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A Thirst for Music: Son Huasteco in Mexico City
Zaidee Stavely
2004-12-01

No one knows just how old Rolando Hernández is. Although he looks to be in his fifties or sixties, he'll say "ninety-nine" or "a hundred and three" and if you pester him, he'll say, "Okay, ninety." Laughing, his eyes will twinkle as he picks up his bow again, glances at his partners and begins to bow a huasteco rhythm on his violin. To his left, the other two musicians, a large man playing the small jarana guitar and a short young man on the huge huapanguera, are dressed just like him, with leather pants and jackets and cowboy hats. The fiddle suddenly fades out and the three of them lean toward their mikes to begin a beautiful three-part harmony.

This is the Trío Chicontepec, founded in the late 1950s by Hernández, otherwise known as "Quecho." Today, he is accompanied by his son Jorge on the huapanguera and Rafael "Rafa" Camacho on the jarana, at his dance hall, known as "El Balcón Huasteco" (The Huastec Balcony). The room recalls an old one-room schoolhouse, with shiny pine floors and large multi-paned windows. On the walls a fiddle and bow, jarana and huapanguera share space with traditional clothing and old photographs from days past. In one sepia photo from his very first album, a much younger Quecho clowns around with his brother, playing each other's instruments.

Quecho started playing at the age of eight in the small town of Chicontepec, in the north of Veracruz, one of six states making up the Huasteca region in northeastern Mexico. He says son huasteco was the only music anyone there ever really listened to, and almost everyone had an instrument or two, even if they didn't know how to play them. As a small boy, his father enrolled him in piano lessons, but at the first class the teacher reprimanded him before he even started to play. "You're no good for music," she said to him. "Just look at those little hands." As a result, Quecho stopped going to class and when his father went to pay, the teacher told him it was useless since the boy played hooky and was never going to be a musician anyway.

Then he started playing around with the fiddle on the wall in his house. One day his father found him with it and asked him, "So you like the violin?" Quecho caught himself and said, "No, no, no, it was going to fall, so I'm just putting it back up on the wall." The next time his father found him with it, though, he began to teach him what he knew. He also began listening to old 78 records of El Viejo Elpidio Ramírez, one of the first musicians to introduce son huasteco to Mexico City in the 1930s.

Quecho got to be so good that he began to play at indigenous weddings and baptisms, religious festivities and civic events in different villages around Chicontepec. Parties lasted sometimes from six in the afternoon to six in the morning. He began to enter contests and frequently won first place. "I don't think I necessarily played better. I think the judges wanted to give me the incentive to keep playing because I was so young," he explains.

In junior high school, Quecho moved to Mexico City but kept playing. The Trio Chicontepec was born in La Normal, teacher's school, in the 1950s with Rolando on the violin accompanied by two of his brothers, Lázaro and Godelevo. They had a radio program to broadcast huasteco music, and their first record was made in 1960 with one microphone in an old air shaft. With the help of Raúl Hellmer, a North American ethnomusicologist, this reel-to-reel recording was sold to RCA and made into a record.

When one of Quecho's brothers died, another friend from the Chicontepec area, Wilebaldo Amador Hernández, joined the group. Slowly, the Trio began to make a name for itself, giving talks on Mexican folklore in schools and later playing for well-known jarocho or folklórico groups. Quecho helped found two traditional Mexican music schools with the Ballet Folklórico of Amalia Hernández, and traveled to several countries.

In 1992, the Balcón Huasteco formally opened. In those days, they only had four aluminum tables and the musicians served as janitors, waiters and administrators. Today, the tables are made of wood and are placed all around the long low room. When the music stops, the fiddler, no doubt the leader here, asks each table for requests.

"La Cecilia!" calls a couple in the corner. "La Cecilia," agrees Quecho, and with a mischievous smile he begins the phrase, "El que lo pida..." (Whoever asks for the tune)

"Lo baila!!" (Has to dance it!) answers the crowd. The fiddle begins, trilling away with quick rocking motions of the bow, the jarana and huapangera joining in soon after. The couple is up and dancing a zapateado, a three-step typical of much Mexican music, with the regional distinction of a flat-footed stomp, and intervals of sweeping movements with pointed toes when the singing begins. Rafa, a stern looking man offstage, puts his all into the music and trills falsetto style, "Cecilia lindo amorcito, te adoro con devoción. Te adoro con devoción, Cecilia lindo amorcito"

The Huasteca region is the area where the states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, Querétaro, Puebla, and Tamaulipas converge in the northeast of Mexico near the Gulf coast. According to Quecho, there are three kinds of Huasteca tunes: danzas, sones viejos, and huapangos. Danzas, characterized by monotonous melodies, are traditionally played for religious events or festivities in the indigenous communities. The tune beginning every night at the Balcón Huasteco, "Xochipitzahuac," is possibly the most well-known, with listeners singing along to the words in Nahuatl, even when they don't understand their meaning.

Son huasteco, characterized by falsetto singing and flowery moves on the violin, can be divided into two subsections: sones viejos are traditional tunes in public domain for which musicians make up new verses or change the notes around; huapangos are relatively more recent sones written by known composers which Quecho believes should not be altered.

Huasteca music is usually played on three instruments: a violin, the deep-voiced huapanguera guitar, and the mid-range jarana huasteca, a small five-stringed instrument tuned G, B, D, F#, and A, which Quecho says was incorporated into son huasteco in the 1940s.

...

This is definitely not the place for shy people. Everyone is invited to participate, whether it is dancing, singing, being referred to in verse or playing music. The Trio Chicontepec is adamant about encouraging young people to play, and invites their students and friends to play with them on stage on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, when the Balcón is open to the public.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Quecho and Rafa offer lessons for $50 pesos a class (US$4.50). On those days, the hubbub can even be heard outside on the street. Passersby stop to look through the windows to see where the chaotic sound of numerous violins and jaranas is coming from. In every corner of the hall, men, women, and children can be found plucking, scratching, or trilling out a tune.

...

"Every day there are more followers, more taste, more people interested in this musical genre," announces Quecho proudly. The Trío Chicontepec has received apprentices from Mexico City and surrounding areas, but also from Holland, Cuba, the United States, and France.

...

The night is growing old. By now, dancers have gone up in groups and no one is counting steps anymore. But when Felipe asks, "¿Qué quieren?" (Any requests?) and someone shouts "El son solito," the cheering won't let up. "Okay," he says, "but you've got to dance it."

A woman gets up on the wood floor and dances with her partner to a fast fiddle and a twanging jarana-huapanguera duo. But soon, the fiddler is singing: "Escúchame bien, señor, escúchame bien que te voy a hablar. Deja a la señorita, que la queremos ver zapatear." (Listen up, sir, listen up because I'm going to tell you something. Leave the little miss, we want to see her stomp up a storm.) And the man does as he says, leaving the woman to dance on her own to the delight of the audience, who screams and claps.

Soon, the fiddler begins again, "Escúchame bien, señito, escúchame bien que te voy a hablar. Busca a un viejito, que lo queremos ver zapatear." (Listen up, miss Look for an old man, because we want to see him dance.) The woman goes out into the audience and grabs an older man standing by the door. He pulls away, laughing, but at the urging of the audience, he reluctantly goes up to dance. Soon, he is left by himself to zapatear. And thus goes the "Son solito" (son all alone). The man has to dance with a young woman with curly hair; she has to find a little boy to dance with; he has to dance with a fat woman, and so on. The audience claps much harder for those who don't know how to dance, encouraging them and thanking them for getting up there to try.

The little boy steals the show. With his calculated stomps, turns and removal of his hat, he is a fantastic huasteco dancer. And when the fiddler asks him to listen, he stops dancing and turns to face him, hand on hips, hat in hands, to listen attentively to the instructions. The audience roars in this little hall, where Huasteca music never dies.

Slowly, the night at the Balcón Huasteco dies down, and the people begin to leave. Everyone says goodbye when they leave, many of them giving affectionate kisses or hugs to Quecho as they walk out the door. A living legend to the history of Huasteca music, and a serious musician committed to making it live on, Rolando "Quecho" Hernández doesn't plan to leave us anytime soon. "I plan to live until I'm a hundred and twenty," he says proudly. But who knows when that will be.

[For the full text of this article, purchase the Winter 04/05 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Zaidee Stavely grew up listening to her mother play Southern Appalachian fiddle tunes and is now learning to play son huasteco on her own fiddle. She lives and works as a freelance journalist in Mexico City.]

Photo by Zaidee Stavely: The Trio Chicontepec, Rolando Hernández at left.