San Francisco Son Jarocho music festival
After four songs full of guitar strumming, lively foot stamping and singing, Alfredo “El Godo” Herrera of the band Pa’Sumecha took a break from his set to remove his red neck cloth. While wiping the sweat from his face, hands and guitar, he laughed away his display of fatigue.
“First of all this is not a job,” he said. “It is a culture, a community. This is my feeling tonight.”
The first annual Son Jarocho Festival took place Aug. 16-19 at the Brava Theater, where artists like El Godo filled the Mission venue with the sounds of music from the Veracruz region of Mexico.
The festival was well attended–according to organizer Camilo Landau, about 700 people came–but the sets still felt intimate. Traditional Jarocho music is inherently a fusion–the complex history of Veracruz has led to overlapping Indian, Afro-Caribbean and Spanish influences. In recent years, Latino immigrants in the U.S. have begun experimenting with Jarocho rhythms.
Friday night, Pa’Sumecha and Quetzal took the stage to demonstrate two different approaches to La Música Jarocha. Pa’Sumecha–visiting from Mexicali–worked typical instruments such as: the jarana, a small eight-stringed Mexican guitar; the quijada, a horse’s jawbone hit with stick; and the marimbol, a giant box with piano-like keys.
Many of the songs maintained a constant rhythm despite varying emotional content–from the yearning (“pueblos desaparecidos / los jovenes se van”) to the playful (“yo me peleé con la bruja”).
In Veracruz, “Pa’sumecha” is an expression frequently used to suggest surprise or incredulity. Perhaps some of the sounds did surprise audience members–the singing was somewhat atonal and the jawbone sound unfamiliar.
But surprise gave way to delight as the barrier between artist and audience melted away. During a much-needed water break a woman in the audience said to El Godo, “Stop, or you might get drunk maestro.” The audience laughed and he smiled enjoying his drink.
Quetzal–a six-piece band from East L.A.–took the stage next playing what emcee Jose “Dr. Loco” Cuellar, San Francisco State professor emeritus, called, “Jarocho music with a taste of postmodernity.”
Quetzal’s sound was smoother than Pa’sumecha’s, and featured cello, violin, drums and electric guitar, in addition to jarana and foot stamping. The real draw of Quetzal, though, was the voice of Martha Gonzalez.
Wearing a red rose and bright blue feathers in her short-cropped hair, Gonzalez clutched her loose white dress at the waist as she delivered her lines in a strong, perfect pitch.
Jarocho musicians worry often about the danger of fusion–does mixture with other genres destroy tradition? So far, Quetzal seems to have struck the right balance.
At the end, Los Cojolites and Pa’sumecha joined Quetzal onstage for a delirious final fandango; Alejandra Gonzalez Machado (Pa’sumecha) and Gonzalez sang and stamped their feet in harmony as the other musicians filled the theater with sound.
Among the other events included were: a Thursday film screening of Son Siglos, a documentary by Marco Villalobos about three Son Jarocho musicians; a Saturday concert by Los Cojolites, Andres Flores and Sistema Bomb; and musical workshops with the artists on Sunday.
The festival demonstrated that Jarocho music is not a museum display of folkloric tradition or an album recorded for the Smithsonian, but a living cultural form.
“Whether or not we have roots in Veracruz, the festival’s done a really impressive job of showing both where Jarocho has come from, and where it’s going,” said Alex Quintanilla, who was selling homemade Mexican jewelry at the festival.