Mexican Rhythms Take Center Stage in Veracruz

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
The Washington Post

Close my eyes.

That’s what I’m going to do, I decide, as I fold into a low-slung metal chair under the colonial-era arches of the Plaza de Armas in drowsy, under-appreciated Veracruz, Mexico.

I’ve blocked my sense of sight for a moment to heighten my other senses in this sensual place. And it’s my sense of smell that kicks into overdrive first, tricking me for a split second into thinking I’m in Havana. I draw in luscious cigar smoke: not the cheapo variety, not the eau de Swisher Sweets and other bargain stuff we get in the States but an authentic fog of torched and puffed Montecristos, Cohibas and Diplomaticos straight from the island.

Then I hear the notes: playful, cheery, vaguely tropical. Strings strummed by a thick thumbnail.

“Amada Margarita, mujer de Don Simon,” a raspy voice croons: Beloved Margarita, wife of Don Simon.

“The one who wants me to eat tamales made of rat meat,” he growls in Spanish.

Laughter from the table next to me.

I take a peek. Old men in startlingly white guayaberas, white pants, white shoes. One runs his fingers across a jarana, a small guitar that resembles a ukulele. The other leans into the coolest harp I’ve ever seen. It’s like a piece of furniture. All inlaid cedar wood: giant, but somehow delicate.

I’ve arrived in a place I like to call Mexico’s Living Jukebox. On this unassuming square, in this unassuming city, you can hear the entire catalogue of Mexicanized Latin music. Live, unamplified and exquisitely performed. Just call the musicians over and slide them a few pesos, or sit back and enjoy the songs the people at the tables around you are requesting.

Over there is a trio of men in cowboy hats howling drinking songs to the Latinized oompah rhythms of Norteno banda music; a few steps away, a sleepy-eyed man waits his turn with batons poised over a cedar wood marimba. There are mariachis, of course — this is Mexico, after all — and there are also men in flowered shirts ready to shake maracas to a Son Cubano rhythm. The competing bands politely take turns playing, so they don’t drown out their fellow musicians.

I normally have little patience for cheesy street musicians who hover around tourist areas playing mediocre versions of the same tired standards, but these guys are different. They’re the real deal. They can flat-out play. They are Veracruz institutions. And Veracruzanos love them.

It’s a shame that this city, an important cargo port and offshore oil town that perches on Mexico’s east coast 260 miles from Mexico City, barely registers as a destination for Americans, except, that is, for oil company executives and the occasional convention-goers. True, the murky gulf water that slaps its dreary beaches can’t compare with the bathtub-warm embrace of the sea off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula or the awe-inspiring waves blasting onshore on the Pacific side. Those places, though, are overrun with Americans and Europeans. Veracruz feels like a place created by and for Mexicans, and it can be a nice spot to chill out for a few days of eating, drinking and slowing down.

This is where middle-class Mexicans come to play, and they’re unperturbed by the sight of rusty oil tankers offshore. They come to dance in huge, gaudy nightclubs and to eat some of Mexico’s finest seafood: mild pompano or snapper slowly sauteed in a “salsa veracruzana” of chopped tomatoes and jalapeno peppers, and thick raw scallops in lemon juice. And they come to step into Mexico’s Living Jukebox.

On the square, beneath lacy iron balconies reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter, I am surrounded by Veracruz families celebrating birthdays, a girls’ soccer team from Mexico City with its chaperones, a young couple from Villahermosa who can’t keep their lips unlocked or their hands off each other. The cigar smoke is clouding up above a table where several local government big shots are holding court.

A troupe of young men with thick mustaches crowds around a nearby table. They’ve got skintight jeans, cowboy hats and lots of attitude.

“I like beer; that I’m not going to deny,” the singer belts out. “But seeing lots of women is something I like even more.”

The line’s a crowd pleaser, and the men at the table slap backs and grin wolfishly. The song, Happy and a Womanizer, is a favorite of banda music fans, who bob their heads to an accordion-driven beat brought to Mexico eons ago by European polka musicians.

But my favorites are the guys with the harps. They produce a uniquely Veracruzan sound called son jarocho, which takes its cues from Cuban son, a salsa precursor with a danceable beat propelled by the pounding of wooden dowels known as claves. The best-known example of the son jarocho style is the song La Bamba, the relentlessly catchy 1950s Ritchie Valens hit that was repopularized when Los Lobos recorded a version for the 1987 Hollywood biopic named for the song.

The city that gave us La Bamba, like all port towns, is an eclectic place, and its music scene developed from a stew of ethnic influences that goes back to the time of Spanish colonial domination. The word “jarocho” derives from the Spanish word for a wooden spear that was used by black slaves in Veracruz. In modern times, the best practitioners of son jarocho typically are black Mexicans, a microscopically small demographic group in this country.

I order Tecates for myself and my friend, Francisco Reza, a retired oil-rig diver who now drives a taxi for a living. We’re having fun with the lyrics to the womanizing song, but I’m hungry for some son jarocho.

We call over the guys in the guayaberas. I know they’ll make up a song about you on the spot if you ask nicely, and I’m feeling like a little musical personalizing. Uluterio Oropeza, 74, comes over with his “little brother,” the harpist, Raul, who is only 69 and made the harp himself. Uluterio, a descendant of African slaves and Spanish slaveholders who has played on this square since he was 10, sizes us up quickly.

Strumming fast now, he launches into a verse about how lonely we must be with no women at our table. I have no idea why this sounds so fun, but face to face with his whimsical strumming and infectious grin, I’m doubled over laughing.

“With that lousy skinny belly,” he sings to me, “how will you have room for all that beer?”

The tables around us erupt in laughter. Uluterio winks at me. And all I can do is smile.

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