Posted from Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
The music of Oaxaca
If you make it to the end of this post, there is a video!!
Our original plan (many months ago) was to spend two weeks in Oaxaca. Then one day while looking at the calendar, we realized that there were several reasons why extending our stay would be a more practical idea: we wouldn’t be traveling during Semana Santa (the week before Easter which is the most popular vacation week in all of Latin America), we would guarantee ourselves a place to stay during Semana Santa, our rental cost would actually be less per week because we were committing to a longer duration in one place, and we really didn’t need all that much time to get to Tulum afterwards.
What we didn’t expect, however, was that we would hit the jackpot in terms of celebrations in the inspiring city of Oaxaca. Sure, Semana Santa was bound to provide us with new things to see, processions, maybe fiestas, but we expected things to quiet down afterwards and then experience the city when everything was just usual and normal. But I’m not sure Oaxaca has a speed labelled “usual” or “normal”. Oaxaqueños (residents of Oaxaca) like to celebrate for any reason, and they celebrate with music. And while we were there, they had a great reason: they were celebrating their 480th anniversary. Not too shabby. Sure, there was food, dancing, and art as well, but music is where Oaxaca really puts it out there, and we were bombarded with performances of all different kinds of music in all different places. And it was a great education for a musician from the U.S.
Even without special festivals, there is music literally in the streets. I don’t know why, but Oaxaca seems to be a hotbed of street musicians. Around the perimeter of the Zócalo is a string of restaurants facing into the park itself. And usually standing in between the diners and the trees are musicians, hoping to win a fan or make a couple of extra pesos. Roaming mariachi bands, singing the folk music that everyone there knows and loves (la música ranchera, as it is known), were staples of this area during the evenings, often until midnight. Usually comprised of five guys with a couple of guitars, a couple of trumpets, and a violin, they would stroll about with their repertoire of well under ten songs and enchant not just tourists but locals as well. It wasn’t uncommon to catch them swapping instruments before heading to their next encounter. To be frank, nothing was ever pitch-perfect with these guys but everything was from the heart, and they had plenty charm and character to spare, so no one really noticed or cared about any little imperfections. Including yours truly. Well, usually.
All musicians circling the Zócalo usually did a good job of discreetly taking turns. You would also see a solo serenader, strumming chords on his guitar while using his tenor to sing of his love; you might find yourself scurrying out of the way of the elderly gentleman who carried his unprotected trombone in one hand while pushing his walker in front of him (bless his heart) stopping every now and then and crank out a tune on his trombone (again, bless his heart); or you might find a quartet of high-school-aged boys, each strumming a guitar, trying to endear themselves to the public (keep practicing, boys!).
In one corner of this area there was a regular marimba ensemble: two marimbas (three to four players) and percussion. These guys played hot, lively music that had people spontaneously dancing and clapping along. On Wednesday nights, a different marimba band would perform Cuban and Cuban-inspired music while men in suits and women in nice dresses would show the rest of us gawkers what it really means to dance.
The marimbists here boggle my mind: first of all, there are so many of them; secondly, they play the marimba as easily as if had been doing it in the womb. American percussionists train long and hard on this instrument which most of them do not own and rarely are called upon to play. One thing, though: the marimbas here aren’t always in tune. They take a lot of beating, they get moved every single day, and usually it’s just more practical to play an out-of-tune marimba than not play one at all. But again, it’s like the mariachi bands: there is plenty of heart and energy to cover up those little things.
On the streets themselves, the instrument of choice seems to be… the accordion! (My grandmother would have loved that!) Within only maybe a dozen blocks, I knew of at least six different accordionists. The accordions were usually modest little instruments, and the tunes were Mexican and Oaxacan folk tunes. Again, each player only had a repertoire of maybe five to eight songs.
I know it is going to sound crazy, but one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had on this trip so far was befriending one of these accordionists. His name is Juan, he is 13 years old, and he plays the accordion in the street every night (except Sundays). One night I started chatting with him about his accordion, and many nights thereafter I visited him for a while. He genuinely seemed to enjoy talking with me (and making fun of my Spanish errors), but I also knew that the more we chatted, the less he played, and therefore the fewer tips he made. So sometimes I would talk to him, find out that he doesn’t even know the names of the notes, then I would leave him alone for a while so that he could play and so that I could find some French fries and sodas for us. Juan had only been playing a year, knew six songs by heart, would like to play in a rock band someday, and his father and sister also play accordion in the street. It’s an interesting life, and I had so many questions, but I didn’t want to overstep any boundaries. But he did me the ultimate honor of allowing me (I didn’t ask – he offered) the opportunity to play his accordion. I know something about the accordion, how it works, and the layout of the left hand, so I did my best at “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” My public debut is on the video below (The passers-by really seemed to get a kick out of it.)
In Europe and for the most part in the U.S., the orchestra is the ensemble of high esteem. In Mexico, the concert band reigns supreme. Oaxaca has an official state band, and they are fantastic. Our first week there we saw them perform in the Zócalo, mainly classical orchestral works arranged for band, but they were musical and polished – and in tune! There is another, maybe more popular-minded, band that performs several times a week in the Zócalo as well; they do marches and typical folk music of Mexico. Children’s bands and school bands seem to pop up everywhere as well, and it’s another bizarre thing: when these kids are performing well-known folk music, such as songs about Oaxaca or Mexico, they usually don’t even need the printed page in front of them. (This was proven to us at an outdoor concert when a breeze blew some music off the stands and everyone just continued to play as if nothing had happened.)
Little marching bands always accompany a street procession, such as during Semana Santa or even, as I’ve seen, a funeral procession, and no one ever seems to need music. At an Easter celebration complete with a blazing fireworks displays (also on the video below), the accompanying band was incredibly high energy, played forever without stopping, and honestly seemed to have the easiest time in the world with all the rhythmic intricacies inherent in the folk music of this region. (For those of you who care: the fluidly alternating between 6/8 and 3/4 is a hallmark of this music, and everyone here does it like it’s the most natural thing in the world, while amateur Western-trained musicians never seem to grasp neither the sound nor the concept all that easily.) I couldn’t decide what to give my visual attention to: the fireworks or that wacky band of silly young men who were obviously having as much fun performing as we were having listening (and, of course, they were not using music).
It’s inspiring how many young people seem to play a band instrument here, and it’s interesting to note how this culture of band – or even la música ranchera seems to have infiltrated Mexican pop music. Sure, you’ll find trumpets, saxophones, and violins in a lot of pop music, but don’t be surprised to see Sousaphones or trombones as well. Or accordions, for that matter. It definitely gives modern Mexican pop music a unique flavor of its own, with a proud nod to its own roots.
In the week that was devoted to the 480th anniversary celebration, there was music everywhere and at all times. Every morning in the mercados, while you were drinking your chocolate caliente and eating breakfast, guitars, pan flutes, marimbas, and/or trumpets would serenade you. In the evenings we saw a brass quintet perform outdoors, we saw two orchestras perform in the beautiful theater (one was like a decent community orchestra (missing a few wind players) and the other was an excellent professional chamber orchestra specializing in 17th and 18th century music), we saw the bands that were mentioned above, we saw three funny caballeros with guitars singing la música ranchera, we saw a fun party band with plenty of brass instruments and dance steps, we saw children’s choirs and children’s guitar ensembles, and we also saw maybe the most interesting (but, in my mind, not the most successful) attempt at colliding musical
genres: Gregorian chant, performed by a legitimate chant ensemble, being backed up by a heavy metal band. I appreciated the idea but didn’t love the result. Erik, however, thought it was great. The band itself was okay, but it was this performance of la música ranchera (after the chanters left the stage, of course) of all the ones I had experienced all week that was the least inspiring for me. Something about unoriginal transcriptions of tunes like “Viva, Oaxaca,” on electric guitars didn’t move me.
But easily my favorite performance of the week: Mariachi Oaxaca, a mariachi band of four fiddles (all ladies), three guitars, and three trumpets (father and two sons) that absolutely had me on the edge of my chair and asking Erik if there were money in the budget to buy their CDs. Me! The guy who meticulously prepared Mahler and Shostakovich for his final performances on the podium, fell gaga for mariachi music. But these guys (and gals) were head-and-shoulders WAY above the regular mariachi bands who perform in the Zocalo. They were rock stars, and the crowd (and I) could not get enough. I only wish I had known all the lyrics like the people sitting next to me or could have understood all the jokes that the hammy brother was constantly tossing out while his more serious-minded younger brother was beautifully singing, trumpeting, or fiddling. Heads-up to the MPO: they even did “Huapango” (the whole thing) on their ten instruments and it was AWESOME.
Ah…. what else to say. There is a lot more to say (such as, I think part of the “Mexican sound” has a lot to do with the musicians in an ensemble tuning their instruments separately but not tuning to each other), but I’m blabbering too much in this post as it is.
But I will conclude with the observation that this celebration, with all the music around Oaxaca, was not being shoved down people’s throats. Oaxaqueños love it. They know all the words, they stand for specific songs, and their heart swells with pride upon hearing this music. I can’t think of a correlation in the U.S. when it comes to music. Sure, many people can recognize “When Johnny Come Marching Home,” but the vast majority of Americans don’t know the words, what it means, or why it was written; and from generation to generation our musical “heritage” is fading away and being replaced by… well, let’s not go there.
Do you have 10 minutes? Check out this video collage of musical samples that Erik put together. Mariachi Oaxaca is there, chant + heavy metal is there, Pepe in the street playing accordion is there. We may not have always had the best seat (frequently we were actually behind the ensemble), but the music is fun to listen to.
Food + Music = Oaxaca. What more is there?
Coming up: tales from our current Help Exchange. It was, uh, different…