Mole', Mariachis & Mexican Standards

I just got back into the country from a ten day vacation in and around Guadalajara, Mexico. This was my first trip south of the boarder and it was much nicer than I expected. I realized just why so many Americans are retiring down there; great weather, nice people, incredible food, natural beauty, amazing prices and tons of Jazz clubs everywhere. Alright I made up that last one, that was the only thing missing. There were a lot of musicians playing on the street, in the restaurants, hotels and even on the buses, but not a single Jazz club. I've heard from my buddy Pere Soto that there is a decent Jazz club in Mexico city, and there must be places in the popular resort cities like Cancun that have a night of Jazz once in a while. That got me thinking about my retirement. Would I ever feel like I not playing music anymore? Would I always feel the need to live in a city with plenty of other Jazz musicians? How long am I going to feel like playing gigs in clubs? Will I always be tied to a city with a Jazz scene for the rest of my life? When will it not bug me if I'm not playing good music for more than a few weeks?

There's a tenor play here in Portland named Sam Schlicting who's in his eighties and still gets out to the Jam sessions and sounds great. Charles MacPherson is in his mid-seventies and he sounds better than ever. There are lots of other examples of players sounding great longer than most people live. Cats like Benny Carter, Hank Jones, Count Basie, Elvin Jones, and Art Blakey. Did they keep playing only because they couldn't afford to retire? Probably part of the reason, but these guys never stopped being totally dedicated to the music. Most people in other careers can't wait to escape the grind of the job and putter around the house in slippers or the golf course in silly plaid pants. If I weren't a musician I probably would be wanting to move to the land of mañana as soon as I could. If you're trying to make it on a fixed income why not live like a king for half the price? I also happen to love great Mexican food, which is almost enough reason alone to head south.

Most of the music I heard wasn't the greatest. You gave these a few pesos just to stop their infernal bedlam. Do they just not have guitar tuners in Mexico? I was expecting to hear at least one good Mariachi band while I munched mole', but no fuzzy dice señor. I know that there are some smoking Latin bands in Mexico, but I just didn't seem to run into any. Even though the musicianship was poor it was still always entertaining for me to come across live Latin music. One thing kind of surprised me, most of the tunes I heard were the same crusty Latin standards that you hear up here. There were bad renditions of tunes like the Girl from Ipanema, Beseme Mucho, Para Mi, and the like. I guess I was expecting hip Mexican folk songs or something. There were a few musical high points though, on one of my last days in Mexico I came across a pair of unlikely street musicians. They were two blind and bearded Mexican grandmothers who tore it up with nothing more than a homemade kazoo and their vocal chords. I used my camera (not a video camera) to capture short clips of some of the bands I saw on the street.


MonksDream said...

That iguana looks like he could probably belt a few out! Isn't the guy playing tenor by the marimba-ish player 80-year old David Valdez? Playing Besame Mucho in 5/4 while the Marimba guy vamps in 7/8?? They lock into a groove every 35 measures or just stop when someone gives them a few pesos.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Hey, I will have earned the right to sit like that when I'm that guy's age.

Adam said...

"infernal bedlam" -- that's awesome!

Me Me said...

No, tuning the guitar is not part of the culture of Mexican street musicianship. :-) To continue in the politically incorrect vein, I briefly tried to attend the church I got married in but after a few Sundays I couldn't stand the out-of-tune piano and tuneless singing. Inevitably some old Mexican woman would turn and angrily correct me for singing on key. Years later, while I had a regular soloist gig at a cathedral here in San Francisco, the organist handed me a book entitled "Why Catholics Can't Sing," so apparently I wasn't the only one who noticed the phenomenon. But of course there are fabulous Mexican singers (Juan Gabriel, Pedro Infante, Placido Domingo, Lola Beltran, Lucha Villa, Los Panchos, etc.). Also, driving through Guadalajara last year I heard some great jazz radio stations (same in el D.F.).

Anyway, I'm married to a Mexican so I believe I've done my time and am allowed to comment with some impunity. A few years ago to my MIL's delight we brought her a dancing Santa who plays jazz saxophone. My in-laws don't understand or listen to jazz of course, but they wanted something genuinely American, and what's more American than a dancing Santa made in China?

David Carlos Valdez said...

Pere Soto tells me that it's actually
normal for violins to play significantly flat in Mariachi music.
It certainly makes it more possible to hear them over the din of blaring trumpets this way, interesting. Kind of like the lead alto player in a big band playing sharp in order to come out over a full big band.

There's one style of Spanish/Mexican music that I'm particularly fascinated with, that's Bullfight music. This stuff is usually scored for a small wind ensemble and it seriously kicks ass. If you haven't heard this stuff you're really missing out. I'm totally serious.