“Where are the morals in this? Where is Aesop?” asks cumbia band Jarabe Mexicano.
A couple years back, Jarabe Mexicano was approached by producers who had heard their rendition of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” In their live set, the song snippet served as a transitional element. Their Cumbia-inspired rendition of the Marley song segued into another Cumbia song from their repertoire. Even though it was brief, the producers liked the short take enough to request that the band head into the studio to flush out a full version. Gustavo Alcoser, the band’s lead singer, took this opportunity to rework the lyrics a bit.
He was inspired by a 2014 incident that occurred in the state of Guerrero in Mexico — 43 students studying to become teachers had gone missing in a suspected kidnapping and were never found. The incident reeked of corruption, and the Mexican population rose up to demand justice.
“Our goal was not to use the song as a sort of protest song,” Alcoser explained. “Our whole interpretation of it was not so much any particular protest rather than just having the guts to protest, and to stand up for yourself.”
Alcoser witnessed gatherings which paid tribute to the 43 kidnapped individuals while he was taking part in a San Diego State study-abroad program in Oaxaca, a state near Guerrero in southern Mexico. According to Alcoser, protests are more common in Mexico than they are in the U.S. These protests can also come with greater risk. For example, Anabel Hernández, the author of a book about the kidnappings, now lives in exile in Europe for her own safety.
“I was surrounded by it, and I felt like I should say something,” Alcoser explained. “I don’t know what that will necessarily mean for me, but ultimately you just have to do what you feel is right. I’m not trying to call out anyone in particular. I’m just saying there’s an injustice here that has yet to be rectified.”
There have been recent movements in the kidnapping story. The current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is reopening the investigation. The new case will look into potentially corrupt judges involved with the original investigation. Alcoser hopes that justice will be served and the truth revealed.
On a related, musical front, Jarabe Mexicano have a new, reworked Marley tune in their arsenal. Their take on “No Woman, No Cry” was inspired by the tear-gas bombings of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Ysidro. “I talk about the experience of one of the refugees as they arrived at the border looking for help, but not finding any allies — and then getting bombed,” Alcoser said.
He continued, “These are things that I think are important to talk about and highlight through music because that music is what allows people to sometimes let down their guards and hear what the message is, instead of assuming or attributing labels of politics or ideology. It’s like ‘Where are the morals in this? Where is Aesop? Where is how we feel about this? Why is it that you don’t feel this way, or why is it that you do?’”