see that the rest of the album could also be enjoyable. You could call these experiments an effort on our part to reach a larger audience."

Over the next several months, Mexican folkloric music will be reaching out to audiences with greater intensity as Mexico celebrates the bicentennial of its independence from Spain. The culmination will be September 16, 2010, Mexican Independence Day. No doubt sones in all their wondrous diversity will mark the occasion across Mexico and beyond its borders to the north.

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional and world music.



All Columns by Audrey Coleman