Chuchumbé is a Mexican folk music and dance group that seeks to preserve and extend the son jarocho tradition of their native Vera Cruz. They got a chance to do this on their US tour, which ended on October 22 (2005) in Flint, Michigan. Brought to the heart of the US’s ageing industrial belt, their vibrant melodies, poetry, and rhythm captivated audiences during a one week stay. At Flint’s Whiting Auditorium, Chuchumbé gave a command performance that was well received by audiences unaccustomed to the musical tradition of Vera Cruz. From the Midwestern US, the group flew on to Hong Kong for yet another series of performances.
Brought to the US with support from Arts Midwest – a Minneapolis-based arts project partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts – Chuchumbé provided free workshops to area schools, artists, and churches, in an effort “to share culture and music and knowledge of the world to the people of our region” according to Midwest Worldfest programme director Ken Carlson. On this tour, Chuchumbé visited some nine US states, including Ohio and Michigan, where they jammed with local musicians, gave dance instruction, and mingled with local Latino and non-Latino communities. In Flint, they were also feted by the University of Michigan-Flint chancellor, Dr. Juan E. Mestas, who invited local cultural and community leaders to meet Chuchumbé and hear a sampling of their music. Also in Flint, they were welcomed by the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, Rev. Timothy Nelson, and members of the congregation at a church dinner.
Chuchumbé was founded in 1991 by Félix “Liche” José Oseguera Rueda and Patricio Hidalgo Belli. Naming themselves after an Afro-Mexican dance that was suppressed by the Spanish some 300 years ago, the group has since released two albums of their music that is based on the Afro-Hispanic-Aboriginal tradition of son jarocho that is, however, open to the most contemporary music trends. To their earlier CD release ¡Caramba Niño!, Chuchumbé has added Contrapuntea’o. These are inspired by the tradition of fandangos – which in Vera Cruz is a nighttime party incorporating dancing, music, and verse-making (think: stir rum, African rhythm and a tropical setting into a high-powered Irish céili).
Chuchumbé uses traditional Mexican instruments, such as the jarana, requinto, and leona, which are similar to the guitar; a tambourine-like pandero; the marimba and marimbol, which is a box-like bass instrument that resembles the African mbira. In their performance, they add the zapateado –percussive dance on a raised wooden sounding box – which is performed by splendid experts such as Rubí del Carmen Oseguera Rueda and Dalmasio Cobos Utrera. The instruments, just like the dancing, gives evidence of Spanish and also Moorish influences that meld with African and native American influences.
In a wide-ranging exclusive interview, Chuchumbé members Patricio Hidalgo Belli and Zenen Zeferino Huervo spoke about their experiences traveling the American Midwest. Hidalgo said that “The name son jarocho given to our music gives you an idea of its origins. Jarocho in old Spanish means ‘clumsy’ or ‘brusque’. It also means ‘Vera Cruz native’. This was the term to describe the music that came from the music brought by African slaves that blended with native American traditions. So…after it was suppressed some 300 years ago, it has been something of an underground movement."
Hidalgo continued, "But seventeen years ago, an antique manuscript was found in the church archives of Puebla (Mexico) with the words of a proscribed song of that era. We took the name ‘Chuchumbé’ from the lyrics and then worked on putting it to music. And since that time our group’s success has grown, just as interest in son jarocho has increased. …At festivals in Vera Cruz, we now have visitors from the US, Colombia, and elsewhere in Mexico. People love jarocho; it doesn’t have the pejorative sense it used to have.”
Zenen Zeferino said that even while his group, and similar groups in Mexico, strives to keep the jarocho tradition alive, it is open to new influences. In the US, Chuchumbé has appeared with local hip-hop artists, for example. This melding of contemporary art forms with the traditional will continue in Mexico, said Zeferino, when son jarocho artists and poets from Vera Cruz will join Mexican hip-hop performers in Mexico City during early 2006. “Just like son jarocho, hip-hop has also been considered an underground art form” said Zeferino. “Hip-hop and son jarocho are laden with emotion and have their own language. Likewise, they have not been very commercial until now.”
Referring to the “verseando” tradition of impromptu verse-making in Vera Cruz, Zeferino said that both hip-hop and son jarocho are known for verbal duels between artists to compose verses on-stage and before the public. Both are languages of protest, he said, that seek a “third-way” between the discredited Mexican political parties and institutions. “Son jarocho is at once very old, but very contemporary”, said Zeferino. “They (son jarocho and hip-hop) are ways of making contact between cultures through poetry.”
As for his sojourn in the US, Zeferino said that he enjoyed sessions with US musicians, especially a jam with blue-grass enthusiasts in Ohio. Overall, he said, the reception Chuchumbé received was warm and even surprising since, he admitted, US audiences are mostly ignorant of Mexican music and other art forms. He also enjoyed meeting with Latinos in the US who understand, he said, son jarocho’s happy, mestizo rhythms and frank perspective on contemporary Mexican realities.
Zeferino, who as a Mexican radio and television personality is an acute social and political observer, also said that he was aware of strife caused by white supremacists in Toledo, Ohio, during his tour. “We in Vera Cruz have already been through this. We have learned to get along. I think that our music, which bridges cultures and eras, can be a way of showing the people of the United States how to blend cultures and bridge the chasm between blacks and whites…Latinos, since they are mestizos (mixed race) can bridge that gap by showing how to blend different traditions and styles that incorporate everyone.”
Chuchumbé combines music and singing, dancing and poetry, as well as instrument-making that is a unique contribution to world-music. Liche Oseguera spoke warmly of musical encounters with African, American, and European musicians of distinct traditions. Having already brought this blend of cultures to stages in France, Germany, and the United States, and performed with Irish, American, and African musicians, they hope to be invited to Spain in order to complete a cultural circuit that began 500 years ago.
Copyright: Martin M. Barillas 2005 ©