Monday, September 18, 2017

Hispanic Heritage Month: Beyond La Bamba

Ritchie Valens is reasonably credited with introducing American popular culture to son jarocho music, but there were plenty of recordings of the traditional Veracruz standard before (Xavier Cugat) and after (Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria) he cracked the top 40 charts with “La Bamba.” It is a tune José Luis Utrera surely knows as a scion of a celebrated family of son jarocho musicians. However, the young Utrera opts to chart his own course north of the border. Marco Villalobos & Daffodil Altan document his musical undocumented life in Beyond La Bamba (trailer here), which premieres on World Channel this Wednesday, as part of its celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

“La Bamba” is indeed quite representative of son jarocho. It is a traditional form of music that is infectiously rhythmic and wildly improvisational. If you are not invigorated by a son jarocho “fandango” than you are just tragically lame. How and why Utrera settled in Milwaukee of all places is never explained, but it turns out you can even find a fandango that far north.

In fact, Utrera is quickly adopted as the local son jarocho prodigy/celebrity/guru, almost like a son jarocho Wynton Marsalis, but one that holds workshops in a community center rather than the Lincoln Center. The music remains true to Utrera, even introducing him to his future fiancée. However, the conscientious Utrera misses his family and worries his aged grandfather will slip away before he is able to return.

Utrera is a nice kid, but his unassuming demeanor does not translate well on-screen. Fortunately, that doesn’t really matter, because the music is the reason to watch the half-hour Beyond. Utrera and his family, friends, and students can truly play up a storm. As a film, it is pleasant, but mostly rather serviceable, whereas as a PSA for son jarocho music, it should definitely inspire some CD sales.

Wisely, Villalobos (talk about a musical name) and Altan clearly try to minimize the issue of Utrera’s immigration status. Look, he is a wildly talented musician, so it is nice to have him here, but we can’t help think of all the even more gifted Japanese jazz musicians we know, who maintain their legal residency status, often through great hassle. Regardless, Beyond La Bamba sounds great, so give it a listen when it airs this Wednesday (9/20) on World Channel.