By David Bearinger
Zenen Zeferino is a master of the musical and poetic tradition known as Son Jarocho that is native to the Gulf-coast and southern plains of Veracruz, Mexico, where he was born and raised.
It’s the first week of December, 2016. Zenen has come to Charlottesville, along with his musical collaborator Julia del Palacio, to take part in a series of workshops and public performances sponsored by Luminaria C’ville and supported by a grant from Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. To introduce one of his original songs (El Solicito), he tells this story.
When he was a young boy, his family herded cattle. One night, during a seasonal migration, he and his grandfather drove the cattle down from the mountains to the shore of a lagoon near the coast where they would spend the night.
The water was so clear and the sky was so dark that on this moonless night, “I could see the reflection of the stars on my grandfather’s face. That’s what this song is about….”
Today, Son Jarocho is experiencing a re-emergence in Mexican culture. The roots of its traditional guitar-like stringed instruments—jarana (the main chordal rhythm instrument), guitarra de son, and leona—are in 17th century Spain. These instruments are typically made from large, single pieces of wood that become the body, neck, and headstock to which a top and fingerboard are then attached.
The singing is improvised over Spanish poetic forms that also date back to at least the 17th century, but the rhythms are akin to West African rhythms, a reflection perhaps of the fact that for two centuries the state of Veracruz was the main arrival point in Mexico for enslaved Africans.
“When I learn about the poetry and verses of the Son Jarocho from a master like Zenen, I also learn of his human story, the history of his family, of the agrarian life of his childhood, and it is so vivid, I can place myself there. Playing a song like El Solicito with the master makes it real, like nothing else.” –Dave Berzonsky
Son Jarocho music is performed without drums. Instead, the rhythm is provided by a percussive style of foot dancing called zapateado, usually on a wooden platform called a tarima; another cultural remnant of the slave trade. In Mexico, as in Virginia, enslaved Africans were forbidden to keep or use drums.
In the villages and towns of Veracruz, the setting for traditional Son Jarocho is the Fandango, which are rural, usually multi-day festivals including music, dance, food, and community celebrations that differ markedly from the normal concept of performance in which the musicians and dancers are separated from their “audience.”
It was the spirit of Fandango that Zenen and Julia and their hosts, Dave Berzonsky and Estela Knott of Luminaria C’ville, sought to create during their week-long residency in Virginia. The workshops and performances introduced rapt audiences to the history, music, poetry, instruments, and rhythmic structures of Son Jarocho and its connections to both Africa and the Appalachian highlands.
A typical Fandango performed in Mexico
But for others, the music needed no introduction. More than 160,000 people now living in Virginia are of Mexican heritage (Pew Research Center 2014) and for many of them, hearing the music of the jarana, the improvised poetry of Son Jarocho, and the sound of the zapateado is like coming home.
Zenen himself is well known throughout Mexico and among Mexican Americans for his work in reviving Son Jarocho in contemporary performance and recordings. He is also a master sonero, a singer of traditional verse that includes frequent improvisation; the author of a popular children’s book; and a widely respected scholar of these musical forms and their history.
Julia del Palacio, who was born in Mexico City and holds a PhD in Latin American Studies from Columbia University, is director of the New York City-based group Radio Jarocho, which performs Son Jarocho music and dance nationwide. This includes a recent performance in Accomac on Virginia’s Eastern Shore as part of VFH’s “State of Many Nations” project (see VFH Views, Fall, 2016). She and Brenci Patino, a Professor of Spanish at Mary Baldwin College served as advisors to the project, providing deeper insights into the traditions of Fandango and how these traditions have been transported to the United States.
As rich as this program was in scholarship, its most distinguishing quality was its accessibility—and thus its appeal to a broad, diverse audience. And even though the audience for these programs included people of all ages, the greatest impact seemed to be on school-age children and their teachers.
Three in-school performances reached a combined audience of almost a thousand students, including all of Charlottesville High School’s ESL students. In a televised interview, one Spanish teacher said: “…we don’t have many opportunities to bring foreign language to life…music is a huge part of la cultura espano hablante, and to be able to…hear the music and [experience] the cultures that blend that music is really awesome.”
In the workshops and public performances, many people noticed similarities between zapateado and Appalachian clogging, and one of the surprises of this musical exploration was how easily these masters of traditional Mexican music and dance absorbed the spirit and adapted the essential elements of Appalachian songs, creating a “Mexalachian” hybrid. A new recording project that blends Mexican and Appalachian musical forms with original songwriting is being planned in conjunction with a follow-up visit Zenen will make to Virginia in the second half of 2017.
In the meantime, Son Jarocho is alive and well in the Old Dominion, along with the spirit of Fandango. The stars that Zenen saw reflected onto his grandfather’s face long ago have spread their light here too. And this project serves as one more reminder that the “changing face of Virginia” is a reflection not just of the ways we are different, but of how we are the same.