Lo escuchaba en mi cabeza
en lengua extraña me hablaba
—“Aparato,” Café Tacuba
¡Aparato! The word conjures up imagery of mechanization, of machine-man música, perhaps a throbbing techno beat punctuated by a bilingual binary code. Dot, dot, dash, dash: punto. Yet this is not the cold, unfeeling sound of a harsh, alienating, dystopian futurevision—so popular in young-adult fiction and science-fiction these days. Instead we find songs and sounds full of love and hope, a clamor for social justice grounded in a playful imaginary that takes flight in the most humanistic of ways.
Guitar in hand, the lead vocalist commands your attention as her presence overshadows her tiny frame. To her side is a masked figure, white-on-black thunderbolt marking the bandana obscuring his face. Part Ziggy Stardust, part Zapatista, he bounces around the stage. His traditional wooden five-string requinto is plugged into a mission control panel’s worth of effects pedals. Depending on the night, depending on the venue, they might be joined by a drummer or a drum machine—percussion provided by the pa–pa–pa café-con-pan rhythm as performers and participants stomp their feet in unison to the son jarocho beat.
Easily—if not quite accurately—described as jarocho punk, the aural landscape transmitted by ¡Aparato! bridges the terrestrial with the ethereal: earthbound concerns meet the means to transcend, through sound and imagery; a here, now and a somewhere else, something better, both at once. This is a science fiction soundtrack for tomorrow’s Raza, “the people,” time travelers and visionaries, a MeXican@ música de y desde fronteras, of pop, punk, rock, and Afro-Mexican son jarocho; alt-Latin stylings and Xican@ soul; the traditional and the modern as filtered through the future.
I hesitate to use “traditional.” After all, as Raymond Williams reminds us, what is traditional but that which is repeated for two generations? To imply that the traditional is outside the modern plays fast and loose with history and reality. Rather, I take both tradition and modern as shorthand for the processes informing the composition and creation of ¡Aparato!’s music. Eyerman and Jamison write, “Musical traditions are thus made, and remade, in processes of mobilization; and, in the twentieth century, those processes have been closely linked to social and political movements.”
Instead of calling their sound new, hybrid, or fusion, I want instead to frame it as the logical, creative outcome of their collective influences and experiences. Traditional music from the year 3000, perhaps?
Nancy “Cat” Méndez and Alexandro D. Hernández Gutiérrez, the duo who formed and remain at the core of ¡Aparato!, are both expert performers and multi-instrumentalists, cultural workers and activists, whose interests and passions inform their personas on stage and off.
Along with her sisters, Méndez began playing covers of popular Mexican music, cumbias and rancheras, the songs of Selena and Ramón Ayala, Juan Gabriel and Los Tigres del Norte—the sort of stuff, she says, that she grew up listening to. It wasn’t until her mid-teens when she first listened to rock bands like the Cranberries and Smashing Pumpkins. She credits this hard-edged rock sound as inspiring her and her sisters to form an English-language rock band. Goodbye La Chicas de Anaheim, bienvenido Mystery Hangup.
Hernández, the self-proclaimed “El Tejarocho, relámpago de la frontera,” was born in Los Angeles but raised along the South Texas frontera, or border. He recalls his father listening to the big band sounds of 1940s Glenn Miller and the pop mariachi of Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre. Add to the mix early hip-hop by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and some Beastie Boys and you have his earliest musical influences. But, like Méndez, Hernández’s first exposure to rock remains a powerful, formative memory.
“I started hearing this sound coming out of the radio,” he recounts. “This kind of distorted guitar, strings being pulled, and I hear, ‘I. Am. Iron. Man.’ And it’s Black Sabbath, and that to me was one of the most amazing sounds I had ever heard. I was a kid. And I knew all I wanted to do was to get a guitar and sound that way.” Hernández credits that moment as sparking his interest in heavy metal and punk rock, as well as inspiring him to take up an instrument and begin playing.
For Méndez, her songwriting became an avenue for her to speak out—literally and figuratively. “I wanted to write my own music,” she says. “I wanted to speak out and voice myself, because I was very quiet as a young person. There’s some things that are wrong and they should not be this way. I would witness abuse against women and I knew that just wasn’t right. I wanted women and girls to not be afraid to sing, to scream, to be upset, to say what was on their minds. And I think I found that power though music.”
At the same time Hernández was playing fast, “really fast” punk and heavy metal, he was learning Tejano and blues on the guitar as well. This led to a recognition and appreciation of the shared influences between all three seemingly disparate musical genres. He carried this disparate foundational experience over to his interest in the requinto romántico and guitarra de son, string instruments that are at the heart of the Mexican trío romántico and son jarocho.
Son jarocho originated during the Spanish colonial period in the southern gulf coast of Mexico, in the state of Veracruz, as enslaved Africans, Indigenous peoples, Spanish, and mestizos shared instruments and rhythms while subverting ruling authorities. It is characterized by a series of string instruments, known as jaranas, played in an almost percussive manner, with lyrics typically sung in coplsa and décimas, and, at fandangos, accompanied by dancing. The son jarocho migrated to Mexico City mid-century, where, like mariachi, it formed cultural touchstones of a nation-building project. Richie Valens popularized it during the 1950s through his rock ’n’ roll version of “La Bamba,” as did Los Lobos in the 1980s. Over the past few decades the son jarocho has enjoyed somewhat of a cultural renaissance in Mexico as well as among Xican@s through the United States.
It is within this milieu—almost five centuries of son jarocho history and tradition—that ¡Aparato! plays their brand of jarana-punk. As Méndez says, “I play this jarana like a rocker, like a rock musician.”
It is precisely this break with the stylistic rules of the genre that mark ¡Aparato! as distinct and unique, innovators who come from a place of respect and admiration—for the history, for the heritage—in order to build upon and branch off of it. Thus, a song like “Kriminal,” based off a jarana strum is not “just” rock music played with Mexican folk instruments attached to modulators and effects pedals, but a serious, thorough rethinking of what makes a song soar. When Hernández speaks of taking the son to the year 3000 (with a nod to the Dr. Octagon song of the same name), I get the sense that this is what it is all about: not an adherence to the rules but an understanding and respect for those foundations.
¡Aparato! excels in blending these disparate influences, of being in the in-between, the multiple-identities and world-traveling of those who are of an interstitial space. This is the lived experience of both Méndez and Hérnandez, fronterizos who know Mexico and the Mexico within the United States as coexisting—in contrast to a zero-sum either-or logic of national boundaries and dividing lines. This experience informs their practice: their music, their songwriting, their philosophical outlook.
Change comes from within, but it is only through dialogue, conversation, participation in the world around us that society can be transformed. Less prescription than invitation, ¡Aparato! asks us to join them in making a better world a reality.
Alejandro Wolbert Pérez writes on Xican@ musics and cultural expressions. When he is not teaching ethnic studies at Berkeley City College or working on his dissertation about the Texas Mexican conjunto, he enjoys the chaotic creativity that comes with parenthood.
Alexandro D. Hernández Gutiérrez has been a pre- and post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from UCLA, where he focused on music of struggle and protest.