By: Jamie Balli, Sara Cabral, Ellen Chen and Maria Roque
In a city renowned for its wealth of live music, Son Armado’s sound aims to support social justice movements through traditional music.
This local folk music group promotes the “son jarocho” music tradition. This tradition originates in Veracruz, Mexico and is rooted in various cultures including the Indigenous, the African, and the Spanish cultures that converged there. The confluence of these cultures, coupled with a history of political unrest, provided a foundation for the poetry, music, dance and community that shaped the son jarocho tradition.
“Historically speaking, son jarocho was something that was a celebration, a way for people to get together to share themselves and take a break from the day-to-day life, and to sing about it in these poetic ways; dance it out, share food, share drink, and experience through this art form,” co-founder of Son Armado, Alexis Herrera said.
Now Son Armado is taking part in the worldwide “jaranero” movement to revitalize and introduce this culture to Austin. The group is made up of co-founders Alexis Herrera and Peter Mendoza, along with Joanna Saucedo and Stephan Paetzoid.
“ … [S]on jarocho was something that was a celebration, a way for people to get together to share themselves and take a break from the day-to-day life …”
In 2007, inspired by jaranero music group Son Del Centro from Santa Ana, California, Herrera and Mendoza, two UT Austin alumni that participated in Student Farmworker Alliance, co-founded Son Armado.
“Son Armado began as a group of people who were really just enthusiastic about what we saw as this political, community-based approach to organizing,” Herrera said.
The musical group began meeting, organizing and hosting “fandangos,” or parties, in 2007. In 2008, the group began holding classes and community workshops to teach son jarocho music and dance to the Austin community.
Through monthly workshops at Treasure City Thrift, Son Armado encourages residents of all levels of music experience to participate, even those who, like Mendoza, come to the group without a musical background.
“When we do teach and share what we know, it is always nice to see people get involved, especially those coming from a non-music background,” Mendoza said. “It is a great experience seeing people moved by your teaching and playing.”
On Sundays, Son Armado also hosts workshops at their community workspace in East Austin, a bright, graffitied rental home on Springdale Road.
“We, Son Armado, are interested in creating communal space,” Herrera said. “Everyone has their place, has a voice, has something to contribute in order to create this shared space.”
Son Armado also builds a sense of community with their performances by collaborating with non-profits, schools and numerous organizations serving Austin’s diverse population. Son Armado provides solidarity and draws attention to social justice issues such as immigrants rights, workers rights and reproductive rights.
“As a group in Austin, we are able to mobilize here, organize protests, perform at marches and support the community,” Mendoza said.
Last year, Son Armado was involved in the HB2 pro-choice protests and participated in nation-wide campaigns and programs for a number of organizations.
“We like to, whenever we can, go out to the protests and just add one more level to the action, to the spectacle to the music, to the sound,” Herrera said.
Their sound sets Son Armado apart from other groups. Son jarocho music is repetitive and rhythmic. The guitars, or “jaranas,” strum in unison, with some plucking a distinctive melody. The violinist adds a layer of depth with mellow and bright accent notes. The Spanish lyrics lend themselves to the emotive singing style: long, drawn-out notes. For the percussion, the “quijada,” an instrument made out of donkey or horse jaw, is played. The “marimbol,” a wooden box with metal keys, is plucked to provide the bassline. Once the group has been playing for a while, a member might step on to the “tarima,” a wooden platform worn down by the repeated stomping and sliding of feet. The dancer will move their shoulders with the music and start tapping their feet along in a syncopated rhythm that adds percussion to the song. The dancer’s arms lay still by their slides as their feet do all the work.
“When you’re dancing on the tarima, you’re also holding the temp of the fandango,” Herrera said. “A lot of people refer to it as the heartbeat.”
Like the tarima, the music emanating from Son Armado’s East Austin home, serves as the heartbeat of the local community.
Founder of Austin Friends of Traditional Music, a traditional music convention founded in 1974, David Polacheck, suggests folk music and musicians, like Son Armado, have inherent qualities that help them build and maintain community networks and ties.
“Typically [folk music is] the type of music whose aesthetic does not require a person to be a professional musician to be excellent,” Polacheck said. “I guess you can say it is closer to the concept of DIY because nearly anyone who has any desire to play this kind of music can do it.”
This quality creates a space that makes folk music, it’s teaching, and its performance, accessible to both musicians and listeners, despite their experience and cultural background.
“Playing is a way to practice and put yourself out there. It helps you master other skills by building confidence,” Mendoza said. “It feeds your sense of being able to accomplish other things.”
“When we do teach and share what we know, it is always nice to see people get involved … It is a great experience seeing people moved by your teaching and playing.”
Those who are not quite ready to strap on a jarana at the community workshops can catch Son Armado at Mi Madre’s Restaurant in East Austin every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m.
Son Armado will also be one of the bands featured in the 2014 Austin String Band Festival hosted by Austin Friends of Traditional Music in Driftwood, Texas the weekend of October 17–19.