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Lifelong music learning in action: a makeover of the historical Mexican Jarana.

I'm a lifelong learner in music. Having been musically indoctrinated during my high school band years, I have carried an instrumental obsession with me for over fifty years. Although I make my living as a professor of Visual Arts at a university, my life is dominated by a desire to find, explore, and play strange musical instruments. This has led to a number of very interesting and creative adventures over the years which have challenged every inventive, mental, and technical resource available to me.

While on a long-term art residency in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, I had the opportunity to purchase a stringed instrument called a Jarana at a small music store in the city. The instrument was a complete mystery to me. It was smaller and thinner than a guitar, and had 8 strings in 5 courses, two single outer strings with three double-courses in between. The store owner only knew the name of the instrument and that it originated in Veracruz in Mexico. She didn't know how it was played, nor did she have any instructional resources for the instrument. Although I had never seen or heard of this instrument before, I went ahead and purchased it, knowing nothing about its history, sound, or performance possibilities. I took it back to my casa with a great sense of creative excitement, exploration, and perhaps a small amount of performance trepidation.

As I sat down in my studio, I began to think about how I was going explore this Jarana in the most creative way. This was an instrument that had a long life with some Mexican performing group. It had been played in ensembles, on the streets, and throughout dark pulsing and flamboyant Mexican nights. I not only saw the results of this use in the dents and scratches embellishing the soundboard, but I could sense the instrument's traditional soul. This Jarana had a history, a performance style, and a literature of song that was authentic and alive. The most logical direction of exploration would be to inform myself of the Jarana's historical and cultural tradition, study the genre of music it played, and set about learning the playing styles and techniques associated with the tradition.

But as I thought about this historical approach, I also began to think about my own eccentric creative interests. I've always been somewhat unorthodox in my approach to the study of musical instruments and have enjoyed imposing my own innovations on musical structures and forms. I've always liked to explore musical instruments in a heretical fashion, aligning myself with those instrumental apostates who creatively and reverently break with established technical doctrines regarding established playing and performance methodologies. These are people who sever ties with tradition and either re-invent their own ways of making a musical instrument produce sound or push a musical instrument out of its own traditional performance arena. In this realm, we can find jazz played on bagpipes (Hevesi, 2006), trumpets using reed mouthpieces (Nunes, 2011), guitar strings strung on violins (Daniel B, 2013), Sitars playing contemporary Latin Music (Khan, 2012), Baroque Guitar music played on ukeleles (Uke Val, 2013), and cellos playing the Blues (Cambell, 2013). All these are examples of instrumental modification with the objective of producing new musical sound from a traditional instrument.

I saw two clear routes of exploration in front of me. I could follow the conventional approach and study the Jarana's historical purpose and traditional playing styles and techniques. Or, I could follow a more heretical and contemporary direction and take the Jarana towards a new musical purpose, playing style, and expression in sound. Since both these possibilities sounded exciting, I thought I would pursue both directions until I was given reason change this approach. I would start by researching the Jarana's history, orthodox playing style, and technique. I was certainly interested in its history and the styles of music it was designed for. But I was also very interested in pursuing some instrumental modification, expanding the Jarana's scope and outlook, and discovering how this instrument could be used in ways never intended for it.

Over the few next weeks, I put myself through an intense program of research, practice, exploration, and experimentation with the Jarana. I've always enjoyed how the serious pursuit of instrumental knowledge compels me to exercise my mind in a multitude of directions. My immediate goal was to discover something about the instrument itself. Some Internet research revealed that the Jarana was the key instrument used in a style of music called Son Jarocho This is a style of music developed in Veracruz, Mexico and is based on fast syncopated rhythms and call-response interplay between singers (Loza, 1992). The form employs the Jarana, Requinto, Leona (bass instrument), and the Harp as instruments. The Jarana is used as a loud percussive and rhythmic support for the song and melodic lines played by Requinto and Harp. In a few journeys to the local Biblioteca in San Miguel, I even found two government approved method books offering instructional guidance for playing the Jarana.

These findings were very interesting. Research into the cultural origins of the Jarana introduced me to a style of music I never knew existed before. But, this study also brought me to a further decision about how I was going to continue my work with the Jarana. Although I enjoyed the authentic style of Son Jarocho music and was inspired by the sound and complexity of rhythmic performance, I felt as if further study in the traditional playing styles and methods historically designed for this instrument wasn't appropriate for me at this time. First, I am a solitary instrumentalist. I rarely play with others or with ensembles anymore. I like sitting by myself and exploring instrumental performance in a very isolated and private way. Traditional Jarana is a group instrument, employed in an ensemble setting and providing rhythmic support for the song being played. Second, the basic playing technique of the Jarana involves a loud and percussive strumming style, delivering chords as backup to the Requinto and Harp who carry more melodic lines. For this adventure, I wasn't interested in playing chord backup with percussive strumming techniques. I was living in the upper floor of a casa, with residents living below me. Even the gentle exploration of percussive strumming I did with the Jarana made me feel as if eviction would be imminent accompaniment to this loud style. And, finally, I'm more aesthetically interested in the delicate articulation of strings, notes, and musical expressions that a percussive strumming style doesn't explore.

And so, my explorative direction with the Jarana now took a new turn. I made a decision to embrace it as an instrument acquired for creative exploration and innovation. Together, we would move through a series of instrumental modifications which would allow the Jarana to clothe itself in a new voice, new styles, and new playing techniques in an entirely new context it was never designed for. I had no idea what would happen or if this approach would even end up in success. But this is the joy of learning and playing in an environment which requires no allegiance to any other objective but my own.

I first went online, trying to find out information about Jarana tuning and also obtain some chords diagrams to help me get started. When I purchased the Jarana, it seemed to be in tune, and I used an online digital piano to help me identify the exact notes. The string setup was different from my usual guitars, in that it had 8 strings in 5 courses, two single outer strings with three double-courses in between.

The strings were tuned G, CC, EE, AA, C . I checked online and found that this was indeed the traditional tuning of the instrument. I spent a long time searching for some chord diagrams for the Jarana, but was generally unsuccessful in finding any. This meant I had to spend time trying to build my own chord understandings, and write out my own diagrams. This was quite tedious, so I decided to check online to see if any other instruments shared this GCEAC tuning, and was surprised to learn that the Ukelele was tuned GCEA (without the fifth string of the Jarana). This was an amazing discovery, and immediately allowed me to start experimenting with chords by using Ukelele chord diagrams. Suddenly, I was empowered. I no longer had to play around on the fretboard trying to invent chords. I had a huge supply of chord charts available to me.

I felt ready to move on to my next exploration which would involve playing technique. I had already tried the traditional strumming technique and didn't find it enjoyable (or practical). The Jarana had strings. I was a decent fingerstyle guitarist, so I thought I would try to apply my fingerstyle guitar playing technique to the Jarana. This conversion process was slow, but I began trying a variety of both classical and blues guitar patterns. By playing simple arpeggios and patterns, I discovered that the Jarana not only had a different arpeggiated configuration (given the different tuning), but also had an entirely different sound from the Guitar or Ukelele. The Jarana has three courses of double strings (tuned in octaves), and these, plus the different soundbox provided a firm classical, delicate, and very tight, but melodious sound. I was enjoying the fullness of this sound when activated through a delicate playing technique.

I started improvising patterns, making them up and finding ones which worked well on the Jarana. Some of the Guitar patterns worked and others didn't. At this point, I didn't have a reliable method of documenting those patterns which sounded good. I knew about Guitar Tablature and had used it in the past, but hadn't had the opportunity to actually write it myself. Because I was inventing small passages on the Jarana, I wanted to document and keep those patterns that seemed to work. I found an online application called TablEdit, which allowed me to customize the recorded fretboard to accommodate the different string configuration of the Jarana. This allowed me to document my discoveries. So far, this modified approach to the Jarana was being fully supported by amazing resources I was finding online.

But I wanted more than to just play around with my own patterned inventions on the Jarana. Since I was immersing this instrument in an entirely new culture and playing style, I thought I would like to be able to explore a range of genres to see which ones suited the Jarana best. For this, I needed some actual music to play. I wanted to explore styles that I myself liked playing, i.e., Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Blues. Where would I get this kind of specialized literature written in a finger-style Tablature that could be played on the Jarana? Of course! I recently discovered that the Jarana is basically tuned the same as the Ukelele, so I went online to see if by chance there were any Early, Classical, and Blues music that had been written in a fingerstyle Tablature for Ukelele.

Imagine my amazement when I discovered that there exists a vast amount of Ukelele fingerstyle Tablature online in just about every genre imaginable. I found fingerstyle Tablature written for Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Jazz, Blues, and Pop. I hardly knew where to begin. Much of this literature was free and could be almost instantly downloaded to my iPad. Other larger book collections cost very little, and could also be easily downloaded to my digital devices. I started purchasing a range of songbooks in each of my favored styles, and began working through songs on the Jarana. Again, this was easily done since the basic tuning for Ukelele and Jarana is the same. All I had to consider was an extra 5th string, which I could ignore, or integrate in a creative fashion. Suddenly, I had more musical selections available for this modified style on the Jarana than I ever had hopes of learning to play.

I began working through the Ukelele fingerstyle literature exploring what seemed to sound best on the Jarana and also what could be played easily. All the selections, of course, were also based on my own musical tastes. The Jarana has a unique sound, different from both a Guitar and a Ukelele. When it is played traditionally (Son Jarocho), it emits a sharp and percussive sound. When a fingerstyle method is applied to the instrument, a new sound results, a moderately condensed tonal richness rarified by a certain compact tightness. The Jarana offers a very delicate sound with a fullness that results from the double and single courses of strings. The Jarana I purchased is probably not the best quality instrument available. The action is high at the far reaches of the fingerboard and this makes the playing of some pieces difficult. But the instrument was decent and offered enough to allow me to explore its inner nature. In order to listen hear the tone in an objective way, I quickly recorded myself playing a very simple set of apreggios and published this on YouTube (Bergland, 2014). The playing style was rough and the audio poor (microphone was on an iPad), but enough of the actual tonal difference was available for observation.

As I worked through basic music styles and genres, I started to feel comfortable with the guitar fingerstyle method I was imposing on the Jarana. It started to respond fairly well to this approach. But as I worked my way through a variety of historical and contemporary pieces, I began to note certain characteristics I wished to modify. The general pitch of the tuning seemed high. Could this be modified? I also noted that several of the individual strings were slightly annoying. Could these be replaced with different strings? I began to think of ways of modifying the sound using only the strings. I could either lower the entire pitch of the instrument, or explore entirely new tunings.

In my historical readings, I discovered that the Jarana evolved from the Baroque Guitar. The Baroque Guitar itself has 5 courses of double strings. So I thought that I might be able to tune the Jarana as a Baroque Guitar and then access and attempt to play the literature for Baroque Guitar. This was an interesting idea. I started on a further exploration of this, but then ended up rejecting it when I discovered that learning to read Baroque Tablature was a project in itself. At this point in the project, I was very impressed with the amount of Ukelele literature and tablature that was available and didn't want to lose access to this. But, while researching the Baroque Guitar, I also discovered the Renaissance Guitar, which has four courses of strings and is tuned like a Ukelele. Now this would be an interesting followup adventure! Acquire a Renaissance Guitar and apply everything I've been learning on the Jarana to this new instrument. I went online and discovered that I could easily purchase a Renaissance Guitar, either as a finished instrument, or in a kit form. This is a project I may attempt as soon as I return to Canada, yet another in the long line of Lifelong learning projects in Music that will continue to occupy my life and time.

So, at this point in the learning adventure, I have a Mexican Jarana which is now an immigrant to a new musical culture. It has learned to perform with a classical/blues fingerstyle technique, plays Early, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Blues music with a certain ease, and has a new voice which emphasizes its essential tonal characteristics. I'm sure that if it travelled back to its hometown of Veracruz, it would most certainly be treated as a Gringo Tourist. Although I can't play it like a traditional Jarana, I can play some interesting music on it. I have a repertoire of several blues pieces, a few flamenco songs, and a number of Renaissance and Baroque pieces that I can perform with the clumsy enthusiasm that generally identifies my playing style. I feel excited about picking it up several times throughout the day and playing through a number of songs. I'm beginning to appreciate its special soft and mellow voice. It speaks in a new articulated language and sings new songs from different cultures and eras. And, it has become part of my creative family. I certainly can't abandon it in Mexico, and so I'm now walking the streets, bartering with carpenters to construct a packing crate for its return to Canada. The crate will cost more than the Jarana is worth, but I look forward to it joining my collection of stringed instruments in my studio at the university.

In the past three weeks of intensive music leaning, I have traveled an expansive learning journey and undergone diverse and penetrating experiences which have challenged my existing knowledge. I certainly reinforced my understanding of the Internet as a flexible tool of music research, being able to quickly access digital pianos, tuning mechanisms, historical information, and musical literature in a matter of minutes. I was able to find historical knowledge about the Jarana and Son Jarocho as well as amazing learning resources on YouTube in the form of video instruction, an entire field of vast musical resources for the Ukelele, and access to books of tablature for minimal cost, and had them installed on my iPad in a very short time. I identified a vast amount of very sophisticated music and performance about ukelele, and related it all to the Jarana. All this took place without my ever having had to leave the confines of my studio. Throughout this journey, I had no set directions, no easily purchased instruction books, and no defined goals to guide me. I had to rely on my own abilities and invent a course of action that kept my momentum in play. This was like jazz improvisation at its best, only applied to the field of music education, rather than a set performance with an ensemble. Every idea, creatively pursued, leads to another. And those ideas themselves point to new ideas and discoveries in turn.

I am still a resident here in Mexico for a number of months yet. I have a great deal to accomplish in my studio as a visual artist, but the Jarana has been part of it all. It has influenced me, offered me musical companionship, been there to allow my mind to reflect and wander, been a friend, provided creative exploration, and companionship. I intend to continue working with the Jarana over the next few months to see how far I can take its transformation. I want to start recording and publishing videos on YouTube. But I remain instrumentally restless. I frequent the local music store several times a week, looking for new unknown instruments that might permit me to begin this cycle all over again. Maybe that is the joy and benefit of having been successfully converted to lifelong musical learning in my youth. Life will always hold new musical mysteries and adventures to challenge my mind and creative energies.


Bergland, D. (2014). The Mexican Jarana: A Simple Fingerstyle Pattern. Retrieved April 3, 2014 from

Cambell, C. (2013). Cello Can Play The Blues. Retrieved April 3, 2014 from

Daniel, B. (2013). Experimental Violin Strings. Fiddlerman. Retrieved April 3, 2014 from

Hevesi, D. (2006). Rufus Harley Dies; Adapted Bagpipes to Jazz. New York Times, August 13. Retrieved April 3, 2014 from arts/music/13harley.html?_r=0

Khan, I. (2012). Irshad Khan Take Five on Sitar. Retrieved April 3, 2014 from

Loza, S. (1992). From Veracruz to Los Angeles: The Reinterpretation of the Son Jarocho. Latin American Music Review, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Autumn). Pp. 179-194. University of Texas Press.

Nunes, H. (2011). Eddie Harris--Trumpet with Mouthpiece. Retrieved April 3, 2014 from

Uke Val. (2013). Early Music Played on Ukelele. Retrieved April 3, 2014 from

Dr. Don Bergland, Associate Professor of Digital Arts at the University of Victoria, specializes in creative studio activity in both visual and performance environments. He maintains a professional production studio and has featured his creative products in over 140 major exhibitions and performances throughout the world, winning over 50 international awards in the process. As an active musician and lover of string instruments, he frequently journeys to Mexico to explore musical instruments and instrumental teaching, Through his writings, hehopesto beableto bring someofthe strong featuresoflifelongmusicallearningtothe attention of Canadian educators.
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Title Annotation:principal themes
Author:Bergland, Don
Publication:Canadian Music Educator
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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