Grupo Nematatlín

son jarocho Veracruz, Mexico
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Photo Credit: Daniel Sheehy

Nematatlín (pronounced neh-mah-tah-TLEEN) means “the singers” in the Indigenous Náhuatl language. It is a name that encapsulates the sweet sound and iconic power of the group that bears its name.

Grupo Nematatlín plays son jarocho, the signature folk music of the state of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. The name jarocho refers to both the people and culture of Veracruz’s southern coastal plain, where centuries ago the entwined musical cultures of Indigenous people, Spanish colonists, and Africans, both enslaved and free, produced this genre noted for its poetic lyrics and driving, compellingly danceable rhythms. In son jarocho, the principal voice is the pregonero (caller), who leads call-and-response singing. The pregonero possesses a vast repertoire of sones and a deft ability to improvise lyrics, whether on lost love, historical memory, or struggles for justice. Musically, son jarocho is characterized by three principal regional instruments: the jarana, an eight-stringed, small-bodied guitar, often carved from a single piece of wood, that is key to the jarocho sound; the requinto jarocho, a four-stringed melody guitar; and the arpa, or harp. The typical performance setting is a fandango, both community dance and jam session, where young and old gather and social distinctions fall away.

Grupo Nematatlín is one of the most celebrated of the Veracruz-based bands whose international touring has furthered the tradition’s growing global appeal. The ensemble initially formed in 1980 as a University of Veracruz congress of some of the region’s premiere performers; they focus on promoting the music abroad and, more importantly, ensuring its continuation by teaching new generations of musicians in Veracruz.

Since 2002, the group’s pregonero has been Salvador “Chava” Peña Cadeza, widely acknowledged as one of Veracruz’s best improvisors of sung poetry, especially the six-line copla and ten-line décima forms typical of son jarocho. Chava inherited a deep knowledge of the form from his father and grandfather, well-known musicians from Mata Clara, a town located in the municipality of Cuitláhuac where African-tinged influences remain strong. “Jarocho is a way of life in our family,” points out his son, Salvador “Chavita” Peña Herrera.

The group boasts two jarana, played by Chava and bandmate Elhuikaj Yasej Hernández Ramírez. Chavita began to play the arpa at age 7; he studied with family members and the first generation of Nematatlín performers, and is noted for his masterful, innovative playing. The requinto jarocho is the province of longtime bandmember Héctor Luis “Tito” Ochoa Reyes, scion of a musical lineage from Tierra Blanca. The quintet is completed by the guitar and rich vocals of Miguel Ángel López Sánchez. Together these five musicians are the second generation to carry on the mission of Grupo Nematatlín, and to tell the story of their region through the beautiful son jarocho sound. As Tito Ocho Reyes says, “My essence is here, in my house, in my town, in the ranch where I am from, in my family, and what I transmit with my instrument.”

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