"You dance, little girl?"

Son jarocho -- the folk music of Veracruz, in Mexico -- cries out for movement, any movement, right here on the grounds of the National Mall.

So Emily Ringel hurries onto the stage.

Left foot, right foot. Tap, tap, tap. The 3-year-old dances.

Jose Gutierrez -- with a little four-string guitar called a requinto hanging from his neck -- taps his feet, smiles, then claps his hands. "Bueno," he says. "Good little girl, good."

Gutierrez has made a connection.

This isn't the Latin music you're used to. Not of the Shakira, Ricky Martin or J.Lo variety. There's a cross-cultural appeal for sure. But further, there's a soul, an undeniable originality that is the distinct blend of African and Spanish musical forms. It is a music of love, yes, but it's also a music of survival. You hear it in the melody, the romanticism and sensuality exuded in songs like "La Morena" (The Dark Woman) and "El Jarabe Loco" (The Crazy Dance). You hear it in the syncopated rhythms, the furious, quick sound of the guitars and harp, the high-pitched harmonies, the call-and-response patterns.

Gutierrez strums his requinto. And the Ochoa brothers, Marcos (on the jarana, an eight-string rhythm guitar) and Felipe (on a 36-string non-pedal harp), follow his lead. The three, dressed in white, long-sleeved guayabera shirts, sing:

Para bailar la bamba

Para bailar la bamba

Se necesita una poca de gracia

Una poca de gracia, para mi, para ti

Ay arriba arriba, Ay arriba arriba . . .

That's "La Bamba," a big hit with yesterday's late morning crowd. Popularized by Ritchie Valens, the song takes its roots in son jarocho -- the word jarocho describes both the people and culture of the southeastern coastal state of Veracruz. (Think Yankees from New England.)

Gutierrez, 61, Marcos Ochoa, 59, and Felipe Ochoa, 56, grew up in Veracruz, and are considered the ambassadors, the flag-bearers, of this centuries-old musical tradition -- is it 300 years? 400 years? No one is really sure. The trio performs all over the United States, Central America and Mexico.

"They really are masters," says Daniel Sheehy, co-curator, with Olivia Cadaval, of "Nuestra Music: Music in Latino Culture," a four-year research project that begins this year at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It's an effort by the Smithsonian Institution -- which in 1997 set up the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives -- to broaden its appeal and reach out to the booming Latino population in the Washington region, where it has risen 346 percent in the past two decades.

"Latino music is in a parallel universe in the music industry. There's EMI Latin, Sony Discos, for example. What we're trying to do is pull people deeper into Latino life through music, through dance, to pull people past what they see in the pop media," says Sheehy, 57, surrounded by bomba drums and standing near a small trailer behind the intimate La Pena Stage, where Gutierrez and the Ochoa brothers play. The setting, Sheehy says, is more informal, welcome to improvisation.

"You read the headlines, 'Latinos now the nation's largest minority,' " he goes on. "But it doesn't go much further than that. Latinos, like all groups, are a diverse lot. There's the Guatemalans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and on and on. There's a lot of interest on the part of the Latino artists to get their music known out there."

So the festival features mariachi singers, Dominican merengue, a string and percussion group from El Salvador, Nuyorican practitioners of the plena and bomba. The attendance for the 10-day festival -- it ends on Sunday -- has been "enormous," Sheehy says.

Ruth Geier Conner collects folk music, owns some 50 CDs from all over the country. She's 75. "This, this is the best," says Conner, of Fairfax Station. "This kind of music gives you energy, lifts you up. There's a feeling, a drive."

Where does the feeling start?

It starts in the solar plexus, Conner says, pointing near her heart. "Don't you feel the heart, the romance, in the harmony? It shoots up and down, then into the feet."

She's dancing now.

Gutierrez begins another song, "El Pajaro Cu" (The Coo Bird).


"Little bird, you are pretty and of a pretty color

"But you would even be prettier if you would do me the favor of taking a little piece of paper to the woman who owns my love . . ."

Felipe Ochoa, on the harp, and Marcus Ochoa play at the Folklife Festival.Marcos Ochoa, left, and Jose Gutierrez are considered masters of son jarocho, folk music of Veracruz, Mexico.