Singing the Veracruz Blues

On the rooftop restaurant in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico, pinwheels are dancing in the afternoon breeze and Billy Branch is drinking Pacificos and mescal. To order another round, he clinks his bottle and glass together, saying “por favor” to the waiter. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and though a stomach bug is slowing him down, it won’t stop him from cupping a harmonica to his mouth tonight for a show at Ruta 61, one of the city’s handful of jazz joints.

Branch has played in Mexico many times, starting in the 1970s, but this time he came to bring his “Blues in Schools” curriculum to children in Xalapa, Veracruz. For two weeks in early February he taught the youngsters the harmonica, the quintessential A-A-B blues refrain, and the genre’s historical context, a syllabus he has honed since he first began teaching the essence of the blues to Chicago-area kids in 1978. He also played four shows in the DF, and caught the Encuentro de Jaraneros y Decimistas, the annual son jarocho music festival in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz.

The Ford Foundation brought Branch here with the idea of pairing him with students and teachers of Veracruz’s native son folk music, a fusion of African, Spanish, and indigenous culture. No one was quite sure what would come of this experiment, inspired by the idea that son and blues are both legacies of the African presence in the Americas, and by the large Mexican population in Branch’s hometown of Chicago.

For Branch and his counterparts—Ramón Gutierrez Hernández and José Tereso Vega Hernández of the group Son de Madera, one of Mexico’s most successful son bands—the arrangement raised questions. Would these two musical forms relate to one another outside the imaginations of the trip’s organizers? More importantly, should they? “The orthodox [son musicians] told me that you cannot combine son jarocho and the blues,” said the towering Ramón. Like Branch, Ramón is both a gifted performer and a music teacher: “I said, why not?”

Son resonates from the farmlands and deltas of Veracruz’s southern flats. The music features string sounds and oft-improvised lines; notes played on the little jarana guitars carry full-throttle vocals and lyrics about animals, the land, and other country-life concerns. Among various percussion instruments, the beat enters on the marimbol, a box-like drum that the drummer sits upon, or the tarima, a wooden plank on which dancers tap and stamp the zapateo. The music is at turns liltingly sweet, intoxicating, and pasisonate.

Branch’s blues were born of the Chicago club scene, which electrified guitar and harmonica with amplifiers and microphones. He caught the ear of the great Willie Dixon, earning an apprentice spot in Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-Stars. Branch went on to form the group Sons of Blues, record with many musicians, including Muddy Waters, and develop the Blues in the Schools program.

For Branch, the historical connection was more obvious than the musical. “The underlying thing was that blues and son share a common origin… both were formed by slavery.”

But the sounds of son made him scratch his head at first. “I’m usually pretty good at adapting to whatever style of music,” said Branch, who taught himself the harmonica at age ten and is considered one of the best players in the world. “I said, ‘Hmmm. I’m going to have to figure this out.’”

Common ground

The only way to figure it out was by playing. As the jarana and the harmonica came together in class, the two sides began to discover some common ground.

Ramón says his and Billy’s teaching methods are very similar: “As I learned—orally.”

Traditionally, son has been passed down through the fandango, all-night gatherings where farmers’ children learn by watching and then imitating the performers.

Billy’s wife Rosa came with him on the trip; together they have developed a curriculum over the years blending audio, visual, and kinesthetic teaching methods to attract and engage students with any learning style. His pupils dance, shake, sing, make faces, and shout refrains, “as opposed to just sitting like little docile students with their hands folded,” Rosa says.

Branch has taught everywhere, to every age group. He adapts to whomever he’s working with: “white ladies” at senior centers whom he has pantomime slaves doing farmwork; a kid in Milwaukee who had burned down the principal’s office; performing arts students in Seattle; and trade school students in Antwerp.

In Xalapa, one student, Gabriela, proved a gold mine: she had taught herself to play the chromatic harmonica as a child and could play three key changes on the melody "I Remember When." She was one of the stars of the class recital, which was widely covered by state and local media.

Guarding a legacy

Billy and Ramón teach so their music doesn’t disappear, so its history is not forgotten.

Ramón and José Tereso worry son is dying. They have a higher profile internationally than in their own country, and say son is little-appreciated in Mexico: its raw, fuerte notes have earned it the label of “unacceptable music,” says Ramón. “People don’t associate son with being agradable … [it’s] the music of the poorest people.”

Branch’s concern has long been to keep alive the memory of blues as a black musical form, one that laid the foundation for rock and hip-hop.

“It’s a drive within him to keep the blues alive,” Rosa says of her husband. “It’s something so deeply satisfying to know your life has a meaning beyond your own.”

For them, teaching is about “sharing the knowledge of that legacy and then letting [the students] experience that legacy as well,” Rosa says. “Ramón has the same passion about teaching young people about the African slave legacy.”

As the afternoon light softened, the pinwheels slowed and the low thump of drums hummed from the Zócalo. The smell of tequila floated across the table. It was getting time for Billy to rest up for his last show of the trip, where he would rock and sway on stage, coaxing chords out of a harmonica with fluttering hands and deep breaths.

Son de Madera and Branch took the stage together at Ruta 61. In lieu of an amplifier, Branch tipped a microphone closer to Ramón’s guitar, whose acoustic notes nearly drowned without it. José Tereso grinned and shook his head as he played a tambourine, the look on his face somewhere between “what am I doing?” and a kind of goofy happiness. The sound wasn’t perfect, but they were figuring it out.

Not until 2:30 did Branch close the show: “Estarémos aqui mañana,” he said in his husky voice, under the red-orange glow of the stage lights. We’ll be here tomorrow.

 

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