As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!
May 17 – Day 1
Traveling down here was relatively easy. I got to Atlanta on time, walked on the lower level to stretch my legs between terminals, and boarded the flight to Mexico City. I talked a bit at the end of the flight with my seatmate, who is from Tampico and has an apartment in Mexico City. His name was Victor Vasquez. He complimented me on my Spanish, and right after that I had to ask him to slow down his talking!
Here’s the view on the approach to Mexico City. I had heard that it was in the mountains, but I didn’t understand how the city really IS in the mountains – at least parts are, of this sprawling area of 22 million people.
Upon going through immigration and getting to baggage claim, I started my first-ever texting in Spanish. I was a little nervous that the AT&T roaming plan would somehow not work, and that my text to Jorge’s cell phone would not get to him. [Composer/conductor Jorge Córdoba is Jonathan's host in Mexico City.] But in a few minutes, there was a reply: “Cuantas maletas traen?” (How many bags are you carrying?). We went back and forth a few times. Then after clearing customs, I headed toward door 4. The problem was that door 4 was just taxis, and Jorge kept saying he was at door 5, which I couldn’t see. So I asked someone who said “está arriba” (it’s up), and pointed to a set of stairs. All the while I had about ten 30-second phone calls with Jorge to figure out where he was. I schlepped my suitcase up the stairs, walked over to door 5, and there was Jorge. Best thing to happen to me so far today!
It was a short drive to the hotel, maybe 15-20 minutes. We talked mostly Spanish and I followed most of what Jorge was saying. I was asking him if he could, at the outset, help me understand the differences between some of the main styles of Mexican music – mariachi and norteño in particular. He talked about how those have been around a long time, especially mariachi. He kept emphasizing how important it is to listen to the early recordings in the Fonoteca (the national archive of recorded sound – more on that later), which were created in an era before radio homogenized so many styles. It reminds me of what people say about hybridized wheat or tomatoes; the heirloom seeds and grains and vegetables have a different quality from the overproduced, too-much-always-the-same stuff.
Then we went to dinner at the La Fonda El Refugio, a sweet place. We started with squash-blossom soup, which was yummy, then guacamole (you simply can’t get avocados that fresh in Chicago) and a green salsa for our chips, which Jorge said was rather tame – “para los niños.” I joked with the waiter that I was just a kid. Jorge then asked the waiter for some hotter salsa. I took a bite and said, “Ahora soy un HOMBRE mexicano!” (Now I am a Mexican MAN!) It’s fun to be able to be a little funny in a new language. Jorge then told me how funny it was on the day when he realized that “Who cares?” and “Hookers” almost sound the same in English, at least when you use Mexican pronunciation of English.
he highlight of the evening, however, was about three hours at Plaza Garibaldi. I can say with confidence that I have never experienced anything like this. It is the place where literally dozens of mariachi bands descend on this one square and play and play and play, all doing different songs at different times and often in different keys, all loud, taking as many requests as they can to make money. I had read about it in my guidebook, but nothing prepared me for the total sensory onslaught. Jorge said, “You remember Charles Ives?” I cracked up, because Ives was the guy who would write symphonies where one part of the orchestra is playing in one key and the other is playing in another key and at a different tempo. This was just like that, except there were 6 or 7 different bands going at once, often with different sets of instruments according to the different styles. In addition to straight mariachi, there were a bunch of norteño bands, which have upright bass (played pizzicato “siempre,” Jorge pointed out – never a bow) and a harp. Mariachi traditionally has guitar, vihuela, guitarrone, 4 to 6 violins, 2 trumpets, and singers, some of which are also playing instruments. Son jarocho from Veracruz has something else. All different. The amazing thing was how many people knew and asked for songs, how many people sang along, and then simply how many bands there were, all vying for a piece of the action. On the same plaza is built the Museum of Mezcal and Tequila (!), and in the little gift shop I bought a $5.00 vial of “Oro de Oaxaca” and a CD of traditional melodies from Michoacán, which was a real find since (1) Jorge said they were good, traditional tunes and (2) I wasn’t able to make it Michoacán on this trip, and so many Chicago-area Mexicans are from Michoacán.
Here’s another band, with their own brand of costume:
Jorge and I strolled down an open-air food market (pozole, tacos, goat meat, you name it).
… and then went over to the “main stage” which was a crowded, noisy bar filled with more mariachi bands, I think 3 of them. Jorge said this was where the better bands played, and you could tell them a song you wanted and they would tell you how much it cost.
Jorge listened to the 3 bands walking around and decided that one was worth plunking a little money down to hear. He had a special song in mind, “Bonito es mi Tierra” or something like that. It cost me 120 pesos, just under ten dollars, to hear that song. I had thought I caught it on my camera, but it didn’t happen. No matter – the sound was unbelievable. I’ll never forget it.
Then we headed back to the taxi stand and bought roasted pumpkin seeds from the lady who had a wok sort of thing in the middle of her stall as well as 4 different sizes and shapes of pepitas.