Caña Dulce and Caña Brava in San Francisco

Caña Dulce and Caña Brava is my favorite performance group of the latest recrudescence of Son Jarocho tradition. They have been active now for ten years. These notes and the translated article below were prompted by my joyful discovery this week that all the members of the group are also extremely skilled and generous teachers.

The Son Jarocho tradition is more than a musical genre, or a repertoire of traditional songs or a set of playing techniques or a local cultural practice or a dance and festival music or a set of instrumental performance techniques. It is all those things and it may also be unique in mexican music in having a robust practice for social transmission. It has influenced and fermented other musics and it has found its way to new audiences via film, popular recordings, and under the rubric of a world music in the notable, influential recordings in Paris of the revered harpist La Negra Graciana.

In their teaching workshops the members of Caña Dulce and Caña Brava employ many useful ways to overcome the conundrums and challenges of teaching a traditional music to curious, motivated outsiders. Perhaps the core conundrum is that the singing, music and dance is natural and “simple” in it’s fully integrated form experienced in a fandango or in the social familial contexts where it is learned by young children in the seamless flow of growing up. Without this context learning each skill (privately or with a single teacher) is strangely disorienting. The solution as you might guess is that the group brought the many aspects of the tradition together in each class. For example the whole group was present in the opening zapateado dance class of Violeta Romero’s. Rather than take the group through an entire set sequence for a particular Son (many of the Sones have established theatrical scenarios), she opted to teach core steps which together symbolize for me a strongly resonant value in this tradition: inclusiveness. These steps covered standing in one place, traveling and turning at both a high and low energy and also a nearly completely quiet step. This range of steps is essential to allow the turn taking so important to this tradition where the focus can shift between vocalists, to dancer, and musician with ample room for the full range between quiet, unassuming ordinary expressiveness to highly skilled moments of instrumental virtuosity. Each of these elements can be found in other traditions, the importance of improvisation to jazz for example, but I enjoy the inclusiveness of all the elements as Caña Dulce and Caña Brava exemplifies.

In the Jarana workshops, Raquel Palacios Vega seamlessly adapted the strums and chord choices to the skills of the participants making sure the large groups in each case were kept actively playing with a reachable challenge. Anna Sylvia Arisméndez spotted moments of struggle and gave quick individual micro-lessons to keep people on the train.

One of the question periods stands out in my mind when Alejandro Loredo improvised a response by playing interesting pairings of Sones illustrating contrasting metrical aspects in the rhythmic cells that are the kernel of each Son. This is another powerful approach that helps outsiders to get inside playing the music. It’s a complementary scaffolding to the one Raquel Palacios Vega provided as she build up variations from the core strums. Alejandro Loredo’s continued this scaffolding in the Rhythm workshop illustrating core “clave” rhythms notationally, vocally and instrumentally.

In that question session from the Jarana workshop, the group explained how the group started. A follow-up question from a participant asked who was sweet (Dulce) and who was stout/strong (Brava). The groups response took the question in good humor but I found something frustratingly divisive at the heart of the question. It invokes disagreement and whether the group addresses them adversarially or harmoniously. I wanted to respond strongly and assure the questioner that ALL the members of the group are earnestly working life’s challenge of being sweet and strong, open and boundaried. Such a response from me would not have been kind or “sweet” because I could not know how the questioner might be suffering in their work or home life from asymmetric power and the insecurities it produces.

There is something glorious in the inclusiveness and openness of the Son Jarocho tradition which makes room for life’s challenges to be both experienced and melted away in the joy of a deeply participatory experience so beautifully animated by Caña Dulce and Caña Brava.

Adrian Freed. Feb 3 2018

p.s. Here follows my translation of exerpts of a 2015 article that has some of the issues I bring up expressed in the artists own words.

“Caña Dulce and Caña Brava breaks molds with feminine prowess”

Juan José Olivares (translation Adrian Freed)

"This is a rural music in which machismo is deeply rooted. In the city there is an influence of new ideas on aspects of the tradition. But I've had to hear anecdotes from well-known people in our community who jokingly (by the way) make comments such as: 'What do you think? Are you a woman?'

“We fall into those ridiculous games about being masculin and we miss the diversity of expression” , comments Alejandro Loredo, who plays the guitar in the group Caña Dulce and Caña Brava, which highlights a female sensibility in the music, singing and the lyrics in Son Jarocho a genre historically played by men. Caña Dulce and Caña Brava are: Adriana Cao Romero Alcalá, harp and voice; Raquel Palacios Vega, jarana and voice; Violeta A. Romero Granados, jarana, voice and zapateado, and Alejandro Loredo.

"Almost all the lyrics in son jarocho are very masculine in perspective. It is a man who sings to the woman. "Almost always in fandangos we talk about things about them ... There we are singing to women, as if to love them. Well now our proposal is consistent with that perspective in the lyrics. We try to provide verses for women. Also in the sound you can hear a difference: we play a little softer, with another intensity, "says Violeta Romero.

Caña Dulce and Caña Brava, established in 2008, “adds to that national revelry that means, throughout Mexico at the beginning of the century, the cultural phenomenon of the rebirth of traditional music” , said the Cuban writer, poet and bomber, Alexis Diaz-Pepper. The combo has new material: Sones jarochos. Thus, a name without major complication or pretension. A basis in which you do not want to rescue the son, but to approach it and dance it with “legitimate naturalness” .

“Between games and play, from childhood we have learned the sones. The traditional melodies are reflected in our album. We do not have exceptional arrangements, but we do the music from the heart and I think it shows” , says Raquel, who comes from two of the most revered traditional families: Los Vega and Los Palacios. Raquel, a wellspring of this tradition, says that there is a great difference in terms of acoustics between the masculine and feminine in the son. “It is revealed for example in the intensity of the jaranas, that somehow have a different language. She also participated with the Los Vega group, in which the majority are men; they have a different way of playing the instrument and singing. There is a difference, simply because women have their own language and that does not mean that we have something against them, or a rivalry, much less, but we make softer sounds and the lyrics are different.”

The man of the group, reveals that since he was 10 he played music, and has always had an inclination towards unusual sounds. “To those from old people: the old ones, whose way of playing is very similar to that of women in terms of work: they do not walk so hard, they give their space to the notes, they open them to the nuances that, young nen, in the waste of energy, forget.”

Alejandro says that “this project of women who have shown that they deserve a place in the community of soneros through their work is wonderful. The CD is a consolidation of these ideas and work”.