LIVE REVIEW: Son Nacaxtle @ Le Pub, Newport (19/12/23)

Son Nacaxtle, three travelling minstrels, bring warm Mexican vibes to Newport on a cold December night.

The circumstances were very different when we first crossed paths with Son Nacaxtle, earlier this year. We were in a remote commune in the mountains near Montferrat in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur , South of France. The weather was hot. Very hot. And the guys were casually sipping on a cold beer and inking tattoos on friends that had gathered for an annual pilgrimage to the area.

Brothers Rafael and Elioth Gonzalez, together with their soul brother Angel Barco are travelling, hanging with friends, making new friends, doing tattoos and playing music – bringing a little bit of South American culture to Europe.

The word ‘Nacaxtle’, roughly translates to ‘the wood that sings’, and is perfect for these guys, as they have carved their instruments themselves, each out of one solid piece of wood. They play Jarana Jarocha and Guitarra de son, which are both similar to guitars, with subtle, but important differences, and both originated in Mexico.

Following our first encounter in France the guys have been continuing their journey around Europe, including, for the last few weeks, staying in Cardiff. They have been jamming with local musicians and played several gigs, including The Fork ‘n Tune in Cwmcarn and Porters in Cardiff.

Tonight, they are playing a free gig in our favourite venue south of the M4, Le Pub in Newport. This is our first visit since the recent expanding of the main gig room. I had seen on social media that they had increased the capacity and had been wondering how they could have achieved that. Easy, they knocked down the wall that was in the middle of the room, obvious really. As I looked at the room, I was wondering why the wall was there in the first place!

We arrive early, catch up with the guys and fuel up with a couple of le Pub’s trademark burgers off the vegan menu.

There’s not a huge crowd tonight but along with the interested passers-by, there were a few that had come along specifically to see the band.

Mexico has several traditional forms of music, such a Corrido, Banda and Mariachi. Son Nacaxtle perform in the Son jarocho tradition.  This style dates back several centuries and reflects the colonial past of South America.  It combines elements from indigenous (primarily Huastecan), Baroque music from Southern Spain (fandango) and the Western African music of slaves taken to the Caribbean.

The music starts off slowly but they soon up the tempo, getting feet tapping faces grinning and – at the end of each song – rapturous applause.

It soon became clear that it’s not just a British thing, it appears that folk musicians all over the world like to explain the story behind each song. Given they were singing in Mexican, an explanation in English was particularly helpful tonight. There are songs about mother nature, about love and the devil.

In addition to the guitalele, they provide percussion through dancing, in other words, stamping bordering on tap dancing. I can imagine this does not always work, depending on the environment they are performing in, but tonight, with the wooden stage and Le Pub’s top notch sound system, it works perfectly.

After a short break for ‘fresh air’ and ‘lubrication’, the crowd are starting to loosen up a little for the second set and people start getting off their bums and on the dancefloor.

If you are thinking that you have never heard any Son Jarocho style music before, the guys throw in probably the best known tune of the genre, ‘La Bamba’ – yes, the song made famous by Ritchie Valens and covered by Los Lobos. This has the dancefloor turning into a sweaty pit of arms, legs and Christmas jumpers.

As is often the way when a band play somewhere for the first time, the audience is made up of people that are familiar with the artist and curious passers-by. Given these guys have no recoded music available, are from the other side of the world and are touring the world under their own steam, those familiar with them before tonight are small in number. Very small in number. By the end of the night, they have won over some new fans – everyone is raving about an unexpectedly good night out.

Unfortunately, they are not going to be in Wales much longer, they are moving on to pastures new and there’s no knowing if every they will be back. I for one feel blessed and grateful that I have had the opportunity to witness them live – and we will never forget them, even if we wanted to, cos Megan has Raphael’s ink on her back!