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The Grace of Imperfection:  A Jarana Primera by the Legendary Carlos Escribano

by Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, Conservation Research Assistant (2009-2011)

Note: Click on any instrument image below to see a larger image.

NMM 14503.  Jarana primera by Carlos Escribano, San Andres Tuxtla, Veracruz, Mexico, 2004 Bass side view Treble side view Back view


NMM 14503. Jarana primera by Carlos Escribano, San Andres Tuxtla, Veracruz, Mexico, 2004. André P. and Kay Marcum Larson Acquisitions Fund, 2010.

History of the Jarana

As Europeans settled in the New World, they brought with them their own cultural values, music and musical instruments, introducing and merging these elements with various indigenous cultures. Guitars and vihuelas carried by Spaniards and Portuguese, for example, were soon adopted and adapted by diverse indigenous groups, giving birth to new instruments such as the charango, the cuatro, the ukulele, and the jarana. In emulation of the European Baroque concept of families (or consorts) of instruments (such as the various sizes of recorders or viols), a family of several different sizes of plucked stringed instruments known as jaranas came into being, including (from largest to smallest), the jarana tercera, jarana segunda, jarana primera, mosquito, and chaquiste.

Jaranas are typically carved out of one single piece of wood, traditionally Spanish cedar (cedrela odorata), and are fitted with five courses of strings: the outermost strings are single courses, but are tuned in unison or at an octave, and the three central courses are doubled. The tuning varies according to the size of the instrument and the player's preference, although the most common tuning is G A e c G or g A e c G.

The jarana is usually played with a special strumming technique that provides the rhythmic-harmonic base for the Son jarocho, a song and dance form that originated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Veracruz, Mexico (today, the term jarocho is used as an adjective referring to the Atlantic seaboard of Veracruz, or to someone or something from that area). The Son jarocho is, in fact, the result of the merging of the dance and music of the Spanish colonizers of Mexico, the African rhythms brought to New Spain by slaves, and the musical ideas of the indigenous population of the Gulf of Mexico area, known today as Veracruz.

The Spanish Inquisition officially condemned the Son jarocho during the eighteenth century, since the dances were regarded as sexually suggestive, while the texts were considered obscene or anti-clerical. It is possible that the repression of these suggestive texts prompted the widespread use of many metaphors and innuendos encountered in the Son jarocho.

The typical Son jarocho instrumentation consists of harp, jarana, and requinto, although larger groups are common in musical get-togethers known as Fandango. In these celebrations, everybody who knows how to play or sing is invited to participate as a heterogeneous group, performing around a wooden platform called Tarima, on which dancing couples provide the percussive, rhythmic base for the song.

Carlos Escribano, Legendary Jarana Maker

Carlos Escribano, as photographed by Ruy Guerrero

Photos by Ruy Guerrero (above) and Gabriel Ramos (right).

Carlos Escribano, as photographed by Gabriel Ramos

The jarana primera acquired by the NMM in 2010 was made by Carlos Escribano, also known as “Oreja Mocha” ("chopped ear"), a nickname acquired after a piece of his ear was bitten off in a fight. Escribano, a native of San Andres Tuxtla, in Veracruz, Mexico, is one of the last artisans of the old jarana-making tradition.

Escribano's instruments are characteristized by the most basic and traditional techniques of construction. Having no electricity at his disposal, his work tools are limited to a machete, one gouge, a handsaw, and a knife. He uses no rulers, power tools, sandpaper, nor varnish. Contrary to current practice, in which instruments are first drawn and then traced in the wood with the aid of templates, Escribano makes his instruments by observing the shapes and dimensions of good-sounding instruments and then adapting the ideas to specific pieces of wood. He then cuts the instruments without any tracing, using only his machete, measuring everything by eye.

Escribano is recognized as the teacher of several generations of lauderos (luthiers) in the region of Veracruz. His instruments are nowadays sought after and used as references by new jarana makers in Mexico.

Reflecting upon the NMM's jarana primera, I am reminded of an old saying from New Spain that a good friend of mine used to tell me: “Vale más la gracia de la imperfección, que la perfección sin gracia” ("“he grace of imperfection is more important than perfection without grace”).

Photo by Chloe Cammpero.

Carlos Escribano, as photographed by Chloe Cammpero

Views of Peghead

Peghead Back of pegbox Saddle

Fingerboard and Neck Heel

Fingerboard Fingerboard detail Neck heel, view 1 Neck heel, view 2

Soundhole and Bridge

Soundhole Bridge

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