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Feb 25, 2011
Francisco Serna plays Jarocho

Francisco Serna plays Jarocho

In 1958, Mexican-American rock musician Ritchie Valens (born Ricardo Esteban Valenzuela Reyes) released La Bamba on Del-Fi Records. The single became a top-40 hit in the U.S., and was named number 345 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, released in 2004. It’s the only song on the list not sung in English.

It’s well-documented that La Bamba is a famous example of Jarocho, a type of music that’s traced to Veracruz, Mexico, but that’s where consensus ends. Everything from the etymology of the name to the origin of the musical style is in contention.

Jaro means guys who work on a farm,” says Vallartense musician and Jarocho teacher Francisco Serna. “It’s also a derogatory term for mixed race people. Jarocho is connected to Africa, it’s one of the few types of music that incorporates the African heritage that we as Mexicans have.”

The very existence of Afro-Mexicans is under-documented and sometimes contentious. According to author Bobby Vaughan in his article “Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Mexico in the Context of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade”, this historic oversight has to do, in part, with the scarcity of black people in Mexico. “…[M]ost of the attention is placed on the countries where we find very large Black populations today,” Vaughan writes.

Para bailar La Bamba
Para bailar La Bamba, se necessita una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia
Para mi, para ti, ay arriba, ay arriba
- La Bamba, Ritchie Valens, 1958

But the link is there, a clue to its erasure in the very name: Jarocho. “[It’s] the moniker by which most Veracruzanos identify their regional identity, regardless of their race,” Vaughan elaborates. “But the word’s origins have everything to do with Blackness. In the colonial era, the word was used to refer to Blacks of mixed race… and or to Blacks in general.”

Serna sees an opportunity in the music. “What I find interesting is that people in general don’t think about the African heritage Mexicans have. People think indigenous and Spanish. Jarocho is the perfect way to make that link.”

“The beat, the way you strum, and the singing is very African. [Jarocho] uses a lot of stringed instruments [like] jarana, which are cousins of the ukulele but with 8 or 10 strings in different sizes. Historically it comes from the Conquest when the Spanish brought the strings to America. Before the Conquest there were no stringed instruments,” Serna explains.

“It is a festive genre in which the center of attention is the pairs of male and female dancers who dance atop a wood platform. Their rhythmic stamping provides the percussion to accompany the strumming of the all-important jarana, which is a smaller cousin of the guitar,” Vaughan writes.

The wooden platform may sound familiar. That’s because it’s similar to the stage used in other latin dances. “The similarity with other types of dancing is you dance on top of a tarima like Flamenco,” Serna says. “It’s been around for centuries.”

Jarocho is also known for lyrical flexibility – a feature of the oral tradition, and one that is often associated with the blues. “[The musicians] are improvising from poem to poem. With slavery, this goes all the way to the Mississippi,” Serna says.

The idea that musical styles can be traced to the slave trade routes goes a long way to explaining why so many similarities in influence can be detected while other aspects of the tradition have been lost. As the author of blog post “Black History Month: ‘La Bamba’ And Its African Roots” put it, “The African influence in Mexico, and the rest of this hemisphere for that matter, encompasses all of this … from jazz, to blues, to gospel, to rhythm & blues, to the syncopated beat that still permeates much of American music, a beat that comes from African slaves in America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.”

Despite its common roots with music and culture from around the world, Serna says that Jarochois in danger of being forgotten, which is part of the reason that in conjunction with dancer Lilly Alcántara and Café Oro Verde owner Wenseslao Aguirre, he puts on a weekly workshop in Puerto Vallarta.

“People can come to learn to play Jarocho or to dance Jarocho,” Serna says. “It’s also a chance to hear the music played live.”

The workshops are a labour of love for Serna, who also makes many of the traditional instruments by hand. “My mother is from Veracruz and it’s the music my grandfather used to listen to and dance to,” he says. “On a personal level it’s like looking for my background. It’s also part of my roots as a Mexican and it’s important to learn how to sing and dance it. It’s part of tradition.”

The groups are typically small – around 10 people per class from a variety of backgrounds. “We have some people from Veracruz,” Serna continues. “Sometimes they’ll bring food. It’s a way to share the culture. The idea is to gather people to have bigger festivities, a real fandango.”

Jarocho Workshop:
Café Oro Verde,  Juarez #728, Upstairs
Every Tuesday from 4pm – 6pm
Open to everybody
$70 pesos/class or $200/month (4 classes)

Photo credits: All copyright Francisco Serna.

Ed. Note: This article first appeared on PV Pulse, on February 15, 2011.

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