El Son Jarocho: Cesar Castro, Preserver and Innovator
By Russell C. Rodríguez, Interim Apprenticeship Program Manager
California has proven to be a fertile ground for diasporic cultural practices. Communities of Carnatic singers and musicians, Haitian drummers and dancers, Scottish bagpipers, Romani instrument ensembles, Tibetan Opera, and Mexican mariachis have recontextualized their practice within the Golden State coincidently preserving old and developing new traditions. With these cultural expressions new spaces of performance have emerged for practitioners, in which members of ethnic communities also can reconnect with an idea of their homeland. One of these spaces that has created a powerful synergy is the fandango jarocho, in which Mexicano and Chicana/o artists, musicians, dancers and organizers gather to practice, preserve, and innovate the son jarocho of Southern Veracruz. The fandangos are social gatherings in which people come together to share music, dance, poetic verses, food, drink, and from which relationships and contentions may emerge.
Cesar Castro, a master artist in ACTA's Apprenticeship Program in 2011, hailing from Veracruz, Mexico, has provided a wonderful energy to the fandangos occurring within the Los Angeles area. Since his youth he was a member of the ensemble Mono Blanco, a group that has been a central force in the renaissance of the fandango practice in Southern Veracruz since the 1970s. Learning to play the jarana (an 8 string, 5 course rhythm guitar), guitarra de son (a four string melodic guitar), and the leona (a bass version of the guitarra de son), Castro developed an intimate relationship with these traditional guitars that are carved out of a solid block of cedar wood. A master musician, singer, and an accomplished luthier of jarocho instruments, he brings an experience of accomplishment, and a history that is informed by many elders with whom he worked, studied, and shared time.
Since his arrival to Los Angeles, Castro has interacted with various musicians and ensembles such as Quetzal and Zack de la Rocha, and forming his own groups, Zocalozüe and Cambalache. He expresses how important it is to find community amongst musicians and non-musicians in Los Angeles, stating, "I didn’t come here by myself and create all this (the jarocho scene) that you see." Many things and the efforts of many people were already in place, which helped Castro establish himself to work and "to maintain and practice my culture here and be able to teach to those interested."
Through an exploration of contemporary dance and popular music, Castro found himself rooting himself deeper into the son jarocho. He has thus made himself available to those interested in learning this form, teaching at bookstores, coffee shops, community centers, and schools of all levels. His integration into these spaces, as a teacher, was aided by his partner and 2011 apprentice Xochi Flores. Together the two have organized classes on son jarocho throughout the Los Angeles and San Fernando areas. For many years, Flores herself has been active in the Chicana/o art scene in Los Angeles as an advocate and organizer. For the past 8 years she has continuously expanded her skills as a jaranera and dancer doing workshops with visiting jarocha/o musicians and practicing/performing with L.A. groups such as Candela and Las No Que No. Castro’s goal for the apprenticeship was to solidify Flores’abilities so they come naturally, "so that she internalizes the son withconfidence." Flores shares that working with Cesar is a learning experience that goes beyond learning musical technique. At a lesson she "would hear a new story about Don Andres [Vega] or he would use a metaphor that I never heard him use," things that enhanced the music to better understand the culture.
Realizing that the son jarocho of is now being practiced in places like Chicago, San Jose, Seattle, and Los Angeles, Castro "understand[s] it is a responsibility" to preserve the tradition. At the same time, he is fully aware that the son will transform to other expressions as it is integrated into the cultural fabric of the United States. As a response, Castro has invested in representing the son by creating the website Jarochelo. In this cyberspace he offers, for example, a section called Photo News offering slide shows of events and landscapes that utilize the son jarocho. As of this date, he has also produced 33 podcasts called Radio Jarochelo that are featured on the website and on radio shows in Veracruz, Mexico. The podcasts are a mosaic of music, interviews, announcements, promotions, lessons, and poetry that serve as an incredible archive documenting the historical and contemporary action around the son jarocho in both the United States and Mexico. Not only is his website an incredible important archive, it also functions as a bridge of communication between Southern Veracruz and the different diasporic locations in which son jarocho has been established.
While the son jarocho and the fandango find much affinity in the United States, we can be assured that there will be a healthy growth -- whether through preservation or innovation -- of this practice because of the efforts of both Xochi Flores and Cesar Castro.
Please take the time to learn more about Cesar Castro and son jarocho on his website at http://jarochelo.com/.