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A man holds up and plucks a jarana (small stringed instrument).

Photo by Akira Boch

  • Musical Migrations: The Creative Travels of César Castro

    “Time is not money. Time is life.”
    —César Castro

    Cross-cultural encounters can provoke conflict, but they can also spawn tremendous bouts of artistic and social creativity. Indeed, cultural difference can be a powerful creative force, opening our eyes to new possibilities for seeing the world around us and creating new traditions out of old. Musicians who experience unfamiliar sounds or instruments have found themselves on a path of curiosity and innovation that enriches their musical lives as well as the society in which they live. Jazz, rock ’n’ roll, salsa, hip-hop, and Tejano music are large-scale examples of the fruits of cultural intermingling.

    But it’s true on a more personal, community level as well. Consider the life journey of Mexican immigrant musician César Castro and the lessons he has learned and taught while making his way from Veracruz to Los Angeles.

    Most of Castro’s life story as a musician, luthier, teacher, media producer, and social activist has been driven by the lessons he learned in navigating and embracing cultural difference. He grew up as a self-described “urban kid” in the city of Veracruz, Mexico.

    “I grew up there, in the middle of the cars, the streets, dealing with the very hot and humid Caribbean-like weather, listening to different types of music,” he recalls. But an inexplicable attraction to the sounds of a rural lifestyle far removed from his own—the music called son jarocho of rural Veracruz state–conjured up new insights to what he valued in life and opened the door to a new future.

    “I think son jarocho saved my life. It took me out from doing stupid things in the streets with my friends—at least what we call ‘friends.’”

    Collage of four images of César growing up: with a group of kids in sombreros, with a group of young musicians, working on a wooden block on its way to becoming a musical instrument, and playing with an older harp player.
    Clockwise from top left: César Castro with La Plaga, a kids’ group from Veracruz, at an event in Oaxaca. Castro, at fourteen years old, and other young performers playing with adults, including his main mentors Gilberto Gutiérrez and Ramón Gutiérrez. Castro with Gilberto and Ramón. Castro, age sixteen, at an instrument workshop in Veracruz.
    Photos courtesy of César Castro

    At the age of thirteen, he discovered the music through hearing traditional harpist Andrés Alfonso play in his school. Soon after, he met Gilberto Gutiérrez and the other members of Grupo Mono Blanco, musical groundbreakers who starting in 1977 sought out rural keepers of the tradition’s deepest roots with the idea of revitalizing it. A professionalized version of the music had been popular since the 1930s, but in the process of commercialization, much had been left behind in the way of instruments, repertoire, poetry skills, and traditional occasions—in particular the fandango music and dance party that was the high point of community-based son jarocho practice.

    Starting in the early 1990s, Castro learned, performed, and traveled with them in the most rural areas of the region.

    “The way I learned, it was natural—‘organic,’ as now we say—and I didn’t have to think. I was young, and I was able to just get with Mono Blanco with their little combi minivan and go to fandangos, and my mom would be okay with that, the whole weekend.”

    Absorbing the lifestyle and customs of the rural communities he visited, he came to see the music as much more than music. In his words, “Son jarocho is more than notes. It’s more than chords. It’s more than one technique, rhythm. It’s how you live, how you manage your life.”

    Video produced by Daniel Sheehy and Charlie Weber

    While Castro’s first attraction was to the music itself, understanding the music as holistically integrated into a dynamic communal web of life drove his approach to music making. This notion heightened when in 2004 he was invited to co-produce a “fandango without borders” in Los Angeles, California, and then relocated to the city the following year to play with the East L.A. (and Smithsonian Folkways) group Quetzal. There, the Chicanx community saw him as a valued cultural mentor. He married musician-dancer Xochi Flores, started a family, and put down roots.

    “Once I felt embraced by the community, it made me feel that I was carrying knowledge that they really wanted to learn,” he explains. He looked for ways to pass on his skills in a non-traditional, urban context, giving workshops, making musical instruments, and organizing events. Having studied electronics in Veracruz, he bought sound equipment and offered his sound engineering services in order to improve the quality for what he calls “street corner bands.” He started his own group, Cambalache (Spanish term for “swap”), with Xochi and Mexican American musicians Juan Pérez and Manuel de Jesús “Chuy” Sandoval.

    Embracing technology and the internet, he launched the YouTube channel Jarochelo TV with tips on playing son jarocho, the Facebook page Jarochelo Cesar Castro, and the very successful podcast series Radio Jarochelo, with 140 programs and counting. Explaining the mission of the podcast and the special meaning it has for him as an immigrant far from his native land, Castro says, “The mission is to have a platform where everyone can expose their work, share it with a wider audience, and hopefully create connections. If my work resonates with yours in who-knows-where in the world—because this goes now on the web—great! Call, contact, we share. Through this podcast, I get closer to my people, to my culture. I meet new people, and I feel connected to my tradition.”

    A group of people practice jarana together, all smiling. César is leading the group on the right.
    Photo by Akira Boch

    The desensitizing bustle of the sprawling and disjointed megalopolis brought both new challenges and new opportunities to Castro’s philosophical approach to music making. On one hand, while there had been performers of son jarocho there since at least the 1950s, Los Angeles was a challenging place to create the sort of son jarocho communal comradeship that he had come to value. Amplifying these challenges, the Mexican American community faced its own issues confronting poverty, institutionalized racism, and social ills that flowed from generations of oppression. Consequently, Castro’s life experiences in Los Angeles and Veracruz have broadened his sense of what son jarocho is and can be.

    “It comes from oppression. It comes from slavery. It comes from migration. Son jarocho comes from poverty, from not having privilege, from having the need of expression,” he affirms.

    Son jarocho was always an expression of the underclass, shaped by descendants of enslaved Africans in Veracruz. At the dawn of the colonial era in the late 1500s, people of African descent outnumbered those of European heritage in Mexican territory, and the primacy of the African presence shaped Mexican culture for centuries to come. In the United States, son jarocho has been a face of immigration from Mexico and of Latino community struggles. The anti-racist movement and sentiment in Los Angeles and beyond underscored the social relevance of “people’s music” such as son jarocho.

    This social meaning is precisely what gives son jarocho its power and the opportunity to bring people together in the face of adversity. Castro sees it as a means of resistance, of building and strengthening a sense of community, and of bridging people across cultural barriers. In all his work, he emphasizes the social dimension of the musical experience as both a goal and the bedrock of sustaining the musical tradition itself. He instills the “fandango spirit”—the social contract of interdependence and mutual responsibility that he learned in communities of rural Veracruz—into all his work.

    “Son jarocho is about interacting,” he underscores. He feels that once you learn the musical basics and, more importantly, how to embody the fandango spirit, “When you go to a fandango, you have that capacity, that social skill, more fundamental than the musical. The musical is going to follow.”

    César leans over a piece of wood carved into the shape of a jarana. Hanging around his workshop are other instruments.
    Photo by Akira Boch

    Invited by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, he has been teaching his music in California prisons. This work has special meaning for him, given his appreciation of how son jarocho kept him out of trouble during his youth.

    “Every time I’m in a session with someone, teaching the music, and they find themselves in a positive wave and being able to feel better about themselves—and especially in prison—they say, ‘Hey, this takes me out of the BS happening in the yard.’ It made my day, because that’s what I want people to feel, the extra benefit of practicing beautiful music. It’s my aportación [contribution] to the son jarocho community, to the tradition.” In this way, it is another form of resistance. “You resist getting lost,” he adds metaphorically.

    While his professional work enables him to make a modest living, Castro takes great satisfaction in shaping his life around benefiting his community and doing “things that interest me and where I can be helpful.” With a dose of irony, he adds, “If you aren’t having fun, and you don’t enjoy what you do, then you are probably making a lot of money.” But he is okay with that.

    The lessons Castro learned immersing himself in deep community traditions and then looking for ways to pass on the knowledge he gained about the power of son jarocho to build community in a big-city context offer insights for all of us.

    “Art brings humanity back to you,” he says. “I teach son jarocho, but I’m trying to teach how to face life, especially with youth, encouraging people toward the positive, the good. Music heals. Music makes you feel good.”

    Once, when explaining to a young L.A. audience how he makes musical instruments, he almost said that gluing the parts together and waiting for the glue to dry was more of an annoyance than an integral part of the process. But then he caught himself, realizing that was exactly the attitude he was working against.

    “The process is what you should enjoy the most. And that includes gluing and waiting—waiting until it dries. Those are the things that the big city changes. You start thinking how you have to earn some money, and then you are thinking ‘time is money.’ Time is not money. Time is life.”

    Postscript: In the era of COVID-19 social distancing, César Castro redoubled his efforts to teach and bring people together through a special Facebook series of classes, along with podcasts combining traditional music with call-in opportunities to discuss the challenges of isolation and managing family life.

    César poses with his jarana against a brick wall, smiling.
    Photo by Akira Boch

    Daniel Sheehy is director and curator emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and has produced numerous recordings and articles on son jarocho.

    Related Content

    Radio Jarochelo: Connecting Communities” by César Castro (Smithsonian Folkways Magazine)

    Sounds of Los Angeles: César Castro’s Son Jarocho” by Akira Boch (Smithsonian Folklife Festival Blog)

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