With its percussive zapateado footwork, spirited call-and-response vocals, propulsive strings, and brightly embroidered traditional outfits, son jarocho is a tradition that calls for communal celebrations. But more than providing a soundtrack for fandangos, son jarocho is a song form designed to address the issues and concerns of the day, with topical commentary often resounding alongside slyly observing stanzas about romance, food, and family.
For some three decades, the Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles ensemble Quetzal has maintained a vital link between California and masters of son jarocho in Veracruz, the historic port city on the Gulf of Mexico where the Afro-Mexican cultural treasure took shape in the 18th century. More than the guardian of a legacy, Quetzal seeks to keep the focus on the community that son jarocho nurtures, rather than the entertaining spectacle it creates.
One challenge, said Quetzal co-founder Martha Gonzalez, is that son jarocho is an art form “that’s somewhat easy to learn, but not so easy to master.” A professor of Chicana/o Latina/o Studies at Scripps College, she’s an expert zapateada who provides Quetzal’s lead vocals and plays congas, chekeré, cajón and eight-string jarana.
“A lot of people see opportunities to quickly be on stage, sometimes even before they’re ready, in my opinion,” she said. “That’s a misrepresentation of how important this music is and what it means. It’s meant to connect people to this practice in the context of a community.”
Quetzal returns to the Brava Theatre on May 14 for the first time since the start of the pandemic, and it’s bringing the community along with it. The group also features co-founder and namesake Quetzal Flores on jarana jarocha, requinto jarocho, bajo sexto and guitar; Tylana Enomoto on violin and backing vocals; Juan Perez on electric and acoustic bass; drummer Evan Greer; and percussionist Alberto Lopez. They’ll be joined by longtime collaborator Ramon Gutierrez, the founder and leader of the great Veracruz son jarocho band Son de Madera. The next generation will also be present, as the teenage duo of Sandino Gonzalez Flores (Martha Gonzalez’s son) and Lucia Gutierrez Rebolloso (Ramon Gutierrez’s daughter) play an opening set and then join Quetzal.
The concert revolves around material from the band’s latest album for Smithsonian/Folkways, “Songs from Puentes Sonoros,” and the production is set to a backdrop of photos and film footage shot during the band’s 2017 Veracruz sojourn that led to “Puentes Sonoros.” While spending time in the villages with the master musicians, “we recorded a lot of soundscapes, folks speaking with each other and jamming, and just natural sounds of birds and wind,” Gonzalez said.
“We started writing some of the album there, too, and co-wrote a lot of the songs with Ramon Guttierez, songs about travel, love, heartbreak, forgiveness, history, and children as well,” she continued. “We wrote in really traditional son jarocho form, the lyrical structures and rhyme schemes.”
For the musicians in Quetzal, exploring son jarocho tradition isn’t primarily about preserving culture. It’s about building and sustaining ties in Southern California. Gonzalez can sound like the academic she is when describing the band’s connections to artists in Veracruz as “part of this participatory dance practice that’s a fruitful transnational dialogue,” with lyrics that “talk about bigger systems of power and life in el campo.” But when she distills the art form’s manifold attractions, its power as both a vehicle for celebratory release and consciousness-raising, she brings son jarocho back home.
“All these different facets of the tradition speak to us as Chicanos, as humans who are also struggling in our own identity,” she said. “Out of everything, I think the community-building practice has been most influential for us.”
This is one reason why the pandemic hit Quetzal so hard. “Songs from Puentes Sonoros” came out in January, 2021, when performances and gatherings weren’t possible. Fortunately, the musicians don’t depend on touring for their livelihood. Quetzal Flores is the program manager for the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, and other Quetzales teach in prisons, work in recording studios and as community activists.
They’re all devoted to fostering son jarocho away from the bandstand and, while Quetzal is in town, it’s also offering a collective songwriting workshop at Brava on May 15, a practice that’s as much about building a communal response to community challenges as developing tunes for performance. It’s a welcome return to a process that depends upon in-person interaction, though Gonzalez said that the pandemic came with a bright silver lining.
A weekly live-streamed song session featuring Veracruz master Patricio Hidalgo kept Gonzalez connected to the art form’s source. She got involved when longtime Bay Area arts activist Maria de la Rosa, who spearheaded the Brava Son Jarocho Festival that last brought Quetzal to the Bay Area, reached out about supporting Hidalgo who, like so many musicians, had lost all of his work. The Monday workshops provided Hidalgo with a source of income and an avenue to share his songwriting prowess.
“We’ve been meeting almost every week for the last two years to learn the poetic verse forms, and Patricio is amazing,” Gonzalez said. “We want to do it right, learning this craft, and we had an opportunity to support our teachers. Studying this art form son jarocho is a never-ending cycle of learning. It’s not about being in the spotlight. You never stop learning in order to be a better participant.”