We arrived 25 minutes late, but it seems that we were actually an hour and a half early. Nikki has been explaining to me the constant struggle she has with timing her arrival. We did much better in our second engagement of the day when we arrived at 4 for a 2 ‘o clock party. The first engagement was to be a Son Jarocho gathering. Son Jarocho is a traditional music from the Veracruz region of Mexico. It consists of small guitars called jarana jarocho and other percussion instruments. One of Nikki’s friends gets together with a group of people every Sunday to practice. The musicians were dwindling in one by one, chatting as they came, stopping for coffee, and generally approaching the gathering with an ease rarely seen in the states. When it was clear we would be waiting a while for the music to begin, we walked down to the organic market.
At the far end of the market, Sandro and his wife had set up their kiosk. Sandro is an Italian man and his wife is Korean. They apparently met in India and now make their home in Oaxaca. They were also at the market we went to yesterday. Their food offerings, a mix of Italian, Korean and Mexican, stand out in a selection of mostly corn tortillas with beans and vegetables and meat. Having tried quite a few Mexican delicacies in the past few days, I decided to try Sandro’s eclectic mix. So, for lunch I had dumplings with ricotta cheese and tofu and cellophane noodles and salad. Hardly the lunch I was expecting on a Sunday in Oaxaca. But, at the same time, I am coming to learn that Oaxaca seems to be a place that attracts the unexpected, the alternatively minded, and the eager do-gooder alike.
After eating our dumplings we walked back to the big tree where six women and a Cuban artist Gabriel were now gathered. Instruments were starting to come out. A few chords were being strung and exercised. Two ladies were changing into clog-like black heals. Gabriel took some people into his nearby studio to grab a wooden platform to allow the dancing to resonate as a drum beat for the guitarras. Slowly, each person began to turn away from their dogs and their conversations and commit to the music. First the guitars, then the voices, one by one taking a verse at a time, then the dancers started to join in. For one more layer of percussion, Gabriel contributed by playing the jaw of a cow skull, called a quijada.
Gabriel, clad in high tops, striped colorful pants, a black t-shirt, and a woven striped scarf had face wrinkles indicating he had spent most of his life smiling. He greeted me with a smile and cheek kiss. He is one of those large personalities who clearly writes many of his own rules in life. At one point, he left the music circle to climb up the nearby power tower that he was using to dry his laundry. It was fitting that he was playing a cow’s skull.
For the first song, Nikki and I sat and listened to the sounds weave together in perfect harmony. I was impressed that the musicians were mostly women. As I listened to them jam, I was reminded of Flamenco music. My college boyfriend had been a Flamenco guitarist, thus I had had the good fortune of spending many nights around musicians and dancers. In those crowds, I had never seen a female who played the instruments. In this Son Jarocho circle, the women were doing it all. I’ve heard Oaxaca is famous for a lineage of strong women. This gathering proved no different.
Soon, the music and dancing were in full swing. Gabriel, not one to leave anyone out, retreated to his studio for another cow jaw and African drum. He proceeded to teach both Nikki and I to play the quijada, and between the three of us, we created quite the rhythm section. Sitting with my red baton, and jagged teeth, I felt like I belonged for one of the first times since arriving.
Any other time I have been in a group of Mexicans, I have been the clear outsider. Not speaking the language, I have mostly been smiling and nodding and doing my best to connect when possible. But, with a cow jaw in my hand, I felt like one of them. As the songs continued, I found myself modifying the rhythms Gabriel taught me. Up, down, up, bang would turn into up, down, up, down and then maybe a little, down, bang, down, bang. I was adding my own unique flavor. Every once in a while, I would get self-conscious and retreat. Instead of banging and brushing with confidence, I would bang meekly looking to Gabriel for approval. That never worked out. I’d soon lose the rhythm and the feeling that I belonged. So I would go back to stroking the teeth as if I was born doing it. I never said more than hello, how are you and goodbye to the people I was with, but through music we found another language altogether.
Watch a video here: