Now, if you cannot twang a mosquito, pick out an arpeggio on a lioness, slap a donkey's jawbone to the rhythm, or at least improvise a verse while others dance and play the region's traditional folk music, you are not hip.

A revival sweeping Mexico's Gulf coast state of Veracruz has rescued "son jarocho" - an ancient musical genre with a heavy African influence - from near extinction and put it at the heart of a booming subculture of all-night dance parties.

Mario Alberto Galindo, 23, says "guys who used to be into rock are now into son jarocho."

Galindo was buying a book of chords at a music festival stall for his jarana - the seven-string ukulele that provides the music's foot-tapping rhythmic base.

Poetry and dance

Most of the small river port of Tlacotalpan was sleeping when red streaks of dawn pierced the tropical sky one recent morning.

But a wall of sound emanated from the courtyard of a whitewashed church, where a young crowd locked in a trance-like vigil of music, poetry and dance showed no sign of tiring.

Surrounding two young dancers perched on a low wooden stage, bleary-eyed musicians strummed scores of acoustic guitars of different shapes and sizes while taking turns to improvise colourful verses about life, love or politics.

Born out of the clash of European, African and indigenous cultures after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, son jarocho centres on the jarana and a host of other string and percussion instruments, some bearing names of animals they sound like.

A tub-like bass guitar, the "lioness", emits a near-subsonic thump while the tiny mosquito ukulele has a zingy trill.

A four- or five-stringed "requinto" leads the melody with complicated staccato solos.

For extra oomph, percussionists scrape and slap donkeys' jawbones, making the animals' teeth rattle to the rhythm.

Modern influence

Son jarocho was the main entertainment in Veracruz state for centuries.

But television and radio took its place and soon the music was largely reduced to a tacky regional gimmick, played in gaudy folkloric plays or by restaurant crooners.

The country's musicians improvise
verses on life, love and politics

Eager to keep it alive in its original form, a handful of enthusiasts began visiting veteran musicians in the 1970s, recording their old songs and verses and holding workshops for children in towns and villages, starting a craze.

Resurging interest in the music has since seen dozens of groups such as Mono Blanco, Los Utrera and Son de Madera recording and playing concerts across the country and abroad.

Most son jarocho enthusiasts, however, agree the revival's greatest achievement in recent years has been to bring the music back to village squares and street corners in its original environment - the all-night party or fandango.

"Without the fandango this music loses its meaning," said Mono Blanco founder Gilberto Gutierrez, credited as one of the fathers of the revival.

Romance

On the wooden platform in Tlacotalpan, a teenaged girl with  indigenous features and a purple bougainvillea petal behind her ear twirled around a boy in a blue football shirt as both stomped their feet to the rhythm.

"There's no age limit here, it's as long as your body can keep going"

Ildefonso Medel, 75

Fandangos are essentially parties, and flirty verses win over many a dancer's heart.

But they can also be used to comment on politics and, in Mexico's autocratic past, were one of the few safe ways to do so.

Pablo Campechano, a luthier and musician, said: "If you wanted to say something about the president but you were afraid of ending up full of lead, you could say it singing."

As well as giving young provincial Mexicans, once more interested in US culture and music, a sense of pride in their roots, the revival has brought together generations that have little left in common in a fast-changing world.

"There's no age limit here, it's as long as your body can keep going," said Ildefonso Medel, 75, a tiny man in a white cowboy hat with bushy white eyebrows, tapping out arpeggios on his requinto as younger musicians tried to pick up tips.

The musical revival has re-created a culture of son jarocho in larger towns and cities where it had all but died out.

Traditional occassions

Even as the tradition fizzled out elsewhere, it lived on at weddings, birthdays or wakes in isolated hamlets such as those surrounding the lush valley town of Santiago Tuxtla.

While fireflies bleeped in bougainvillea bushes in the moonlit mountain hamlet of San Lorenzo one recent night, men and women in guayabera shirts and dresses strummed for scores of couples taking turns to dance on a battered platform.

Many had come from outlying farms on horseback.

Inside his dimly lit hut, host Eugenio Diaz, wearing a cowboy hat and a green plastic glow-in-the-dark rosary around his neck, showed off the heirloom that had inspired the party - an ancient, darkened portrait of a chubby Christ child.

In return for protecting them from evil, his family honours the icon once a year with a big fandango.

"Look, his cheeks are rosy," Diaz said, pointing at the portrait as the musicians crowded in to serenade it.

"That's because the music is playing," he said.

"Here, son jarocho never died."