At East Austin’s Treasure City Thrift, the lights remained on one recent evening after closing time. Customers had gone home, but from the back corner of the store, past the thrift shop’s hodgepodge of Dole banana crates, floor lamps and books, came the rhythmic sounds of several small-bodied guitars that, though the resemble ukuleles from afar, are actually jaranas — tiny but mighty stringed instruments that bring to life the son jarocho sound.
Most Americans first heard son jarocho without realizing it with Ritchie Valens’ rock ‘n’ roll cover of the son jarocho song “La Bamba.” The folk music originated in Mexico’s Veracruz region generations ago, and it also has African and indigenous influences.
More than 800 miles away from the music’s homeland, a group of Austin musicians, singers and community members called Son Armado gather each month at the thrift shop to share not just the music but ideas and lessons, in an interactive son jarocho workshop that has helped participants reconnect with their roots while finding their own voices and identities.
In recent years, son jarocho-inspired groups from New York to California have been steadily rising. U.S.-based groups draw upon the traditional folk music to create a sound influenced by unique bicultural experiences. In San Francisco, Sistema Bomb has brought a fresh take on the style with its “electro-jarocho.” Los Angeles’ Las Cafeteras add hip-hop and Spanglish to the mix. With each contemporary group bringing its own flavor to the stage, Son Armado prefers to focus on a style called fandango, which highlights community participation instead of just the music. It’s an open jam session of sorts where everyone is welcome. Teaching someone the tools to express themselves through dance, voice or an instrument takes precedence over who has perfect pitch.
Son Armado member Joanna Saucedo said that though she appreciates fans paying her compliments after a good performance, the biggest compliment would be being inspired to check out a class and participate.
“I’m not interested in performance for the sake of performance,” she said. “It is about reconnecting and finding out who you are as a person. That is where healing begins. (Son jarocho) is not just skills for the individuals, but it has that element of connectivity with a larger group that encourages dialogue and feedback.”
Fandangos at Treasure City Thrift bring people of all ages. At the thrift store, 10-year-old Jerry Silva stepped up to dance with Saucedo on a wooden platform called the tarima, the heart of son jarocho sound because while stomping on it the dancer’s body transforms into a percussion instrument.
“Front, back, side,” Saucedo instructed. Jerry looked closely and paused to get his rhythm. His brown, white and orange boots stomped again until he and Saucedo danced in sync. Saucedo asked him to lead. While Jerry nervously contemplated the steps, Saucedo offered to close her eyes while he figured it out.
Son Armado also recently led a children’s workshop during the Pachanga Latino Music Festival where both parents and kids tried dancing on the tarima together and learned about some of the other instruments, like a percussion instrument called the donkey’s jawbone.
Son Armado began publicly teaching son jarocho fandango about three years ago at the East Austin dance studio and cultural center Esquina Tango. Before then, a more loosely organized Son Armado group played at protests and fundraisers. Lyrically, son jarocho in the U.S. tends to explore political, social and cultural struggles, so there’s a natural tie to the social justice movement.
While in Austin for South by Southwest, Las Cafeteras member Hector Flores described the music as part of a larger conversation.
“Son Jarocho is the hip-hop of the past,” he said. “It’s about community, culture and storytelling. But what (Las Cafeteras) does is not a traditional son jarocho, it’s a new form of music because now we need to talk about the stuff that’s real to us like immigration, poverty and love. If we don’t tell our stories, then who will? Like in Arizona, they are banning our stories. And if we don’t tell our stories, then someone else will tell them for us.”
In Austin, Son Armado’s fandangos have become a safe space to learn and grow, and for those nestled between Mexican and American cultures to come to terms with identity through the music.
When you hear Saucedo sing in Spanish, you’d never guess that she doesn’t speak it fluently and takes Spanish classes. “My parents thought they were protecting me when they didn’t speak Spanish in the household,” she said. “They wanted me to be successful and not discriminated against in the same ways they were. You’ve got to love somebody who is trying to protect you.”
Saucedo’s mother is a fifth-generation Texan and grew up during a time where speaking Spanish was often a punishable offense in schools. Saucedo’s taken a different path. She sang with mariachi groups and danced a couple of traditional folkloric styles but ultimately realized it wasn’t for her.
Saucedo’s interest in son jarocho developed in 2006 when she checked out a show by former Austin ensemble Mitote, a son jarocho-inspired band. Soon after she went to Mexico to study Spanish and connected with a traditional son jarocho group. There was an acceptance and healing in the music that was liberating and important for her to share once she returned to Austin.
The fandango style also appealed to Son Armado founding member Alexis Herrera. She’s drawn to “everything about it — creating beautiful music, the physical challenge that tests your endurance, and the philosophy that everyone has something to contribute to the communal fandango experience whether it’s singing, dancing, playing, cooking or organizing. Only when these parts work together does the fandango exist.”
Son Armado hopes to start grant-writing soon in order to have the money for expenses such as instructors and tuners. In the meantime, the group continues to perform and teach around town, hoping to challenge and inspire people to come together.
“In son jarocho if you can talk, you can sing,” Saucedo said. “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can play one chord, you can play a jarana. And that sustains a community.”
Son Armado fandango workshops
When: 7:30 p.m., every first Thursday of the month
Where: Treasure City Thrift, 2142 E. Seventh St.
Information: Find Son Armado online at facebook.com/sonarmado.
Other son jarocho-inspired musical outfits:
Las Cafeteras — Los Angeles, lascafeteras.com
Radio Jarocho — New York, radiojarocho.com
Sistema Bomb — San Francisco, sistemabomb.com