XALAPA, MEXICO / / In this misty town tucked in the Sierra Madre mountain range, far from Mexico's tourist track, a musical revolution is unfolding.
In the clubs that dot Xalapa's winding streets and alleyways, young musicians are preserving -- and transforming -- a traditional folk genre called son jarocho.
It's a soulful, foot-stomping style (think "La Bamba" but better) typically played on small guitars plucked in jazzy improvisations or strummed faster than the eye can see. Performances often turn into all-night jams called fandangos that unveil the joys and sorrows, the injustices and absurdities of life, love and politics.
Tipped by enthusiasts, I came here last month to survey a music scene -- jarocho, as well as jazz, folk, classical, pop and salsa -- that tells the story and reveals the character and culture of Xalapa. But my contacts hadn't warned me to avoid tables next to the stage, where the explosive dancing can rattle your cucaracha, a coffee-and-tequila cocktail.
That's where I sat at La Tasca del Cantor, a club whose nondescript facade on a quiet residential street camouflages the alluring environment within. On the semicircular stage was Son Luna, a five-man group that injects testosterone and urban attitude into this rural music. No folkloric outfits or white country hats, just jeans, shirts and ponytails.
The players built a rhythmic frenzy on their jaranas and requintos -- small guitars -- and on a rustic wooden crate used for percussion and a large tambourine that vibrates like a coiled rattlesnake. They take turns dancing on a tarima, a small wooden platform that amplifies their flamenco-like footwork.
"It's unbelievable what has happened in Xalapa," says Ramon Gutierrez of Son de Madera, another top group based here for the past 12 years. "When we first got here, we were considered strange creatures. But son jarocho started taking hold as an artistic activity, and today I can tell you there are a dozen groups who do fandangos with so much energy you'd think every night was their last."
I first discovered Xalapa (in Indian spelling the X is pronounced like an H) as an accidental tourist 15 years ago. My brother and I had gone to Veracruz, about 75 miles from here, searching for that port city's famed musical life.
Instead of a musical paradise, we found a grimy and remarkably colorless place where decrepit marimba bands and gaudy mariachis played for tips in the plaza. So we bolted back toward Mexico City. Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz state, was to have been a stop along the way.
Yet it was so enchanting that we stayed to explore what turned out to be the region's real center of culture, a college town teeming with artists, musicians, writers and actors.
I could sense the change in atmosphere -- in culture and climate -- immediately. The port of Veracruz is muggy, laid-back and spread out, but Xalapa, at 4,670 feet, is cool, slightly formal and compact. Here, everything is a quick walk or a cheap cab ride away. In the short time my brother and I had, we caught an accomplished jazz group at the Teatro del Estado, home to the city's symphony, and peeked in on a ballet folklorico rehearsal at the University of Veracruz, the city's cultural magnet.
Standing in Xalapa's vibrant central plaza, I promised to return some day.
Today, there are more cafes, restaurants, galleries and cultural centers, more bands and bigger festivals, such as the Junio Musical that each June offers jazz, jarocho and other live music.
On its outskirts, Xalapa boasts a new Costco and Home Depot, but you still won't find a Starbucks; importing Yankee java seems superfluous in this rich coffee-growing region. One thing hasn't changed: The people are as friendly as ever. When the Spaniards marched on Mexico City after landing at Veracruz in 1519, they passed through a cluster of Indian settlements in what is present-day Xalapa, a site inhabited since before the birth of Christ. A spiffy new highway makes travel between Veracruz and Xalapa smooth sailing. I made the drive in less than two hours, arriving in the capital in time for the midnight salsa show at a club called Liquids.
Xalapa's taste for Afro-Cuban music reflects the profound African influence, a legacy of the Spanish slave trade that helped shape popular culture here.
By 12:30 a.m., Liquids was packed for the performance by Son Residentes, the house band whose sound, like several of its members, is strictly Cuban.
The band's name is a play on the word "son," the traditional Cuban genre that gave rise to salsa. But "son" is also a form of the Spanish verb "ser" (to be). Translation: They Are Residents. The reference is to their out-of-town origins, says founder Salvador Hernandez, who came here to study anthropology. He and his band now call Xalapa home.