Christmas Jams From Mexico Come Alive In California

Dec 22, 2013
Originally published on December 22, 2013 6:24 pm

World music DJ Betto Arcos is a frequent guest on All Things Considered and the host of the program Global Village on KPFK in Los Angeles. Cambalache is a Chicano-Jarocho group based in East L.A. that plays a musical style called son jarocho, the traditional roots music in Arcos' home state of Veracruz, Mexico.

This week, the two have converged on NPR's studios in Culver City, Calif., for a special demonstration of Mexico's festive and upbeat Christmas music tradition. Hear Arcos in conversation with host Arun Rath and live performances from the band at the audio link.

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If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

And I'm joined here in the studio by world music DJ Betto Arcos. He's a frequent guest here on the program, and he's the host of "Global Village" on KPFK here in Los Angeles.

Betto, you have a very special treat for us today. Some weeks back, you suggested we feature some Mexican Christmas music this weekend. This week is not just you and me here chatting about CDs. You brought us an entire band here in our cozy little studio. Could you introduce us?

BETTO ARCOS: Yes. I'd like to welcome to the studio the group Cambalache. This is an east L.A. ensemble that play the music from Veracruz called son jarocho. This is a traditional roots music from the state of Veracruz in southern Mexico. And please welcome to the studio Cesar Castro who plays the requinto, also known as a guitar Radisson. He's also a vocalist and percussionist. Xochi Flores on the zapateado, the foot tapping that you're going to hear. She plays jarana. She also does vocals. Chuy Sandoval on the jarana. He's also a singer. And Juan Perez on the acoustic bass.

XOCHI FLORES, CAMBALACHE: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

RATH: Great. And what's this first song that we're going to hear?

ARCOS: The first song we're going to hear is called "La Rama," which means the tree branch. It's the symbol of the festivity of this music and tradition in Veracruz.

RATH: And we have one here in the studio with us.

ARCOS: Yes, we do. Unlike say the Christmas tree, which stays at home and you just decorate it and you put your gifts around it, this is a traveling branch. This little tree branch, which could be from any tree, you decorate it with different things, and then you walk around it with the group singing along.

RATH: And you take it with you.

ARCOS: That's right.

RATH: Great. Let's hear the song.


RATH: That's the band Cambalache with the Mexican Christmas song "La Rama," which is "The Branch," right?

ARCOS: That's right. The song says something about this coming of Baby Jesus. And then also, it's a group of musicians and people that are asking for a little gift from you as the person that is listening to this music either in the street or in a market or in somebody's house.

RATH: Oh, it's just - it was just beautiful, all of you. Thank you for sharing that with us. What can you tell us about the next song?

ARCOS: The next tune is called "El Canelo." This is a song that I thought would be perfect for this occasion because it talks about food. This is the time of the year when we love to eat a lot of different foods. But this one - and drink as well. But this song is sort of a warning, like, watch out because if you overdrink or overeat, something might happen. Let's take a listen to "El Canelo" with Cambalache.


RATH: That is the L.A.-based band Cambalache. They're playing "El Canelo." With me is world music DJ Betto Arcos. And I want to ask all of you in the band, I don't recognize all the instruments, specifically. Are these specific to Veracruz?

CESAR CASTRO: Yes, they are.

RATH: Yeah. And say your name again for us.

CASTRO: Cesar Castro...

RATH: Cesar Castro.

CASTRO: ...from Veracruz. There are the jaranos. They come in different size. Those are the strumming instruments. And then the melodic one that I'm playing called requinto also comes in different sizes.


CASTRO: We also have violin, harp, all other instruments, and some percussion that we're going to perform.

RATH: Well, I think we're going to hear that in the next tune. Can you talk about this percussion? What have you got here?

CASTRO: Well, the tarima down here is a wooden box where you dance on top of. You make - that's a main percussion in our culture. And then we have the tambourine and the donkey jaw.

RATH: Donkey jaw, jawbone from a donkey that - is it hollowed out or - how do you - how are you making the sound on the jawbone of the...

CASTRO: After the animal dies, you dry it and you let the ants do the work, earth, worms...

RATH: Could you play a little bit just in the - so we can hear that? This is the donkey jaw.

CASTRO: This is the (unintelligible) part and the teeth.


CASTRO: And the most interesting sound now.


RATH: So you're strumming the stick across the teeth and then you kind of whack the jaw with your wrist to get that vibrating sound.

CASTRO: And the fork shape that it has, that's why it creates the vibration.

RATH: Like a very low tuning fork.



RATH: Nice. And, Betto, can you tell us about this last song we're going to hear?

ARCOS: The last tune is one of my favorite tunes of this musical style. The lyrics go back to the late 1700s. This is a song that has to do with the inquisition in Mexico. This song was actually censored. It was prohibited by the holy inquisition because it denounced the sexual abuses of the clergy at that time.

RATH: Wow.

ARCOS: And at the same time, it uses double entendre, and the music, you'll see it's very sensual, very beautifully danced as well. It's a very special tune. It's called "El Chuchumbe."

RATH: That's Betto Arcos. He hosts the world music show "Global Village" on KPFK here in Los Angeles. We've been joined by the L.A. band Cambalache. Everyone, thank you so much.

CASTRO: Our pleasure.

CAMBALACHE: Thank you for having us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's a pleasure.

RATH: (Spanish spoken)

CAMBALACHE: (Spanish spoken)

RATH: OK, let's here that song.


RATH: For Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Make sure you install that on all the shiny new devices you might get on Wednesday. Follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. We're back next weekend. Have a Merry Christmas, everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL CHUCHUMBE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.