An Apprenticeship in Son Jarocho Luthiery
Son Jarocho encompasses traditions in music, dance, and vocal improvisation from Veracruz, the Mexican east-central state which rides against the Gulf of Mexico. Son Jarocho's roots represent a merging of African, indigenous, and Spanish influences. The percussive rhythms, syncopation, vocal style and improvisation in its harmonic and rhythmic framework and verse characterize its style. In addition to singing improvised, often ribald verses exchanged between singers through decimas, its musical legacy includes instruments like the harp, percussion including the pandero, cajón and quijada (an instrument made of a donkey or horse jawbone), and the stringed jarana and requinto jarocho which vary in sizes and are key characteristics of son jarocho music.
Master Jarocho luthier and musician Jorge Mijangos of Ventura is working with Los Angeles-based Juan Francisco Parroquin as part of this year's Apprenticeship Program, focusing on jarocho luthiery, particularly focusing upon the guitarra de son (also referred to as requinto or javalina), a guitar of varying sizes with four to five strings. Where the eight-stringed jarana provides a rhythmic framework to son jarocho music, the guitarra de son is used to improvise bold, percussive melody lines.
Jarocho luthiery in Veracruz is often passed on from one generation to the next within a family, though luthiers often are musicians themselves, and traditionally, playing jarocho music and making one's own instrument were frequently linked. Mijangos, while originally hailing from Chiapas in the south of Mexico, is no exception to this common practice. He was first exposed to traveling son jarocho musicians as a teenager and had a chance to perform with them. Deeply enamored with the sound and rhythm of the jarana, he decided within a few years of his encounter with the musicians to make one for himself. Eventually he had opportunities to study directly with recognized master luthier Daniel Lopez Romero from Xalapa, Veracruz, and others, as well as experimenting and refining his techniques on his own. Coming to Southern California, he continued his practice, research, and experimentation as a musician and luthier, surprised to discover a burgeoning Jarocho network in his adopted homeland, of which he eventually has contributed to as a musician, luthier, and organizer.
As the grandson of Veracruzano master musician Rutilo Parroquin, seventeen-year-old Juan Francisco Parroquin comes from a family of musicians and started playing son jarocho ten years ago in Otatitlan in Veracruz. "Before I understood what the music was or anything, I was already playing around with the instruments," he recalls. "I used to strum the jarana. When everyone else played I supposedly played around, maybe I didn't sound right or [was] out of tune but I started to get the feel, so that's how I learned." Parroquin participated as an apprentice in ACTA's Apprenticeship Program in 2003 working with Los Angeles son jarocho musician Honorio Robledo, focusing on making his own small jarana and studying the basic jarana and requinto repertoire. While the current apprenticeship represents his second time participating in ACTA's program, Parroquin is experiencing firsts working with Mijangos, namely in designing and making his first custom guitarra de son under Mijangos' watchful guidance.
During the course of the apprenticeship, Parroquin has been meeting with Mijangos at the Ventura home of Mijangos and his wife Sonia Kroth. In their backyard workshop, Parroquin has been led by Mijangos through design and sound principles, planning the guitarra de son's design to match the feel and sound which Parroquin envisions, and meticulously creating and assembling the multiple pieces and materials. Included in their process has been selection of wood and materials, workshop safety, tool sharpening and care, hands-on woodworking techniques including hollowing and carving the guitarra de son's body from a solid slab of Spanish cedar, constructing or "voicing" the soundboard, building the bridge and fret board from rosewood, and finishing the body with many layers of handmade varnish, applied by hand. Every step requires precision, care and forethought to yield a quality instrument, and they have worked together for months to complete the guitarra de son. Mijangos comments: "If you have the materials and the capacity, you have to do it right. 'Just be patient,' I tell Juan. 'Don't rush. Don't rush.' I'm trying to tell him to be precise and to be strict with himself."
Mijangos and Parroquin have spent long hours in the well-organized workshop together, handling numerous tools and equipment with close attention to detail with a heavy helping of elbow grease while listening to music ranging from Cream's classic rock oeuvre to son jarocho favorites, or taking a break to play music together. Mijangos comments that their time in the workshop is "not only about making an instrument together, but that we are getting to know each other when we are working, and becoming better friends. Juan is such a great student. It is just fun to teach him, because he's receptive... the experience of making your own guitarra de son, it gives you a totally different perspective when you are playing, because you feel proud."
While Parroquin notes that "it's fun to work in the shop," he also notes Mijangos' rigor and high standards as a luthier. "Sometimes I see [a piece of the guitarra de son] as being ready, but he takes it and tells me to sand it down more. He tells me to keep going... 10,000 more times! He's teaching me to be more precise, more disciplined." Ultimately, he understands the importance of luthiery's millimeter-precision and labor, humbly concluding: "I know now what it takes to make a musical instrument. I wanted to learn how to play, so I had to learn how to make my own."
Parroquin's mother and cultural advocate Patricia Parroquin occasionally accompanies him to the warm Mijangos-Kroth household, making the apprenticeship a family affair. "The love that we have for our culture is something we have in our blood," she notes. "Just as my parents passed on the music to me, I want to see that happen for my son. I know that he really loves the music and has a strong connection to it. He is really a healthy and balanced person because of this connection to his culture."*
Mijangos recognized early on the fibra in Parroquin's character and his dedication to and talent for son jarocho music. "I'm so happy to share with him. When I was learning, it was a totally different road because usually it was hard to get information. I struggled, I made a lot of mistakes, I learned from experience and from asking so many people. When I started teaching Juan, he's [been] so receptive and it's so easy. I'm giving him everything. In the past, people would take their knowledge to the grave. The time is now about sharing. I just want him to get everything. For me it has been great to pass on what I know to Juan because I know that he's a really good musician. But also when I saw his first instrument, I thought, 'This guy has capacity.'"
In her ongoing observations of her husband and his mentorship of Parroquin, Kroth says "It has been rewarding to see for me the impact that the apprenticeship has had on both of them. I know it is very rewarding for Jorge to share what he knows, and I think he would have loved to have something like that when he was young."
Parroquin aspires to one day form his own shop, and continue learning and experimenting. For his mother, this apprenticeship offers for her son "an opportunity to develop instruments that he is looking for as a musician. Maybe in the future he will be able to pass that onto other generations in the future." In the meantime, Mijangos' oversight and guidance in the creation of Parroquin's first guitarra de son is reflective of Mijangos' reputation for the highest quality luthiery, as well as in his commitment to the emerging generation of son jarocho musicians and luthiers like Parroquin.
Mijangos simply states, on Parroquin's guitarra de son-in-the-making: "This one needs to be perfect."
*Interpretation from Spanish courtesy of Sonia Kroth.