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Learn to Play the Mexican Son Jarocho-Style Folk Song ‘El Cascabel’

2018-03-22 15:23:17
The song “El Cascabel,” as performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi México, has a unique distinction: It’s the only mariachi recording that’s traveling away from Earth at 35,000 miles per hour.

The song is included on Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record—a collection of images and sounds intended to give extraterrestrial beings a sense of life on this planet. And that record was attached to NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe in preparation for its 1977 launch.

“El Cascabel” is a prime example of son jarocho—a folk style, from the Mexican state of Veracruz, typically played on guitar-like instruments such as the son jarocho and the jarana jarocha. (“La Bamba,” which was adapted in 1958 by the teenage rocker Ritchie Valens and later covered by the rock band Los Lobos, is another classic song of this region.)

Like many folk songs, “El Cascabel” is based on just three chords. It’s a rich source for jamming in Mariachi México’s treatment. Check out a recording or video of the ensemble and you’ll hear exciting interludes, played on quasi-unison violins, and fierce vihuela solos. I’ve arranged some of these melodic patterns for guitar in the notation here.

That three-chord progression repeats throughout the song in the same harmonic rhythms—Am and F for one bar apiece, and E7 for two measures. Try strumming the chords with the basic pattern shown here. For the downstrokes, hold your picking hand in a C shape and curl out your index, middle, and ring fingers as you strum, such that there’s a slight delay between each finger contacting the strings. Use your thumb for the upstrokes.

If that approach feels unnatural, strumming any basic 3/4 pattern with a pick should suffice—just as long as you play the song in a spirited way.