Veracruz Feature

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Night Moves

The air is hot and humid, even though the sun has already set on the delightful port city of Veracruz. Elderly couples seated on the wrought-iron benches around Parque Zamora barely move, hoping that inactivity will bring some relief. A conductor lifts a languid baton that rouses a group of musicians to life. The sound they make isn't quite in tune, but it is as rich as honey and as radiant as the summer evening. The couples listen for a few moments, then stroll to the bandstand. Men in crisply ironed shirts and dapper straw hats hold out their hands to women in straight skirts and blouses embroidered with birds and flowers. When they begin to dance, there's barely any movement above the waist, just subtle hip movements and the occasional fancy footwork. It's a dance designed for a tropical night.

This is the danzón, a languorous dance brought to Mexico in 1879 by Cubans fleeing their country's Ten Years' War. These refugees ended up living outside the city walls (only aristocrats were allowed to live inside), but the sons of the Mexican elite, looking for thrills, sneaked into the poor neighborhoods at night, and eventually introduced the danzón to high society. Sensuous compared with the stiff dances that were the norm then, the danzón was at first considered scandalous. But soon it won over its detractors and became the most popular dance in Veracruz. It still fills dance halls throughout the city. You can see people of all generations dancing in Parque Zamora every Sunday evening. While their parents and grandparents glide around the bandstand, children practice their steps off to the side.

The city's unique heritage is also evident in its music, swayed by African and Caribbean rhythms. The son Jarocho is one of seven different regional variations of Mexican sones. These songs, livelier than the danzón, can be in 4/4 or 6/4 time. Doubtless the best-known one is "La Bamba," which originated here and dates back to the 17th century. Although the most famous version of the song was released by Richie Valens in 1958, there are more than 300 other recordings. Traditionally, the cantadores (singers) have been both singers and wordsmiths, creating endless coplas (verses) for well-known songs. Between numbers they continue to entertain the audiences, telling jokes and gently ribbing the other musicians.

The son Jarocho centers on strings and percussion. Three instruments are in every ensemble: arpa (harp), jarana (a 6- or 10-string guitar), and requinto (a small rhythm guitar). Musicians energize audiences with their vigorous strumming. A young woman often accompanies them, performing flamenco-like steps in a frilly frock. The tarima (wooden dance platform) where dancers pound out the rhythms becomes another essential instrument.

Two other sones are commonly heard. In the son Huasteca, named for the region along the northeastern coast of Mexico, violins often take the melody. If trumpets are added, you are probably hearing son jalisciense. This type of son hails from Jalisco, a state along the southwestern coast.

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