Composition Patterns: Narrative and Descriptive

Searching for El Chapareke
September 29, 1999

Antonio Camilo, known as El Chapareke, was not easy to find, even though everyone seemed to have just spotted him when I inquired at the village gathering on Sunday. This was the day the canyon walls of Cusarare, a Tarahumara Indian village tucked into the Sierra Madres of Chihuahua in northern Mexico, bloomed with women in colorful skirts, legions of children trailed by dogs, men in their white shirts and sombreros, all cascading down the pencil-thin trails toward the plaza. The women — shifting babies saddled on their backs in rebozos — sat in groups by the mission walls, wordless for hours, drinking the weekly Coke, watching as the faithful went to attend mass, young men shot hoops, and the older men hovered around benches at the back of the plaza, waiting for the weekly outdoor meeting of the community cooperative. Pigs wandered down the road in idle joy, and the dogs fought on cue outside the small shop. The road to Cusarare was lined with stationary plots of families, many of whom had walked a few hours to reach the Sunday gathering. I looked everywhere for El Chapareke; I even checked the café — a broken-down school bus that had been restocked with small chairs, a wood stove installed in the driver's seat — but he was nowhere to be found.

I had been wanting to learn the chapareke instrument for weeks. It is one of the last remaining indigenous string instruments in Mexico, perhaps in the entire Western hemisphere. Often referred to as a Tarahumara Jew's harp, the chapareke is a dronal instrument that the player strums as he sucks and manipulates the wood for a melodic echo. Held up to one's lips like a flute, the instrument resembles a three-string bow. Here in the Sierra Madre Occidental, as chariots of tourists clamor into the region for a view of Copper Canyon and the occasional cave-dwelling Tarahumara Indian, and as drug dealers, military trucks, tourist buses, and logger flatbeds clash in traffic jams on the newly paved road, the Tarahumaras, like the traditional music of the chapareke, have retreated deeper into the elusive canyons. Antonio Camilo is considered one of the last remaining chapareke masters.

I had already hooked up with a conjunto band in the village, a three-string fiddler and his guitar-playing son, who welcomed my banjo, referred to as el pancho, at the tesguinadas. These were the corn brew fiestas the Tarahumara held on religious holidays or whenever else a raucous social gathering was merited. We didn't really tune up; I plucked an open "G" for the traditional pascol or religious dances, and somewhere in "E" for the heart-breaking rancheras; after midnight it didn't matter — most of us were loaded to the gills by the tesguino corn beer, specks of mashed corn garnishing our grins.

I left for El Chapareke's rancho the next morning with nothing more than the instructions that he lived "over there" and somewhere near the waterfall. Starting at an altitude of 7,000 feet, I set off into the dense pinetas and canyons with a bottle of water, my banjo, and a small tourist chapareke. Women outside the sparse ranchitos and cabins either raced inside and locked their doors when I appeared on the scene or simply fled into the forests. They had been warned about ruthless chabochi men (the Tarahumara term for non-Tarahumara people) and 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 by my plight.

"You're looking for El Chapareke," she said. She pointed at a breathtaking ridge, and indicated that I needed to surmount it using whatever goat or human trails I could find, and then search for a trail along the back once I reached the top.

Hours later, I found the rancho, but not El Chapareke. I dropped in front of a pine, drank the rest of my water, played a couple of banjo tunes for his treacherous dog, and then made the trek home. I knew it was his place because the compound was littered with chaparekes.

When I returned to my cabin, having walked all day, I found that El Chapareke had hiked up to his rancho on a different trail, searching for me, since he had been informed by everyone in the village on Sunday that I was interested in learning his instrument.

We finally joined up the next week. Antonio came by my cabin, carrying a dried husk of the maguey cactus, his pocketknife, and a small piece of madrono wood. He was a small man, with sweet eyes and a grin that charmed. He had learned from his father and grandfather; the instrument had been passed down by his ancestors like corn seeds. Chatting with me as we listened to his own recorded cassette outside the cabin, he sat and carved three perfect pegs with his pocket knife, poked holes in the cactus, hew grooves for the strings, and strung and tuned the instrument with my banjo strings, instead of the traditional skunk's guts. My Scottish ancestors had used almost the same thing — thairms or cat guts — for their first fiddles. The tuning was not dissimilar to that of a mountain dulcimer — a D bass string with the other two strings tuned to G.

El Chapareke

I told Antonio that I'd heard suggestions that the instrument might have been introduced by escaped African slaves, but he laughed at such a claim, as if it didn't matter. "This came from our land," he told me, "like our corn."

He glanced at my bluegrass banjo, which suddenly looked like a tank in comparison. "Where did that thing come from?" he said. I smiled. Though it hardly resembled its ancestor, which had a long flat neck hooked onto a skin-covered turtle shell or gourd, I told him the truth. "It came originally from Africa and African slaves."

The chapareke was the size of a small dulcimer, not quite a yard long, the strings hooked on the pegs. Antonio played numerous songs, usually with the 6/8 pascol and matachines rhythms of the Tarahumara religious dances, sounding more than 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. "The rest is up to you." It was starting to rain. He had to make the long walk back to his rancho.

I once asked the guitar player in the village, who knew all of the latest cumbias, Mexican norteno polkas, and trio sounds from Vera Cruz, why he hadn't picked up the chapareke. No one in the village had bothered to learn. He smiled, shaking his head, dismissing my comment as if it were a joke. "The next song is in E, Pancho," he said, nodding at my banjo. "This is a cumbia." I knew I would have to go searching for El Chapareke again for my next lesson.

Jeff Biggers is a writer based in Arizona and Italy. He is currently at work on a travelogue-memoir, Traveling Lessons.

This essay was first published in The Atlantic Monthly and then, online, in the "Atlantic Abroad" section of the Atlantic's Website, at It is used here with the kind permission of the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. At Atlantic's Web site, you can also find hyperlinks to several other fine examples of descriptive writing.

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