John Robles and Chucumite bring son jarocho to Santa Paula

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
nancy@vcreporter.com

“Most people think of typical harp music as haunting and sedate,” says Ventura musician John Robles. “This is very bright, exciting, rhythmic.”

John Robles plays the arpa jarocha, or Veracruz folk harp, in the ensemble Chucumite, which will perform a special Cinco de Mayo celebratory concert at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula this Saturday, as part of the Santa Paula Concert Series. Chucumite specializes in son jarocho, a style of folk music from Veracruz, Mexico, with an intricate history.

As Robles explains, son jarocho (son means “sound”; “jarocho” is a colloquial term applied to the people of Veracruz) has three main roots: 17th century European music, brought by the Spaniards who arrived in Mexico, the music played by people indigenous to the Gulf of Mexico (largely Huastecan) and the music of Cuban slaves, which featured African rhythms and elements. The sound that evolved from this clash of cultures is a lively, expressive and joyful music that lends itself to parties and dancing. “You can almost call it mariachi without the trumpets,” Robles says.

The Santa Paula native has spent his life exploring music in all its forms, and today plays some 14 or more instruments, including piano, guitar, accordion and bagpipe in addition to the harp. “I don’t know why, but from a young age I was interested in world music,” he says. He’s studied a variety of South American and Celtic musical genres, and counts Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon among his many influences. But it was a cousin who danced Ballet Folklorico that turned him on to son jarocho. “I just latched on to this music,” he says. “I’d go to the record stores and buy two records every week.” When he was 12, Robles’ sister brought him back a small harp from Mexico, and he’s been playing son jarocho ever since.

Chucumite was founded in 2009 by Robles and bandmate Robert Perales, East L.A. born and bred (he now lives in Santa Barbara), who plays a small, eight-string guitar called the jarana. The two have been playing together for over 20 years and helped spawn the recent resurgence of son jarocho in the United States. Separately and together, with and without Chucumite, both Robles and Perales have played festivals and venues up and down the Pacific coast. 

The band’s name has a special association for its founders. “Chucumite is a very popular sport fish in Veracruz,” Robles explains. (The fish is also known as common snook or robalo.) “It’s an emblematic fish, and Robert and I are both Pisces.”

A third member of Chucumite from its early days is Sean Hutchinson, who was more of a rock ’n’ roller than an aficionado of Mexican folk music. “He was a rock bass player,” Robles says, “And he fell in love with this music. Now he’s playing leona.” That would be the small, four-stringed, guitar-like instrument prized for its low pitch. An even smaller one, tuned to a higher pitch, is the requinto jarocho, played by the quartet’s fourth and newest member, David Salais. “He recently moved down here from Porterville,” Robles says of his bandmate. “He’s also a luthier, so he’ll probably play one of his own instruments.”

The instruments used in son jarocho help define the music. Many of them are based on instruments brought to Mexico by Spaniards and then reproduced, with some variations, by the indigenous population. Strings are usually played with a special long, thin plectrum made from cowhorn. Jaranas and requintos look like smallish guitars, and tend to be carved from a single piece of wood. Robles enjoys educating his audiences about the history and instruments used in son jarocho, and will share his knowledge at Saturday’s concert.  

Chucumite’s performance in Santa Paula is more than a homecoming for Robles. It’s an opportunity to share this distinctive, and distinctively Mexican, style of music with his community, which itself shares close ties with Mexico. What better way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than with the jubilant, rhythmic and festive sound of son jarocho. 

John Robles and Chucumite perform on Saturday, May 7, at 7 p.m. at the Universalist Unitarian Church, 740 E. Main St., Santa Paula. Proceeds benefit the church’s Building and Historical Fund. For tickets and more information call 525-4647 or visit www.uucsp.org