I came to Cosoleacaque, a mid-sized town in the southern part of Mexico's Veracruz province, to learn about son jarocho, the Caribbean-flecked folk music of the region. The music is the product of centuries of cultural collision between the mix of Spanish, indigenous, and Afro-Mexican people who settled the area. It's best known outside of Mexico through the global popularity of the traditional jarocho song "La Bamba," made famous by the 1958 rock and roll cover from Ritchie Valens. "La Bamba" introduced the world to the genre, but the real son jarocho goes far deeper. Right now, the music is in the middle of a serious comeback, and I was hoping to find out why.
I originally expected we'd be focusing on filming cultural workers and expert musicians, but soon figured out that they weren't the real story. It was José Luis Hernández, a pudgy jarana-playing teenager with smiling eyes, who really captured the spirit of what's happening in Veracruz for me. José allowed filmmaker Nina Macintosh and I to follow him and his friends around town for a few days to document how son jarocho has completely infiltrated their otherwise average teenage lives.
What we found is that for young people in Veracruz today, son jarocho is una moda – stylish; in fashion. For these teens, it's cool to be traditional. They provide a counter-narrative to the idea that homogenizing power of globalization always wins over local customs, that our rich differences will inevitably be erased. José and his friends have found a way to be modern, hyper-connected kids and deeply appreciative of their roots at the same time.
Son jarocho's rebirth started with the movimiento jaranero (jaranero movement) of the late '70s, when several young anthropologists and university students distressed about the sorry state of son jarocho decided to take action. They made recordings of the old masters, started revivalist jarocho bands like Son de Madera and Mono Blanco, and began to organize free workshops to teach the music to young people. The workshops spread through the towns of Veracruz, training an entire generation of jaraneros.
The jaranero movement quickly spilled into the US, and major scenes have since grown in Chicano communities in places like California and Chicago. US groups often bring members of the top bands in Mexico to host guest workshops. The most committed American jaraneros take pilgrimages to Veracruz to soak up the jarocho energies.
What blows my mind about the movimiento jaranero is that it really worked, and José Luis – the 18-year-old we filmed - is the living proof. He has been obsessed with son jarocho ever since a friend introduced him to the music at the beginning of high school. "Once you get into son jarocho, you can't get out," he says. "It's addictive."
José devotes most of his waking hours to the music. He plays jarocho with his friends during recess at school. Then, every evening, he rehearses with a band he started with some relatives, called Ameyal Son Jarocho. And on the weekends, there's always a fandango – the traditional community party where son jarocho really comes alive.
The fandango is a kind of open jam session in which the guests and musicians gather around a wooden stage called a tarima. Couples go up one at a time to dance, as party-goers trade off singing improvised verses. There are no set lyrics or lengths to songs, and everybody is invited to play at once.
The teens of Cosoleacaque throw fandangos whenever they get the chance. They'll buy snacks and sodas, and set up the tarima at somebody's house. They invite each other on Facebook and via text message. People come from towns all over the region. They stay up playing until sunrise, playing the same centuries-old songs that their grandparents and great-grandparents played. There's rarely a grown-up in sight.
Hanging out at the Friday night fandango with José and his friends felt like an alternate universe where young people awesomely decide to choose their traditions over modernity's cheap thrills. If you ask Jose and his friends why they spend their weekends playing this old music, the answers are simple. "The fandango is great because you meet new people," says José. "I've made so many great friends through son jarocho."
In short: it's just really fun. It's a place to express yourself. A place to flirt and meet somebody cute, and maybe even share a dance with them on the tarima. When you think about it, why would you choose to stay inside and play video games when you could be out singing and playing music together with your friends, all night long?
"It's not just about playing the music," says Benito Cortés, a member of local son jarocho stars Los Cojolites and a teacher for one of the longest-running workshops. "The fandango is a vehicle for building relationships. Through the music and the tradition people are getting into contact with each other again, getting to know each other and recognizing each other as a people from a place. This is really important, and little by little, we're getting there."
Benito kind of nails it for me. A generation ago, modernity and industry came in and disrupted the way people had celebrated together for centuries. Today's young people in Veracruz are stitching their communities back together, one fandango at a time. And then talking all about it tomorrow on Facebook.