Searching for El Chapareke – Copper Canyon, Sierra Madre, Mexico

h1>Searching for El Chapareke

Copper Canyon, Sierra Madre Mexico

El Chapareke was not easy to find, even though everyone in our village seemed to have just spotted him whenever I inquired on the sublime Sunday gatherings. I didn’t know what he looked like; he had been described as a short man in huaraches, wearing a sombrero, a light shirt and pants, with a ruddy face and grey hair, which sort of described every male over the age of forty in the village who didn’t wear the tagora, the traditional breech-cloth. I asked Carla to spread the word among the kids, women or church-goers, while I checked the bus cafe, the coop store, then the basketball court, where I was courted for a game.

“Pancho,” a few young men called me. “We need another player.”

I begged off the offer, shooting a few shots in between matches. Most men were familiar with my presence now. I amused the packed crowd one weekend by playing the role of a giant shot-blocking center in a breath-taking free-for-all. I even risked fate and total alienation by refereeing the games another Sunday, which was relatively easy in a canyon culture that takes seriously the maxim, “no blood, no foul.” In the early evenings, I sometimes drifted up to the slab of concrete and shot some hoops with the young men who lived nearby; the word spread. I was no longer known as “the chabochi with the red beard,” or “Carla’s esposo.” I had graduated to Javier, or my musical nickname, Pancho.

“I’m looking for El Chapareke,” I said, to a couple of players.

They giggled.

“Don’t you play the pancho?” one said.

“Yes, but I’d like to learn how to play the chapareke,” I said.

One of the young men pretended to hold up the instrument, adding out the side of his mouth, “wang, wang, wang, wang.” The others laughed, and I was not sure if they were laughing with him or at me.

I had wanted to learn the chapareke instrument for weeks. It is one of the last remaining indigenous string instruments in Mexico, perhaps the entire Western hemisphere. Often referred to as a Tarahumara Jew’s harp, the chapareke is more dronal as an instrument, strummed as the player sucks and manipulates the wood for a melodic echo. Antonio Camilo, known as “El Chapareke” in our village, was considered the last remaining master.

I had already hooked up with a conjunto band in the village, a fiddler and his younger guitar-playing brother. We didn’t really tune up; I plucked an open “G” on the pascol dances, and somewhere in “E” for the heart-breaking rancheras and norteños. They strummed along on the bluegrass and country tunes, as I called out the chords.

Returning home empty-handed that afternoon, I decided to chat with Bernabe about finding El Chapareke’s rancho. He nodded, drawing in the dirt with a stick. His instructions ranged from the clumps of mud to the rocks and pieces of wood.

“He lives over there, somewhere near the waterfall.”

I set off the next morning into the dense pinetas and canyons with a bottle of water, my banjo and a small tourist chapareke. Women at the sparse ranchos and cabins either raced inside and locked their doors when I appeared on the scene or simply fled into the forests. The situation probably worsened when I shouted, “chapareke, chapareke,” waving my banjo like a pitchfork; they must have assumed a mad tourist was on the loose. They had been warned about ruthless chabochi men or government doctors wielding needles for vaccinations. Lugging my banjo to an overlook of the jagged barrancas, I finally happened onto an older woman stationed in front of a weaving loom, who was amused at my plight.

“You’re looking for El Chapareke,” she said. She pointed at a towering ridge, indicating that I needed to surmount it using whatever goat or human trails I could find, and then search for a trail along the backside.

The hike along the canyons was wonderful, despite lugging my instrument. I lost track of the time, distracted by the views from the ridge. A couple of hours later, I located the homestead, but not El Chapareke. Unfinished chaparekes littered the compound. I dropped in front of a pine, drank the rest of my water, and played a couple of banjo tunes for his treacherous dog, and then I made the trek home.

When I returned to our cabin, having walked all day, I found that El Chapareke had made the same hike in reverse, searching for me, since everyone in the village informed him on Sunday that I was interested in learning his instrument.

Antonio came by our cabin the next week, carrying a dried husk of the maguey cactus, his pocketknife and a small piece of madroño wood. He was a small man, with sweet eyes and a grin that charms. We sat down and chatted in the clearing outside our cabin, listening to a recorded cassette of his music, while he carved three perfect pegs from the wood with his pocket knife, poked holes in the husk, hewed grooves for the strings, and tuned the instrument with my banjo strings, instead of the traditional skunk guts. My Scottish ancestors had used the same, thairms or cat guts, for their first fiddles. The tuning was not dissimilar to that of an Appalachian mountain dulcimer, with a D bass string, with a G tuning on the other two strings.

The origins of the instrument, like our own ancestry, fascinated me. El Chapareke learned from his father and grandfather. Antonio laughed at the claim that the instrument might have been introduced by escaped African slaves who fled into the Sierra Madre.

“This came from our land,” he told me, “like our corn.”

I watched as Antonio lifted the instrument to eye level, checked out his pegs, and listened to the sound of the first string. He played music the way he raised his corn; the songs were seeds, falling along the steep slopes and craggy plateaus. He churned out and distributed instruments like digging sticks. He didn’t appear troubled by where the music took root, as long it continued to endure. Music was the essence of immortality for the musician.

Traveling around the canyons on foot, and as far as the city of Chihuahua, playing at churches, schools, tesguinadas, Tarahumara rituals, and for tourists at regional hotels, El Chapareke had made the survival of the native instrument his mission.

Entangled in the stringing of the chapareke-in-progress, he suddenly looked at my banjo, which loomed like a tank in comparison.

“Where did that thing come from?” he said.

I smiled. Though it hardly resembled its original long flat-neck hooked onto a skin-covered turtle shell or gourd, I told him the truth. “The banjo originally came from west Africa and African slaves.”

“Africa?” he said, grinning. “Are you from Africa?”

“It was brought over by African slaves to America. To the other side.”

“Who taught you? Your grandfather?”

This made me laugh.

“No,” I said, “a friend.”

El Chapareke handed me the finished chapareke. It was the size of a dulcimer, a yard long, the strings stretched and wedged in increments like branches. I plucked a few notes, and then I handed it back to him. Antonio grinned, and then played a medley of songs, most with the 6/8 pascol and matachin rhythms of the religious dances, drawing over an octave of notes by crinkling his lips on the dried cactus stem of hollow wood. The music was beautiful, crisp and haunting as a Highlander harp. He stopped abruptly and smiled. He handed me the chapareke.

“The rest is up to you,” he said.

I thanked him, staring at the chapareke in my hands, still unsure of the musical steps. I banged at the strings, while wagging my mouth on the wood. I could barely hear the echo.

El Chapareke laughed and rose. He had to make the long walk back to his rancho.

“Africa,” he chuckled.

Later that week I asked the guitar player in the village, who knew all of the latest cumbias, norteños and trio sounds from Vera Cruz, why he hadn’t picked up the chapareke. No one in the village had bothered to learn. Even El Chapareke’s son had picked up the fiddle. The guitar player smiled, and then shook his head, as if I was joking. He didn’t understand why I kept asking these questions about their traditional culture. He was clearly amused with my obsession with the past.

“Pancho, the next song is a ranchera in E,” he said, nodding at my banjo. “I just learned it off a new cassette.” He paused, as if remembering my question about El Chapareke and the old rituals. “This song will be a good one for the dances at the tesguinadas.”


From In the Sierra Madre.. Copyright 2006 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois Press. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

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