César Castro

Para Bailar ‘La Bamba,’ You Need Some Jarocho Music from Veracruz


La Pasadita
5434 Huntington Drive South
Los Angeles, California

The Tab

(1) agua de jamaica
(1) horchata
(2) burritos de chicharrón
$12.00 + tip
Castro’s Tip for the Road: “A wall is an easy thing to do. That means you don’t want to work with you neighbor—so, how far you wanna take that wall?”

In his quest to bring the sound and spirit of son jarocho music to Los Angeles, César Castro has had to adapt. After all, as intimately connected as L.A. is to Mexico, Castro’s hometown, the sweltering Gulf Coast port city of Veracruz, is a long, long way away.

For example, he’s learned to eat burritos. On this bright day in his adopted home of El Sereno, he’s enjoying the burrito de chicarrón con salsa verde from his favorite taco truck, La Pasadita—which is delicious, he notes, but not as spicy as usual. He’s washing it down with agua de jamaica—a bit sweet, but at least it’s cold.

The 35-year-old Castro has an easy, engaging manner, smiling and laughing as he sits in his red metal chair in a shady place in the empty parking lot next to where La Pasadita parks. He switches between English and Spanish as he discusses the folk music of his home state, and how he’s helped spread it around the Southland.

But he’s brought up short by what should be a simple question: What does son jarocho sound like? He furrows his brow and gives it a go:

“It sounds like great drum in the middle of lots of small and medium-sized guitars playing all around it, with a ceremonial character, but with an internal happiness that you can’t see on [the musicians’] faces … in which, all of a sudden, from any point can emerge a profound cry that will give a message, that will repeat, and all of this happens to the same beat, in a musical cycle that is repetitive, brief, and very well synchronized. This generates a force that, if you don’t feel it, it must be that the fandango is no good, or the group is no good.”

He shakes his head and smiles again. “Wow, that was hard!”

OK, so that’s what it sounds like, but what is it? Son jarocho is the Afro-indigenous-influenced folk music of Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Jarocho is also a slang term for people or things from the region, or more specifically, the city of Veracruz, which locals calls el puerto (the port) to avoid confusion. And everybody in the U.S. knows at least one son jarocho tune, or at least a version of it: “La Bamba.”

“I was embarrassed to play son jarocho in front of my friends. It wasn’t a cool thing to do, it was una onda de viejitos”—an old-people thing.”

“La Bamba” has connected el puerto and L.A. for decades, all the way from Richie Valens’ 1958 hit rock ’n’ roll version of the song, to the re-recording of the tune by Los Lobos for the 1987 film (complete with a coda that actually sounds like the traditional version), to César Castro’s arrival in L.A. in 2001, as a member of the band Mono Blanco.

That outfit was more than just a group of musicians, Castro says. “It was the engine of a movement.” At the time he joined the group, at age 15, son jarocho was hardly the hippest thing in Mexican music.

“I was embarrassed to play son jarocho in front of my friends,” he recalls. “It wasn’t a cool thing to do, it was una onda de viejitos”—an old-people thing.”

But Castro stuck with it. He not only loved the music; it provided him with love, friends, and community.

When Chicano musicians brought Mono Blanco to L.A., Castro says he was surprised at how much the Mexican-American community already knew about son jarocho. “They knew the songs, and they wanted to learn more.”

In 2004 Castro returned to L.A. for a collaborative project with seminal Chicano fusion band Quetzal and the Danza Floricanto dance troupe. He also met Xochi Flores (sister of Quetzal Flores, founder of Quetzal). Castro moved to L.A. permanently in 2006; he and Flores were married in 2008. In between shows, he taught classes, starting at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar, and eventually started building instruments for sale. He’s also played with numerous local acts, even crossing paths with Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, who has become a fervent son jarocho devotee.

While he is careful not to take too much credit for the growth of the genre here, Castro does admit that, because of his membership in Mono Blanco and continuing ties to Veracruz, he became a kind of “referencia fiel”—reliable source—for knowledge of what real son jarocho is supposed to be. “That gave me a lot of responsibility as well,” he notes.

After a few years, his students began performing on their own—and most of them weren’t doing so in clubs or coffeehouses. “They were in community-based spaces, NGOs, protests, and that was something really cool about it,” he says.

You’ll typically find the sounds of jarocho at gatherings like the Occupy movement or manifestaciones against restrictionist immigration laws like those in Arizona. That’s one major thing L.A.’s Chicano movement and the movimiento jarocho have in common: “We’re Zapatistas,” he says with another infectious smile. “We’re lefties.” And the political component—advocating for immigrants’ rights, indigenous rights, human rights—is critical for Castro. “If I just saw people wanting to play for fun and not doing anything with the music after it, I wouldn’t be here.”

Indeed, one of Castro’s primary missions—to serve as a cultural bridge between the Los Angeles Basin and the Gulf of Mexico—is made much harder by the United States’ broken immigration laws. “It’s really hard to stay connected in a physical way.”

One of his solutions: his Radio Jarochelo podcast, which he started in 2010 “to keep strong that communication, mainly between Mexico and the United States, not just between Veracruz and Los Angeles.” Every other week, for about 40 minutes, Castro presents a narrative program of music, history, poetry, and almost anything he thinks will create a cultural bridge. “The interviews I have are from people over here, but most of the music I play is from people over there,” he says.

This year, for the third summer in a row, he taught music classes through LAUSD. “We talk about language, the history of language, the importance of having music created from our own communities, and of course, how to do music—beat, melody, harmony. It’s very open.”

“I make the kids feel proud of their backgrounds,” he adds. “Most of them are from Mexico—a lot of their parents are from Zacatecas and Jalisco.”

He also leads a jarocho ensemble at Occidental College, teaches in an after-school program at Frida Kahlo High School in downtown L.A., and teaches free fandango workshops as part of a collective every Saturday in Lincoln Heights.

While there are now plenty of musicians walking around L.A. playing jaranas (small, eight-string, strummed guitars—the main rhythmic component of the son jarocho sound) and requintos (small, four-stringed, plucked guitars, the most common lead melodic instrument in the genre), Castro is one of the very few who also makes them. He carves his instruments out of solid blocks of wood with an assortment of both industrial and traditional tools in a little open-air space under the hillside home he shares with Flores, her two daughters, and their daughter together.

Outside of the renowned Candelas in East L.A.—who make jaranas and requintos, as well as guitars and other Mexican stringed instruments—he’s hard pressed to think of another son jarocho luthier in L.A. County. “That’s enough,” he says, chuckling. The genre’s popularity has grown, but, as he points out, “You don’t need an industry creating hundreds of jaranas a week.”

Starting in 2009, he and his wife also became bandmates. “I decided to have a group, because people here know me as a sonero, and kept asking me to play.” He formed Cambalache—a name that, appropriately, means exchange. “We’re offering son jarocho that’s created here,” he says, but notes that they’re also trying to explore new ideas and expressions. What direction that will ultimately take, Castro isn’t exactly sure. “It’s like a fruit in a tree. You see that mango, pero esta verde.

“There are many ways to play son jarocho,” he adds. “Los Angeles doesn’t yet have a style that’s Los Angeles-style.” Not yet.

Ted B. Kissell is a writer and editor in Southern California.
Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo by Ted B. Kissell.
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