Short Documentary ‘El Tucán’ Delves Into a Disappearing Musical Practice

Photos by Alddo Flores

Photos by Alddo Flores

By Aaron Jimenez

A brief listen to son jarocho exposes the listener to a rich musical tradition dating back to the 18th century. Originating in Veracruz, Mexico, this musical style weaves together Spanish, indigenous, and African elements with distinct regional instruments such as the arpa, jarana, and requinto.

Less prominent among son jarocho instruments, however, is the güiro. One listen to a son featuring the güiro—a percussion instrument derived from a hollowed gourd—and the complexity and robustness added becomes readily apparent. Some may argue that the güiro adds more than a ratchet sound to sones, it adds an important element, it adds sabor.

Over the last fifty years, however, the prominence of the instrument has seen significant decreases. Environmental, political, and cultural issues have not only led to the rapid decline of the güiro, but the decline of the musical tradition of the güireros as a whole. In his short documentary El Tucán, son jarocho musician and director Cameron Quevedo introduces us to the last four güireros of the Veracruz region while simultaneously calling attention to the circumstances that have led to the decline of the musical practice.

We sat down with Cameron to discuss his documentary including the instrument, indigenous thought in the area, and where this dwindling art form stands.

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Aaron Jimenez: Was there anything beyond your musical experiences that got you started on this project? Was there anything else that compelled you to make this film?

Cameron Quevedo: Sure. I think El Tucán was a project that grew very slowly. I initially met Chucho, Candelario, Armando, and Alejandro—the four main characters in the film—in a musical context. We began playing music together two, maybe three years before the film. As I spent time with them, I realized how warm they were as people. In Veracruz, if someone invites you into their home they are not inviting you in just to say hello. They are inviting you in to have lunch, and hang out, and play music and be there for hours and hours. So, culturally, I think it is very different from the vibe here.

So we became very close both through music and just spending time with each other. It wasn’t until I came back to the States—when I had some space and time to reflect on those experiences and those folks that I met in Veracruz—that I really started to realize how special they were. I realized how rare these core individuals were because they were the last people that played their particular instrument. So when the opportunity came to make a film, I said, “Hey that’s a really powerful subject. I’d love to head back and continue some of the work we started and turn that into a film.”

AJ: As you began this project, were the musicians receptive to the idea of being filmed and putting themselves out there for a wider audience?

CQ: I think there were initially some doubts. This was despite our previous relationship, our communication, and even our musical connection. Their region is primarily made up of extremely low-income farmers who have historically really been taken advantage of by the government and numerous other people. So not everybody, but a handful of folks were wondering, ‘What does this mean? What does this look like? Are you going to be selling this project? What does it look like when it goes back into the States?”

And so, working with them, we made sure to convey that we understood they had a really powerful story to tell and that the important thing for us was to help them tell that story. We wanted to tell the story of this musical tradition that’s disappearing. I think that once they understood that, they appreciated the project because unfortunately, none of their kids have picked up the instrument and none of the kids have continued the family practice of farming. I think they were at a stage in their life where something sort of clicked and they realized things aren’t working.

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AJ: I think that speaks to a really powerful moment in the middle of the film when Armando is reflecting on the love of land and lamenting that his grandchildren don’t hold that same care. This moment appears to call attention to a theme seemingly woven throughout the film: a division between something that is deemed indigenous or pre-modern and something that is part of a modern industrialized world. Why was it important to speak to that division and pay homage to this disappearing musical tradition?

CQ: Well, I think what’s happening in Veracruz with the güireros, with these musicians, is not a particular case. It’s happening in different ways throughout rural communities all through Mexico, and really, all through Latin America. Not only the disappearance, but the active erasure of traditional cultures. Where there is an act of dissolving this small farmer lifestyle.

One example of this happened after shooting while I was here in the States finishing the film. The [Veracruz] government went in and had a big incentive for Stevia, which is a different kind of sweetener. The government enticed the rural farmers by saying “We’ll give you a big discount on Stevia seeds if you use some of your farmland to harvest them. Then we’ll come back in six to eights months and buy the crop from you.” So all of the farmers bought in. They had the word of these municipal governments and these companies. Six to eight months passed and no one is buying Stevia, nobody at all.

And so, again, it is these practices, in my opinion, that are designed to make these small family farms disappear—that encourage people to sell off their land to larger companies.  And the music is part of that. One of the things that is touched on briefly in the film is looking at how NAFTA and how international trade policy has affected human culture. One of the effects of NAFTA was that a lot of corn in the US started getting shipped to Mexico and sold. This made corn farmers in this region have to start using extremely harsh chemicals, which in turn, killed off this plant that the instrument comes from. So the impacts of that are far reaching.

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AJ: Touching on NAFTA, in the beginning of the film you have a statement articulating some of the effects it’s had on the region. Not in a broad sense but in a particular cultural sense, in terms of the actual güiro. Why was it that you focused on the güiro specifically? Was it just the environmental aspects or was it something else beyond that?

CQ: I think the güiro was a useful vehicle to tell a larger story. Really, it was a contained story that could be told in a short film. We weren’t focusing on all of the musicians in the region because, quite honestly, there’s countless impactful, powerful stories in Veracruz. The güiro was really a way to contain our narrative—it was a way to limit ourselves creatively and artistically.

Within this little mini world of son jarocho, this particular instrument isn’t well known. It’s very particular to this region and to a handful of these communities and these four musicians in the film are the last ones. So there was also this idea that they are all getting up there in years and are not going to be here forever. We thought it was important to help them document their musical tradition in addition to their personal stories.

AJ: Some of the most interesting moments in the film came when we witnessed how the musicians’ relate to nature. Before heading home after a music session in the forest, Candelario wants to say farewell to mountain by playing one more song. Before that, Armando sang to the rain as a kind of courtship. Was indigenous thought apparent or prevalent for you in making this film?

CQ: The older generation in the region—everyone’s parents or certainly their grandparents—were indigenous farmers. This particular region in Veracruz is a meeting place of many, many indigenous cultures. It is extremely rich in terms of language diversity, in terms of cultural diversity, and in terms of ritual.

Unfortunately, there is a tremendous amount of shame surrounding that identity for obvious reasons. And we could sit down and talk about the history of colonialism and settler mindset for quite some time. What those folk see as skeletons in the closet, and won’t mention, but pop up in really interesting ways.

For instance, in the region, when someone gets married it’s custom to make a dish called tatabiguiyayo. It’s basically a red, beef stew and is one of these meals that accompanies many of the ceremonies in the region. No one really explains it but it’s obvious that it’s part of an indigenous tradition. So indigenous ways of being pop up in these interesting places—in weddings, in funerals, in music, and in the relationship to the land.

So when Candelario expressed a desire to say goodbye to the mountain or Armando spoke of singing to the rain, I do think they were referencing that history. They were referencing their epistemology and worldview, maybe without even knowing it. It is something that is just present in their way of being as they pay respect to the land. They recognize their surroundings and do things like give thanks to the land for giving a good harvest. In those small family farms, if they have a hard season, the first point of focus is, “How can we work with the land to keep us afloat, to keep the family afloat?” It’s very powerful being down there. It hits you like a ton of bricks.

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AJ: Earlier, you mentioned that the musicians have come to realize that their musical tradition is disappearing. Do you see an emphasis on the musicians’ end to pass on the tradition? Or have they resigned themselves to the idea that this how far the tradition is going to go?

CQ: I think they would love to teach. I think they would love their grandkids to pick up the instrument. It seemed like it’s really skipped a generation with their sons and daughters now in their thirties. But a couple of the grandkids—who are pretty young—are actually pretty interested. One of them is three and really seems to enjoy playing around with it. You can see the joy in the señores’ eyes, particularly Alejandro, who has a little grandson who’s young and mimics his grandfather who he really looks up to. And the joy in his eyes when he’s seeing his grandson play is amazing, it’s priceless, it’s so heartwarming.

One of the main problems with continuing the tradition is that there are no instruments. The plant the instrument comes from is a fairly fickle plant. It takes six to eights months to mature. It’s a commitment for folks to be able to grow their own and sacrifice farmland to grow these instruments.  I think that’s one of the things that we need to address in terms of just availability of instruments. And from there kind of recognizing that the instrument is only from there.

The creative team and I have traveled a lot throughout Veracruz and it’s nowhere else. I think highlighting that fact, saying, “Folks, this is in your backyard. This is part of the local culture and it’s something you should be proud of.” So, yeah, there are different initiatives and different ideas coming from there, but in terms of education, I think the musicians would love to be able to pass on their craft.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.