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On a recent Saturday night, in a house on a dead-end street backed up against railroad tracks in north Pilsen, Raul Fernandez, an ace musician and Old Town School teacher, surveyed the site of an upcoming fandango. He was doing so in advance of an event featuring Los Panaderos, a musical group from Acayucan, a city in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Large canvases of Mexican folk art hung from the house's front porch, colorful lanterns swayed in the breeze, and two large bonfires warmed the April night.
The crowd filled in slowly; what they were about to listen and dance to is called jarocho, a 400-year-old music indigenous to Veracruz. Just about everyone knows the most famous song in the jarocho repertoire: "La Bamba." Two empty chairs on the stage were reserved for the matriarch and patriarch of the assemblage, Alicia Reyes and Nieves Hernandez—in addition to being a master musician, Hernandez is a legendary luthier, building jaranas, the guitarlike instruments associated with this music.
With the authority that only an 84-year-old maestro can summon, Hernandez picked the introduction to the first song of the evening; four bars passed before all hell broke loose. Twenty or 30 pickers, wailing away on their own jaranas, entered the fray right on cue. The first shift of dancers took the stage, stomping in percussive rhythm, while singers traded verses in high, plaintive voices reminiscent of the tonality of the music of the western Virginia highlands. The effect was mesmerizing.
I wandered though the crowd of pickers and dancers, trying to capture momentary confluences of light, movement, and form without pissing off anyone too much. With any luck these pictures convey just a little bit of the energy of that Pilsen Saturday night.