Members of the band in colorful clothing hold a guitar, a drum and other instruments with a stage behind them
Left to right: Verenice Velazquez, Fabiola Trujillo, Lucina Rodriguez and Eugene Rodriguez of Los Cenzontles. Credit: Craig Sherod

Guitarist Eugene Rodriguez has come a long way since he first encountered the great Veracruz son jarocho group Mono Blanco in 1989. 

Though already dedicated to teaching traditional Mexican music and dance to youngsters in the Richmond area, he had yet to launch Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, which continues to thrive in a San Pablo strip mall. 

A cultural powerhouse that has forged deep creative alliances with Los Lobos and Linda Ronstadt and with Jackson Browne and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — the community arts center and the Grammy Award-nominated house ensemble that Rodriguez leads has spearheaded a statewide revival of Mexican roots music by studying with and presenting Mexican masters. 

The long-running relationship with Mono Blanco has been central to that mission, resulting in a series of acclaimed albums, a documentary film, and invaluable insight into a community-binding tradition. On Sunday, Los Cenzontles (which translates as “the mockingbirds” in the indigenous Nahuatl language) rejoins forces with Mono Blanco at Freight & Salvage Sunday on a cross-cultural program billed as Son Con Son.

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Expanding the East Bay/Veracruz connection, the collaboration adds a potent shot of son cubano into the mix via Kiki Valera, scion of a storied clan that has nurtured the foundational Afro-Cuban style since the 19th century. The world’s foremost virtuoso on the Cuban cuatro, a mid-size with four courses of doubled strings, Valera is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, sound engineer and producer.  

Valera plays guitar
Kiki Valera. Courtesy of the artist

Sunday’s concert follows several days of recording, offering a sneak preview at a project that includes Mono Blanco founder Gilberto Gutiérrez on jarana and vocals and Octavio Vega on harp, requinto, and vocals, with Los Cenzontles represented by Rodriguez, vocalists Fabiola Trujillo and Lucina Rodriguez, Oaxacan-reared percussionist Silvestre Martinez and Cuban percussionist Carlos Caro (who’s been on the road recently with the great San Jose-based norteño band Los Tigres del Norte). 

“Son Con Son is actually a concept that Gilberto invented 30 years ago and this is the next chapter,” Rodriguez said. “The ties between Veracruz and Havana go back many hundreds of years when they were part of Spain’s empire, and there was a constant flow of culture, goods and services and people.”

In filling the bass chair, Rodriguez reached back into the ancient history of Los Cenzontles, calling on Berkeley-reared Ayla Davila, “who was a founding member of our youth ensemble,” he said. “She came with us for the first time to Veracruz in 1991. She went on to have a fantastic career in all kinds of Latin music groups, and this is our first time playing together in 30 years.”

Given the longstanding collaboration between Los Cenzontles and Mono Blanco, the wild card is Seattle-based Valera, the oldest son of the illustrious La Familia Valera Miranda septet. Hailing from Santiago de Cuba, the family has championed son cubano for more than a century, collecting, preserving and performing songs from the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Long before the Buena Vista Social Club albums and film sparked an international resurgence of interest in son in the late ’90s, La Familia Valera Miranda was gathering and recording essentials sones

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While son jarocho made an indelible impression in popular music with the 1958 Ritchie Valens hit “La Bamba,” the tradition was just starting to revitalize in Veracruz when Rodriguez started working with Mono Blanco three decades ago. The Los Lobos version of “La Bamba” from Luis Valdes’s 1987 Vades biopic continued to reverberate “but the style that Mono Blanco was promoting was not known,” Rodriguez said, “They were digging into the rural roots and social context. Helping promote the style was very challenging. Those were the days when participatory arts was not a thing.”

Los Cenzontles was all about participation, introducing young people, mostly Chicanos, to their own heritage. The cultural center has captured the immersive, hands-on studies on a series of films and videos, starting with 1990’s “La Vieja.” While the first documentary Pasajero: A Journey of Time and Memory captured the band’s relationships with mariachi artists in the central Pacific coast state of Jalisco, 2006’s Fandango, Searching for the White Monkey captures a quarter century of tutelage and friendship with musicians and communities in a Caribbean region where the West African influences in Mexican culture is most evident.

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Played on harps, small guitars like the eight-string jarana and four-string requinto jarocho and percussion instruments such as the pandero (frame drum) and quijada (made from a donkey jawbone), son jarocho is a loose, conversational style in which several singers exchange improvised verses. Dancers perform on a raised wooden platform (tarima) with their resounding, syncopated footwork serving as the primary percussive element. While the pulse is West African-inflected, the elegant dance involves a minimum of hip and shoulder movement.

The documentary explores how son jarocho and fandangos, the all-night dance parties that long were the center of rural life, almost died out in the 1970s when young people lost interest in the music. Moving back and forth in time, the film captures the countryside’s lush beauty and the unnerving power of the landscape on the Bay Area musicians. The film doesn’t gloss over the difficulties in any cross-cultural exchange. Some of the most poignant scenes capture the relief felt by the musicians who don’t speak Spanish as they discover that the music can serve as a foundation for friendship.

The contemporary story covered by the film “is that we took our group down to Veracruz to live on a ranch, which is very rustic, with no running water or modern toilets,” Rodriguez said. “It ended up being almost like a reality TV show. Let’s make everybody uncomfortable and film them.”

Now many of the young musicians featured in Fandango are faculty at the cultural center, and have gone on to have their own families. 

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....