As I turned the corner the first notes of the music met my ears and a smile spread across my face. An 8-piece Son Jarocho band were playing in front of the majestic backdrop of the Santo Domingo church in central Oaxaca. Night had fallen and a crescent moon shone ethereally through the clouds creating a light more perfect than any artificial street lighting could ever hope to generate.
I toyed with the idea of walking on, heading home as was my intention, but the pull of the music was too strong and, once I had stopped, the band and the scene were too enthralling to pull myself away. And the longer I stayed the more the atmosphere lured me in, enticing me to enjoy it.
Son Jarocho is a style of music originating from Veracruz, with Spanish, Indigenous and African influences, that usually involves a large band playing, Jaranas (a guitar like instruments with 8 strings), the cajon (literally meaning the box, a type of percussion played with the hands) and the quijada (usually a donkey’s jaw bone). The words are often improvised and can be extremely humorous, thought-provoking or moving and can often be sung in a kind of competition style within the group. The beat is infectious and made even more so when the band or audience members dance a “Zapateado” not disimilar to some forms of Flamenco (without the arm movements), on a wooden box at the front of the stage.
Taking in the crowd, I very quickly noticed a drunk man standing at the front of the audience by the stage. He danced and told the stories of the songs with his movements. In his inebriated state he was caught in the music and living the words. Next to the drunken dancer, was a little boy in a huge sombrero, so big you could barely see his face, who was also dancing and spinning with the music. It was intriguing to me, that whilst I stood laughing at the drunk man’s dance show and delighting at the little boys desire to spin, no one else seemed to even notice.
Suddenly, the crowd did start to laugh, and I quickly realized that it wasn’t the drunk who had caught their attention but a little boy, perhaps 3 years old, who had got on stage and started to jig to the music. The crowd watched him enthralled as he walked closer towards them. The audience was so captivated, that when he got right to the edge of the stage and looked as if he would just carry on walking, they let out a gasp in unison, bringing his dad running forward to stop him. Wonderfully, stopping him, in fact, meant giving him the tiniest jarana I have ever seen and letting him play along with the band. Such a joyously special moment being played out before our eyes.
As if this scene couldn’t be any more perfect, nature decided it wanted in on the action. The most intense bolts of lightning began to light up the sky behind the cathedral, highlighting the intricate brickwork and causing the nesting owls to swoop around above us looking for safety.
Then, just as the band broke into a well-known protest song from Oaxaca called Son de la Barricada reminding the city of the struggles of 2006, great firecrackers lit up the sky, raining colours through the air. Though nothing to do with this performance, they couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.
I watched on feeling so many different emotions; awe, joy, happiness, excitement, and I have to admit that a few little tears came to my eyes as I was reminded just how lucky I am to live in a country where I can bump into this on my way home at night.
- You can also listen to the music and find out more about a Oaxacan Son Jarocho band, Raices here
- Discover more about the Jarana, a guitar shaped instrument used by Son Jarocho bands.
Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, The Independent UK, Afar and The New Worlder among others. Check out her portfolio here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.