The Descendents of the Baroque Guitar in Colonial Mexico: the Jarana and the Requinto or Guitarra de Son.

Part 1: An examination of extant instruments in Mexico.

Part 2: Lutherie traditions in Mexico--Construction of the Jarana.

Part 3: The Requinto. Tunings of the Jarana instruments. The harp. Other instruments.

map of veracruz
State of Veracruz, Mexico

by Larry D. Brown

antique jaranasIn February of 2008 Tina and I traveled to Veracruz Mexico in search of the descendents of the baroque guitar and vihuela, the Jarana and the musicians who played the music of the Son Jarocho1.

Hernan Cortés and the conquistadors landed in the spot now called Veracruz City in 1519. It was the site of most Spanish immigration into Mexico, and is the oldest city in Mexico.

Owing to a revival of the Jarana tradition in Mexico, the web is full of articles and debates concerning the connection between the Jarana and other Latin American chordophones (including the charango of Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina) and the baroque guitar. Nearly all of these articles explore the music and tuning of these instruments, looking for artifacts of the earlier baroque guitar tradition.

As an historical instrument maker and a builder of the baroque guitar, I chose instead to undertake a morphological investigation into the physical characteristics of surviving antique instruments in Veracruz. What is generally agreed upon is that pre-hispanic instruments used by native American indian cultures were essentially aerophones (wind instruments) and that the concept of stringed instruments was entirely unknown until after the Spanish conquest.2 It is clear that early Spanish soldiers and and colonizers brought the baroque guitar, the harp and the "vihuela"3 into Mexico during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Present-day debate centers around exactly how and to what extent the indigenous inhabitants of Mexico and South America developed their own versions of the european instruments which they first heard in the hands of the Spanish newcomers. Much of the discussion has centered around how they incorporated aspects of the music they heard into their own musical tradition. Interested readers should refer to an important article on the Son tradition and the important group Mono Blanco (White Monkey). Also worth reading is an excellent explanation of the Son revival by Eugene Rodríguez

Spanish Language School

My own interest centers around surviving instruments and the traditions of Mexican luthiers who are currently building Jaranas. To this end, I traveled first to Veracruz to improve my Spanish. I wanted to be able to move beyond my everyday conversational Spanish and work on all the verb forms and idioms that would allow me to more clearly understand my conversations with musicians and luthiers in the Veracruz area. Any speaker of Spanish will immediately recognize how difficult this can be! I enrolled in a three-week total immersion Spanish school in Veracruz which catapulted my Spanish to a much more useful level.

jarana in Veracruzjarana designJarana School

At the same time, my wife Tina and I sought out Gilberto Gutierrez and enrolled in his Jarana school The Cason on Primera de Mayo street, which was less than a mile away from the Spanish school. Our instructor was Nacho Hernandez, who is well known in Fandango circles and proved to be an excellent teacher. He was kind enough to loan us a Jarana for the three weeks that we spent at the Spanish school in Veracruz, to practice with. At right, Nacho inspects a three-inch thick mahagony board that will be used to produce two Jaranas.

playing the jaranaOldest Jarana Found

One evening, Gilberto invited us to his home where we were entertained by an informal gathering of musicians, including his wife Gisela. Gilberto showed me two antique Jaranas that he had restored. I immediately noticed that beneath the fingerboard he had glued on was a row of slots that held the original frets. Clearly, the original fingerboard was on the same plane as the soundboard, and not raised above it. I then asked if he had any older Jaranas that he had not restored, and he produced an instrument even more interesting. It had no fingerboard at all, but it did have tied on string frets. The condition of the string and the knots indicated that the frets were as old as the instrument itself! Thankfully, he had no plans to restore this instrument.

jarana sizesThe music of the Son Jorocho tradition and the Jarana is a living, changing tradition. From the very beginning the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas developed their own versions of the european instruments which they first heard in the hands of the Spanish conquerers. They also incorporated many aspects of the music they heard into their own musical tradition, creating a unique sound and musical personality which is far removed from that of the 16th-century Spanish vihuela and the baroque guitar. As an example of the flexibility of this tradition, Gilberto made a special Jarana for his own style of playing. Although the traditional one has 5 courses, his new Jarana has three courses ­ triple strung with 9 strings for 3 notes. It sits in the center in this photo, the instrument with 9 pegs. Gilberto is an acknowledged virtuoso of the Jarana, and in his hands the rhythmic and harmonic complexities of the music are astounding--often taking on the contrapuntal feeling of Bach.4

bass jarana leonaJarana Construction

Changes to the instrument were demanded in part by climate. The Jarana is not built up with separate sides and back and neck like the classical guitar. The neck, back, sides and pegbox are made from one piece of wood--even the very large ones like the leona shown in this photo. It has a different sound than a glued-up instrument with flexible back and sides. Fandangos and impromptu gatherings of musicians normally take place outside.5 It's very humid and hot, and the musicians may even be wet. Early luthiers discovered the advantages of a one-piece body and neck. This tradition is typical of medieval instruments that were made from one piece with a glued-on top for the same reason--the unreliability of glues. There is now a modern version of the Jarana built like a small classical guitar, and it is this version that you may see in the tourist areas.

modern jaranas
We were often entertained in outdoor restaurants by groups of musicians who wandered from table to table. Many of these musicians play a modernized version of the Jarana, as shown in this photo. They are basically miniature classical guitars, with fewer braces under the soundboard. The neck and sides and back are glued up just like a classical guitar and tuning machines are used instead of wooden pegs. The bridge looks like a classical guitar bridge. They are strung in five courses, like a Jarana, but are not as robust or as loud as a Jarana carved from a solid piece of wood. They have a thick, shiny varnish instead of the duller finish usually found on more authentic Jaranas.

Part 2: Lutherie traditions in Mexico--Construction of the Jarana.


1)  Son is one of Mexico's richest artistic expressions and traces its roots to African, Spanish and indigenous cultural influences. "Jarocho" was at first a derogatory term applied to the people and music of Veracruz, but the Veracruzanos now use the term proudly. It emerged during the colonial period as a mix in between Spanish, Indigenous, and African music and dance. The stringed instruments introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century (violin, harp, and various guitar-types) became the traditional band, and for the next 300 years natives and Mestizos developed their own regional stringed instruments based loosely on the European models. The Son Jarocho can be distinguished from the Son Huasteco of East-Central Mexico, and from the Son de Mariachi of West Coast Mexico by its vocal style, syncopation, percussive rhythms, and improvisation in both the harmonic and rhythmic framework and in the verse.

2) There is direct evidence of baroque guitar activity in Mexico. The Saldívar Codex, for instance, discovered in Mexico, includes various works of Santiago de Murcia written in Alfabeto, baroque guitar tablature. The Instrucciones de Música Sobre la guitarra Española, by Gaspar Sanz (Zaragoza, 1697) was in circulation in South America during the 18th century. There is also a version of his Marizápalos in the Zuola Codex (Peru, end of the 17th century). But there are no existing baroque guitars from this period!

3) Vihuela note: After the disappearance of the 16th-century Spanish vihuela, the terms guitarra and vihuela were used interchangeably to describe any five-course guitar. In Mexico, the term vihuela is used today to indicate a small, deep-bodied, five-string guitar with either metal or tied-on frets. It is typically played in a Mariachi ensemble. It has no connection, either historically or musically, to the original 16th-century Spanish vihuela, other than the fact that it is a wooden-bodied chordophone. The five-string Mariachi vihuela probably evolved from the five-course baroque guitar, along with most of the other guitars in use today.

4) The Jarocho musicians love to improvise new melodies, harmonies, and verses based on the traditional songs they have learned. They like to say that they never perform two identical versions of the same Son.

5) The music is only half of the Son tradition. The dance aspect is the other half and is the defining characteristic of this tradition. The "zapateado" footwork is part of the rhythmic framework of each song. In a traditional Fandango, musicians and dancers gather on a ranch for formal and informal performances. Nearly everyone joins in either dancing or playing. There are no audience/performer boundaries.

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