For more than 20 years, the Grammy Award-winning L.A. band, Quetzal, has incorporated the music and instruments of Mexico’s son jarocho style into its sound. For its next album, the band wanted to revisit the source of this music, so the members recently traveled to Veracruz to immerse themselves in that world.
The first stop was on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon at the home of musicians Tacho Utrera and Wendy Cao-Romero. They live in a coffee region, 10 minutes south of Xalapa, the capital of the Gulf state of Veracruz.
Following tradition, the musicians opened with the song that marks the beginning of the jam session, "El Siquisirí." Cao-Romero welcomed the guests with verses that name-checked Sandino, the 10-year old son of musician Quetzal Flores and singer Martha Gonzalez, leaders of the band.
Cao-Romero said the two families have kept a deep friendship and musical connection for many years and have collaborated on various projects:
“For us, it’s very important that they continue to be interested in our music, because they’re so well-known and they’re a window into the world, as Chicanos and as American musicians.”
On Monday afternoon, the band visited Ramón Gutiérrez at his studio-workshop. He plays the five-string guitar-like instrument called the requinto, and he leads the renowned group Son de Madera.
Flores said the trip to Veracruz had a specific purpose: to immerse the band in the son jarocho environment, and chronicle their time with the music community. Flores said they will bring back the field recordings and create soundscapes that will serve as the foundation for the band's compositions:
“We’re going to compose to these sounds, to these interactions, the voices that you hear of people having conversations, the playing together, the children interacting — all these things are part of the social fabric of who we are and this relationship that we have with the jarocho community.”
Gutiérrez says in the more than 35 years he’s been playing son jarocho, he’s never seen a rock band with the ability to absorb and distill this music like Quetzal:
“I think it’s the only group I’ve seen on stage, playing jaranas and having a very exciting mix of today’s music. It sounds like rock, but you see Martha playing jarana and Quetzal [playing] requinto with pedals.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Quetzal visited a cultural center dedicated to the teaching of son jarocho in the port city of Veracruz. The center was founded in 2001 by Gilberto Gutiérrez, leader of Grupo Mono Blanco, the group that led the son jarocho music and dance renaissance in the early 1980s. Gutiérrez says Quetzal follows in the footsteps of the great Chicano artists, Lalo Guerrero and Los Lobos:
“It’s admirable how they’ve become interested in Mexican culture. It would have been just as easy to disregard it, like many others have done. On the contrary, they have reaffirmed themselves as part of this culture and it’s clearly reflected in the music they make.”
On Wednesday, the band headed three hours south of Veracruz and arrived at El Hato, where in the early 1980s Grupo Mono Blanco jump-started the fandango tradition. Fandango is a celebration of music and dance and is the most significant aspect of son jarocho. Quetzal singer Martha Gonzalez said this visit was enriched by the presence of her son, Sandino:
“It’s really special to see my son here, playing in the same space, to know that there’s more than one generation and that he likes [the music]. Mainly, it’s the fact that he really enjoys it. We don’t make him play. He takes pride in his instrument and, any chance he can, he learns from the big dogs.”
Quetzal Flores said their connection to son jarocho goes well beyond a visit to the source of this musical culture. It’s also about re-establishing relationships with the community, like the musician and instrument-maker, Ramón Gutierrez:
“Sandino has a requinto from Ramón. So we have all these instruments that also have these voices of these people, extensions of their voices. It’s important for us to not just to have an instrument, but know who made it, and the stories behind them and these incredible histories that we connect to in so many ways, and that have created a sense of home in multiple places — for them and for us.”
Flores said this exchange, built on friendship and a strong musical connection, has created a spirit of reciprocity for both communities — in Veracruz and Los Angeles.