Klaya Lowry’s relief prints. Subject is Rosario Vega dancing zapateado with Son Jarocho band Los Vega and a fandango in San Andres Tuxtla, Mexico. From the soon to be finished film antes como antes, ahora como ahora (before like before, today like today).
When we arrived at the cultural centre of Jáltipan, Ricardo Perry, the director of the centre, was showing around a television crew from Mexico City. He is used to this attention now, ever since the Grammy nomination earlier in the year for Los Cojolites, the musical ensemble which calls this cultural centre home. Of course, this recognition is well received, but there is also a feeling of frustration that, after so many difficult years of independent, self-funded work, it was only now due to the Grammy that such recognition had arrived.
“We had to finance everything we’d been doing, even to buy a chair, to paint the cultural centre and to make it look nice,” he tells us. “When we were nominated for a Grammy, it changed the whole perspective towards us. They were now obliged to help because the media started to wonder how it was possible that a group from Jáltipan was nominated for a Grammy without receiving support.”
Jáltipan is a world away from all the excessive glamour of the Grammy Awards: a small rural town and municipality in Southern Veracruz with an ancient indigenous heritage and an increasingly vibrant musical scene which owes much to the work of Perry and Los Cojolites. With this increasing recognition, it is hoped that a more in-depth understanding of the group and their cultural background will emerge, because as we saw during our visit to southern Veracruz, Los Cojolites are much more than just a musical ensemble, much in the same way that Son Jarocho is much more than just a musical genre – essentially, it permeates all facets of life.
“There had never been a project that helped us understand our culture, so we created the Son Jarocho Centre of Documentation,” he tells us. “This is at our cultural centre where we have many archives that today are important for the people of Jáltipan, for the region, and for Son Jarocho.”
This ongoing documentation of Son Jarocho culture is combined with an ecological project on a ranch they have out in the countryside called Luna Negra. It is here that they have endeavored to preserve the natural habitat in the area and combat the effects of deforestation, mono-cultural farming and pollution caused by pesticides.
“We also cultivate fruit, different types of trees, and natural flowers of all kinds. We are preserving different kinds of corn which are a legacy of thousands of years. Here the first civilization settled in America, and to have corn, squash, peppers, help them succeed in founding the first societies. We have a heritage of thousands of years all throughout the crops.”
This ancient indigenous heritage makes up part of the great array of Indigenous groups in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, an area representing the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Within and around this region is the Mixe–Zoque language family which make up around 17 languages. This is reflected in the characteristics of Son Jarocho in the region. But whereas the Spanish and African influence can be quite discernible – say, in song structure and and rhythm - the indigenous influence occurs at deeper, conceptual level.
“Some people say: ‘Where is the Indigenous in the music?’ Well, it isn’t in the music, it is in our way of thinking,” he says. “Because everything we sing and say comes from our culture and our beliefs. It comes from what we have inherited from our people.”
This understanding of their culture is intricately linked to their music, and this is something they seek to teach to people who come to the yearly workshops on the ranch which are attended by Mexicans and foreigners alike. Not only are there musical workshops taught by an array of well-known Son Jarocho musicians and dancers, such as Ramon Guitterez and the Oseguera family, but also workshops in other aspects of their culture, such as fabric weaving and natural medicines.
Like most rural areas of Veracruz, Son Jarocho was all but extinct in the south following the commercial boom of the 1950’s, an era some might consider the ‘Golden Age’ of Son Jarocho. But, in the south of Veracruz, the commercial boom of the genre which occured in the cities came to have a very detrimental affect upon their culture. Ricardo tells us how it created a false version of Son Jarocho - what he calls a ‘White Son Jarocho’.
“It was a time that Son Jarocho was revealed to the world, but on the other hand it was in full decline here because the governor, Miguel Alemán, along with the national cinema – well, they all portrayed it like that, utilising the ‘White Jaraneros’. And then they’d come along with their ever-present smiles as if they weren’t human beings with so many emotions.”
But the Jaranero Movement has brought the rural form of Son Jarocho back to life, and Los Cojolites from Southern Veracruz are strong representatives of this. The groups musical output seems to have found the balance between honouring the rural tradition, particularly that of Southern Veracruz, while also innovating and revitalizing the genre, much in the same way they cultivate the soil, preserve plant species on brink of extinction, and bring attention to the cultural vibrancy here in Southern Veracruz.