As a kid, I was fascinated by Richie Valens's 1958 rock and roll hit "La Bamba." Years later, while
researching the provenance of the song, I discovered it originated from an incredible music tradition
located in a region of northeast Mexico known as La Huasteca.
I immediately fell in love with the music of the Huasteca, particularly a trio of closely affiliated genres,
huapango, son huasteco and son jarocho. The rhythms were infectious, the melodies soulful and the
energy always frenetic.
I was excited to discover a group specializing in Huasteca music based right here in Indy: Pasion
Huestaca. I met with the band after a recent gig at Locals Only, where I was seriously impressed by the
group's beautiful interpretation of the classic Huasteca music repertoire. Their faithful interpretation of
this historic culture briefly transported me out of Locals Only into the tropical coastal vistas of
"We're one of only three or four bands playing this music in the entire United States," musician Amber
Martinez says. Martinez sings and plays jarana (a small, five stringed guitar-like instrument) for Pasion
Huasteca. I spoke with Martinez about the history of the group and her connections with Huasteca
NUVO: Can you tell me how Pasion Huasteca came together?
Amber Martinez: My husband Esteban and I came to Indy from California about three years ago. We started an organization called Meztli-Cultural de Indianapolis to promote Mexican folk art and preserve cultural traditions, including music.
In 2010, our friend Roberto Castro came out to participate in our performance for Dia de los Muertos at the Indianapolis Art Center. When he came and played with us he was really excited about the possibilities here and he decided to move. So he and his wife Lupe have been here since last year. Lupe is from El Salvador originally and Roberto is from Mexico. They were living in California for twenty years and we've been friends for eighteen years.
NUVO: How did you first get involved with this music?
Martinez: I started as a dancer at the age of five with a group called Aztlan Academy. I wasn't introduced to huasteco or huapango until I was fourteen. Huapango is a very difficult style to dance, you actually dance on the counter-rhythm. You don't dance on the beat, which throws a lot of people off. My love for this region was born out of the dancing. But, I always wanted to sing and I would be singing as I was dancing. I was really just living and breathing the music.
NUVO: When I listen to the music from the Hausteca region, the different styles sound very
similar. Can you tell me some differences between son jarocho, huapango and son huasteco?
Martinez: I like all the genres and they are very closely related as far as instrumentation and the manner of singing, although there are some slight differences in the verses. In son huasteco we have three rounds, the first singer calls out the verse, the second singer repeats the verse and the third singer wraps it up with some poetic notion. In son jarocho there might be four of five verses that will repeat back and forth. Son jarocho and son huasteco are a lot more accessible than the huapango. Huapango is a very particular and delicate music, it takes a lot of skill and practice to master because of the delicate rhythms.
A lot of songs do translate back and forth between the different genres though. For example "Cielito
Lindo" is one song that would be sung in jarocho as well as huasteco. There are many others in
common too, there's "Malagueña," and also "La Bruja." There are many shared songs between these
genres and a lot of that has to do with proximity. When we talk about the Huasteca as a region, we're
talking about seven different states. So you hear the different genres communicating back and forth
within this region.
NUVO: The rhythms of these musics are very unique from other Mexican folk styles.
Considering that Veracruz is known for its Afro-Mexican population, can we speculate that
African music influenced these styles?
Martinez: Huapango was practiced by the indigenous people. Haupango comes from a Nahuatl language term that means “to beat or drum on the wood.” People would dance on wood to provide percussion for the music and the percussion is related to the rhythms of the African slaves who were brought to the region by the Spaniards and other European nations. The history of huapango goes back at least 800 years, perhaps more. There's some dispute as to who had more influence on the style, as it is an old, old, old music.
NUVO: When I think of huapango, I often associate it with the harp. But your group is primarily
guitar- and violin-based. Can you tell me about the traditional instrumentation of the music?
Martinez: Now, in huapango there is some infusion of the harp and bass, but traditionally speaking it's only three instruments. You have the violin, which carries the melody, you have the jarana which produces the harmony and then you have the huapanguera or guitarra quinta which plays the bass. Huapango is meant to be danced, so the dancer provides a fourth instrument, which is percussion.
NUVO: What's the role of this music in contemporary Mexican culture?
Martinez: Politically, it's the best way to carry a message. There are often hidden meanings within the verses and that might be how the people would comment on the elections or criticize politicians. Socially, the lyrics have much to do with relationships, loss and mourning. The lyrics go in so many different directions. That's one of the reasons I love this music, there are so many things we can touch upon, from patriotism to love of nature.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection spotlights music from the Mexico's Huasteca region, featuring two new songs from Patricio Hidalgo's critically acclaimed afro-jarcoho album "Return of the Conga."
1. Radio Jarocho - Conga Le Lé (2012, Chido Records)
2. Patricio Hidalgo - Conga Del Puerto (2012, AfroJarocho/Cosmica Records)
3. Sistema Bomb - Butaquito (2012, Round Whirled Records)
4. Pa' Sumecha - Cupido (2011, Round Whirled Records)
5. Trío Huasteco de Pánuco - El Sacamandú (2011, Discos Corason)
6. Grupo Mono Blanco - El Cascabel (2009, Arhoolie)
7. José Gutiérrez & Los Hermanos Ochoa - La Morena (2003, Smithsonian Folkways)
8. Radio Jarocho - Bemba y Tablao (2012, Chido Records)
9. Patricio Hidalgo - Conga Del Gavilan (2012, AfroJarocho/Cosmica Records)