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Downhome Mexican Folk Tunes

David Meadow Dec 16, 2013

For people who like really bare-bones, traditional folk music the way it was played before drum sets and synthesizers, Radio Jarocho will hit the spot. This ensemble plays the classic son jarocho music of southern Veracruz, Mexico, ostensibly with some of their own additions but certainly no concessions to modern schlock or annoying novelty. It’s a light, dry, brightly-colored cocktail, refreshing in its simplicity. Radio Jarocho pulled a big crowd into Barbès, a performance space and bar in Brooklyn, on Saturday, December 7, and had plenty of feet stamping and necks craning.

The down-home glow of the band’s core sound is achieved with a few vocals; two or three stringed instruments, depending on the performance; shoes clogging on a small, portable stage called a tarima; and a marimbola, a sort of giant thumb piano of Afro-Caribbean origin, which offers the rather unusual complement of bass notes plucked from long metal tongues. What’s neat about this strand of son jarocho is that percussive dance is an integral part of the sound. The group is also not opposed to bringing a few friends up to the stage to raise the dance factor or thicken the sound with a traditional percussion instrument like a donkey’s jawbone, whose teeth rattle when the bone is struck and rasp like a cabasa when they’re rubbed directly. The tunes, by and large, are either rollicking without being overstimulating or serenely dreamy without being precious.

Julia del Palacio is the real utility player of the group, handling clogging, vocals, announcements and the occasional hand drum. String duties on Saturday went to Juan Carlos Marín on the requinto, a solo nylon-string instrument, and Emmanuel Huítzil on the jarana, a strummed one (both number among the eight zillion cousins of the guitar). The string players do most of the singing in this group, and these two men get a good blend going when they harmonize. Huítzil’s voice is the mellower one and Marín’s is thinner and rawer — even astringent at times — but indeed it appears to be typical of the genre if one can acquire a taste for it. 

What fascinated me most was probably Francisco Martínez’s steady thrumming on the marimbola. It’s about as strong and deep a bass as a guitarrón (that massive acoustic bass guitar in full-scale mariachi bands), and, indeed, some flavors of son jarocho use a guitarrón or the similar leona. The marimbola’s warmth and fullness are plenty to ground the string instruments and propel the rhythm of the songs. Indeed, a big bonus is that it doubles as a percussion box out of which a skilled player can coax notes of varying pitch, snap and depth. Martínez doesn’t seem to play the tongues and the wood at the same time, but someone’s probably going to try it sooner or later.

One off-the-wall moment occurred when del Palacio exhorted the audience to make a huge fuss over the opening statement of one song (I’m guessing said opener is to son jarocho aficionados what the first chords of “Start Me Up” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are to rock devotees, though I don’t know that many son jarocho aficionados were actually there). Anyway we obliged gamely, but ended up drowning it out so we didn’t know what we were cheering for before or after it occurred. Still, it was all in a spirit of good fun, and the show went on as before, with more of the singer-dancer’s genial commentary on the material. The group plays its share of son jarocho standards, including “La Bamba” — yep, this is where Richie Valens and Los Lobos got it from — but I was surprised to hear del Palacio mention that a tune called “Oaxaca” is Radio Jarocho’s original. Hearing the zest and flair deep in the muscle memory of the players, and the unison shouts of the city’s name that bookended the song in a timeless gesture of pride for one’s region, I was quite easily tricked into thinking that the venerable Traditional/Anonymous had penned this entry.

While there are no upcoming shows listed on the band’s website as this goes to press, a quick glance at “past shows” will attest that the group is playing in Brooklyn, or occasionally another borough, quite often — so keep your eyes peeled.

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