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La Bamba explained: the music of Veracruz

Janice Carraher

Para bailar la bamba
Para bailar la bamba
Se necesita
Una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia
Y otra cosita

Can you hear Ritchie Valens belting that one out? One of Rock and Roll’s most copied songs (from garage bands, movies, and college marching bands, to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). La Bamba is an ode to an era, the anthem of the American Boom generation. Many of us over the years continue to sing that catchy song without thinking much about it. But in truth, there is a whole lot more here than meets most peoples ears.

La Bamba did not jump out of some songwriter’s head in the 1950’s - in fact, it probably dates back to the beginning of the last century. Its birthplace is southern Veracruz, eastern Oaxaca, and northern Tabasco. This song is in fact not a “song” at all but a son.

Sones are a musical form that is found in seven areas of Mexico (with regional variation) including Jalisco where it is the root of mariachi music. By definition, a son must be of 4/6 time, have an unlimited number of verses (each one of which is a complete thought unto itself), and be played for dancing. Those of you who are musical are going to quickly say “caught cha! La Bamba is in 4/4 time!” And you are correct. The Son Jarocho (Jarocho designates someone or thing from southern Veracruz) is the only form that has both 4/6 and 4/4 time. While La Bamba is the most famous of the Sones Jarochos, there are somewhere around 100 others.

As for the coplas (verses), La Bamba has hundreds – they say over a thousand – but who can count them as they are being created everyday. Part of the Son tradition is the creating of verses by cantadores (singers) including adlibbing on the spot. These talented wordsmiths will take a situation and sing messages, jokes, or insults to the dancers, observers, and other musicians. It can be a lot of fun, but also dangerous if someone decides to take offence. In the countryside where this music is still vital and undiluted, this type of play has led to many a fistfight and on occasion the use of machetes.

The instruments used by the musicians are varied but come from the stringed and percussive families. In The Port and along the Rio Papaloapan one is likely to see arpas (harps) and occasional panderos (tambourines) while further south one might run across a bocona (a four string bass), the quijada (literally an asses jaw), and violins. But no matter where one is, one will see jaranas (a six to ten string instrument, from 18” to the size of a small guitar, that is strummed) and guitarras de son (4 strings, various sizes, and plucked with a long cow horn pick). Though most people don’t realize it, the tarima is another essential instrument. A tarima is a platform about a foot high, approximately the size of a piece of plywood and usually made of cedar planks. This is where the dancers pound out the rhythms, interacting with the other musicians sometimes following and sometimes dictating the direction of the music. The roots of this music are Spanish and African. The belief is that for the slaves, who were deprived of their drums, the tarima was the replacement.

Many of us who love Mexico have seen a Ballet Folklorico performance at some point. You may remember that the dancers representing Veracruz were dressed in glorious white, the women with red rebozos, and flowers in their hair. Their dancing consisted of rapidly dashing about the stage, incredibly fast zapateado (footwork), and the women vigorously fanning themselves and their partner. A trio dressed in white was plucking furiously away at their arpa and jaranas. While this is fun to watch, it is a style of music and dance called Son Commercial . This style is much more rapid and flashier than the traditional one and the speed tends to turn the different Sones into lumps of sameness.

Son Commercial has been developing since the 1940’s. Its appeal is to the more urban and prosperous public that watches the movies and buys the records that are the mode of exposure for the music outside the zone. It is a hybrid form, based loosely on the old style of Son from the Port of Veracruz. It is now so pervasive that within most of Mexico (including the Port) it is considered the real thing. This is the music you will find in the bars and restaurants throughout Mexico.

Theater and recordings are not where you will find the music of the people. It is out in the provinces where the Son truly lives. Here musicians, dancers, and spectators combine with the tarima, maybe some tamales and a wee bit of aguardiente (cheap cane liquor) in the social interaction called Fandango. At a Fandango the musicians (three to twenty or more) group up on one side of the tarima standing close enough to rest a foot upon it. Along the other three sides crowd the dancers and spectators. As the musicians play, one couple mounts the tarima and starts dancing. After a period of time another couple mounts the tarima and the first couple will get down. This pattern will continue through out the son. There are also sones exclusively for women. The Son may last five minutes or thirty depending on the interest of the dancers and musicians. A Fandango that starts at eight in the evening might be over by eleven that night or at nine the next morning – it all depends on how folks feel.

So, here you are thinking “Wow! All this sounds really cool, but how can I bring it into my life? We’re going to be visiting the Port and the Olmec museums in Santiago and Tres Zapotes, but we’re only going to be there a week.” Well here are some ideas. While in the Port, check out the Casa de Cultura (cultural community center). They have a taller de instrumentos (a workshop for making instruments) in the back.

Sometimes the members of Mono Blanco and La Plaga (two of the better more traditional groups) give classes and at the very least there should be some excellent tapes available. Though I prefer the traditional music, it is so “Veracruz” to hangout at a table on the Zocalo (the traditional park that was the center of colonial towns.) and listen to the commercial groups that I can never resist. If you’re feeling like a little music just call one of the groups over. Always ask about the price first. If you’re thinking of buying a few, the price might drop. Depending on your Spanish, ask Telo the harp player from Los Tigres de Jamapa (one of the two groups that work the Zocalo) to improvise verses for you.

If you want to get out of the Port, hop a cab to Boca del Rio or a bus to Mandinga. These two small towns are just south, with plenty of restaurants and musicians. Of the two Mandinga is the more rustic – probably how Boca del Rio was 30 years ago. Something of interest in both of these towns is that there may be dancers. Remember that they will probably cost extra so get clear on the price up front. If you are planing to travel further south - say to Alvarado or Tlacotalpan - everything will be much cheaper. This is because you will have abandoned the heavily turisted areas but for the same reason commercial music will be less frequent. In case you’re feeling brave and want to try out any of this, here are some suggested requests: La Bamba, El Cascabel, La Guacamaya, El Colas, and if there are dancers, La Iguana (and hopefully they’ll know to make like Iguanas)

What you really want to do is experience a Fandango. Most, but not all Fandangos are public and are usually held in connection with a holiday (secular or religious) or with velorios. Velorios are public (though privately sponsored) events held in connection with a promise made to one of the multitude of virgins or saints. They usually include a procession with women doing call and response singing and musicians playing sones, all night vigils, a Fandango, tamales and drinks.

The largest fandango of all is the feria (fair) in Tlacotalpan for the Candelaria (January 31, February 1 and 2). Another large one is in Santiago Tuxtla for the feria around the 25th of July. For the average interested traveler, Santiago Tuxtla is actually the place to go anytime of year. Besides being absolutely enchanting with one of Mexico’s most beautiful parks (in provincial Veracruz, the Zocalo is almost always called el parque), the Casa de Cultura sponsors classes four afternoons a week in both dance and music.

If you have even the littlest talent the teachers, Mirien and Pablo from the Casa de Cultura can set you up. Pablo also makes lovely jaranas which are very reasonably priced and of good craftsmanship. As well Jorge, who runs one of the stands along the front of the mercado (market) is well connected to instrument makers. It was Jorge who introduced me to the maker of my first jarana. In Santiago every Sunday evening, during the paseo en el parque (stroll through the park), there is a Fandango. As well, after Christmas begins La Rama (the Branch). During La Rama, every night until the end of January, a small procession carries a decorated branch to a house. The householder is then obligated to throw a Fandango the following night. These Fandangos are small and great fun.

A quick word here concerning etiquette at Fandangos. You may have feelings about eating, drinking and sanitation and I have gotten sick enough to share your concerns. However the person responsible for the Fandango has an obligation to be sure you are well cared for. It will lessen that person’s load if you would accept what is offered – at the very least something to drink. The holding of a cup indicates that you have been tended to and will lessen the number of times you’ll be offered things.

At all Fandangos there is a certain amount of drinking. Do not consider this license to act out on your part! Remember that this is for the most part a conservative crowd (we’re not dancing Salsa). Here drunkenness may be tolerated in men but is less so in women. A boracho (drunken man) is a nuisance, but a drunken woman is at the very least pitied and if she is unescorted, she drops into the category of prey. Men and women both need to be aware that there are many subtextual things going on and violence can be the end result of not picking up on the cues (read Carl Franz’s “ Peoples Guide to Mexico” for excellent advise on drinking).

At the end of some Fandangos (especially during La Rama) the last son might be Los Panaderos. This son is aimed at folks who can’t dance. If the person dancing should put a hat on your head, be a sport and mount the tarima. Refusing doesn’t work, I’ve seen folks chased down the street and dragged back. Eventually you’ll be left for a moment to dance by yourself and then you’ll get to choose someone of the opposite sex to dance with you, who you will in turn desert. Don’t worry, you’ll get lots of support from everyone. Remember it’s all in fun, your participation will be appreciated and you will own the experience forever.

Unlike many traditional music forms in Mexico, Son Jarocho continues to be a vigorous presence in many communities. Unfortunately, it is dying out in areas where television and radio have become pervasive. As Mexico moves into the world economy, the musicians and dancers are being forced to leave their communities in order to financially sustain their families. With the destruction of the ejidos (communally held farmlands) more and more of these folks will lose their land ensuring further degradation of folk traditions. At the present there is interest on the part of the government to promote Mexico’s folkways, which has had the result of diluting, homogenizing and stifling the living traditions and creating manageable, quantifiable, and dead representations of what once was. If one has an interest in seeing a Fandango don’t wait twenty years – go now.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Janice Carraher © 2008
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