Making music in Mexico: One lucky PCV

29 10 2012

I’ve had the incredible good fortune to play a lot of music during my service, and last weekend I played what may be my final show with my band, Leones Negros / Atletas Campesinos, at Jardin Guerrero here in Queretaro. This was certainly one of the best parts of my service, and I like to think it contributed in some way to the Peace Corps’ Goal 2 (“Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”) in addition to leaving me with some great friendships and experiences. Here are a few memories:

  • I was actually in 3 bands here. I met my first band through my host family- my ‘host-aunt’ was friends with the trumpet player. A bunch of guys had gotten together and started a ska band called Raskazon. My host mom and dad weren’t very encouraging about it but I was desperate to find anybody to play with, so I was happy for the opportunity. They were just getting started and they played covers of Mexican ska songs. They were nice guys but it wasn’t musically a great fit. Although I did learn some great songs by latin ska bands like Panteon Rococo and Gondwana.
  • I did play a few shows with them and I’ll never forget the first. It was in a barn about an hour outside of Queretaro and was filled was teenagers. Having played lots of ska shows in the states, this wasn’t that unusual for me, although unlike my previous shows, I was pretty sure I was the only American in the place. And it was the first time I had played a show with cows right outside the door. Fortunately, just like in the states, when the music got going, the crowd started moshing and fighting and I felt pretty much at home.

    Halloween in the barn

  • Shortly after, I got lucky and met my buddy Aldo, a UAQ student and guitar player who invited me to practice with his reggae/ska band. That was my second band here, and I played my first show with them about 2 weeks later out in La Cañada. I also sat in and played with another local band that night. I think I was lucky because there aren’t a lot of slide trombone players here, so I’ve been something of a novelty!

Other memorable times:

  • Breaking down on the side of the highway late to a show in DF when a mechanic happened to stop and see if we needed help. Within 15 minutes, he had gotten under the van, fixed the problem and we were on our way. I was surprised that the mechanic was wearing a Choate Rosemary Hall prep-school sweatshirt.
  • The band had an old 15 passenger van that broke down a lot, and often smelled like gas in the back, where I spent many hours learning Mexican card games. Once we broke down on the side of a small highway a few hours from Puebla with a leaky radiator and spent a few hours trying to find water and fix the leak. It was amazing this didn’t happen more because no one in the band really knew anything about fixing cars.

    The campesina

  • We got stopped at checkpoints innumerable times. I can only imagine what the police thought of our dread-locked driver (and lead singer) and his graffiti’d van full of musicians. But we never had any major problems.
  • After a show in a small town between DF and Puebla, we were put up by the promoter in his family’s house. There were about ten of us, and we took over all the rooms- the family stayed at a neighbor’s house. I felt bad since we kicked all the kids out of their Winnie the Pooh and Barbie rooms for the night. But they treated us like rock stars and insisted on making us a huge breakfast in the morning.
  • A couple times after staying overnight for shows, we’d spend the next day at a hot spring or alberca, relaxing with a carne asada picnic and listening to mariachi or banda bands.

  • We played a couple festivals at Cerro de la Estrella in DF, the park where Mexico’s largest Easter procession finishes. Once the crowd was at least 5 thousand people- the biggest crowd I’ve ever played. Fortunately we were almost finished with our set when the first incoming water bottle hit our trumpet player.
  • We played many shows in little bars in pueblitos with no stage, where once the moshing gets going, the microphone stands don’t stay up for long. But of course the music goes on. Another way Mexico is just like the US!
  • Often playing on a packed stage – the good times were when it was full of musicians or singers from other bands (or fans who wanted to dance!) who would join our sets. Other times it was borrachos who would get past the bouncers and crash the stage. When there were bouncers.

  • Getting spoiled by routinely playing shows with terrific sound engineers and equipment. And often, very elaborate staging and lighting. Even in small towns.
  • Even more than in the states, Mexicans seem to love smoke machines. I hadn’t played with them many times before and I learned that it’s really tough to play a horn that’s full of fake smoke.
  • Playing a quinceañera party, in a little town’s basketball arena. We were treated like guests of honor, had our own table and they brought us cases of beer and tequila, because I guess everyone knows that’s what keeps musicians happy. It was my only quinceañera here, but it was complete with a girl in an amazing, frilly, purple satin dress and her 6 suitors in matching tuxedos with purple ties or something. We played on a stage under the backboard and they had an impressive light show and great sound production. And smoke machines.
  • I was often flattered to be asked to be in pictures with fans or sign autographs. Usually on copies of our records, but sometimes t-shirts, skin or other stuff. A lot more often than in the states!

  • We played a number of farms and barns, with cows either right behind us or just outside. No idea if they enjoyed the shows or not, sometimes they mooed, usually they kept quiet.

  • I played weekly shows for awhile at Harry’s in Queretaro with a blues band. We had a great time and almost always had a very fun crowd. Unfortunately the management decided we were too loud and fired us.
  • I also played open jams at other local bars including Wicklow’s and Funky Mama’s. I try not to take it personally that the city has since practically outlawed live music on that stretch of 5 de Mayo.

All in all, an incredible part of my service, which I can’t believe is coming to an end in just a couple weeks!

Mom and Dad come to Mexico

31 07 2012

Just before I head to Chiapas, here are finally some pictures from their visit a couple months ago- what a great trip!

I’ve been busy traveling and getting ready to hopefully, finally deliver my course at work. We’ll see..

Also I was home for a busy, successful week… I passed the FSOA up in DC, saw Tom and Cliff and had a good quick trip to the doc.

Also have played a few fun shows recently.. big show down in DF, headlined a festival up in Pozos, and played a fun show in a little town about an hour from Puebla! Despite some logistics issues and a bit of car trouble, good times!


1 02 2012

Had a really good day at work today- finally sat down with my boss and counterpart and hammered out a plan for the course on business planning I’m going to teach. It’s been a work in progress for awhile between Hilda and I, but it looks like they want to move forward with something soon- now I have about a month to get a curriculum together! Given how we managed to pull the taller series together, it should really be plenty of time. I think it will only be 2-3 hours a week for 4 weeks or so. We’ll see.
I think it will also help a lot with the curriculum work I’m doing on a project for Mexican university students, along with some other PCVs (and former) and some students from MIT. We did a week-long seminar a few weeks ago for students here in Queretaro which was very well-received- the idea now is to develop a longer course (probably 5-6 weeks) to be delivered over the summer.
Other than that, played a fun show a couple weeks ago here in town, and have a show coming up this weekend in Irapuato. Unfortunately I had to miss the tour this past weekend in Michoacan. But hopefully we’ll get some shows lined up soon for this new blues band I’m playing with.
And to cap it off, I had a great steak dinner tonight (which I’ve been craving) and caught up with pal Ana!

Música indígena

4 12 2011

Some strange weather here lately.. not to say I miss December NYC weather right now, but its a little tougher to handle low 40s at night after having sun and mid to high 70s during the day.. I think our high altitude (+/-6000 ft) is the reason for the wide swings. And central heating is quite rare here- neither my apartment nor the office are heated so it stays pretty chilly inside this time of year. Thank god for space heaters!

Been laying low this weekend but last weekend was a pretty busy one- we had a fun show last Friday down in DF. It was for this festival of ‘musica resistencia’ which (not surprisingly) basically means resistance music or music of the resistance. Whatever, it was at this big park/hill where they also have the biggest passion play in Mexico every easter, which I coincidentally went to last year. Probably close to 10k people when we arrived, and since we were in the performers’ area, we could go around in front of the stage during the other sets. I stood in front for the show of this big reggae star from Chile and there were grown women right behind me climbing on the fences screaming his name and taking photos all through his set. I thought it must have been a tiny bit like an old Beatles concert or something.
We were the second to last band – right before the headliners, a big Mexican reggae band called Antidoping- but unfortunately, we went on at about 12:30. Since the Mexico City metro shuts at 12, a lot of people had split, although the guys in the band estimated there were still probably about 3 or 4k folks there and that seemed right to me. In any case, it was certainly the biggest show I’ve ever played. A few pretty drunk folks got a little out of hand during our set and started fighting and almost pulled the barricades down, which was amusing. I hate to say it but ever since my days in TSC I always like when stuff like that happens at shows, I feel like it means we’re doing our jobs, we’re putting some strong energy out there or whatever.
Here’s a video, although its not that great. Its from very away, you can’t see the excitement up front unfortunately. But reminds me I came across a bunch of other videos of other shows from the last year recently. They’re below too.

Anyway, good times. I came back that night with a few guys from the band and got back home about 6am. Then Sat night I went to a birthday in a little town about an hour away called San Luis de la Paz. A bunch of PCVs live there and I had been wanting to visit for a long time. Its very close to a major national park area so I definitely need to get back out there at some point for some hiking or fishing maybe.

Also, had a nice Thanksgiving with a few PC folks. We had a very traditional Oaxacan dinner, including some tasty coconut pulque and some exceptional pumpkin pie!

Back in Mexico

23 11 2011

Got back the other day from a fun couple weeks in los EEUU. Spent some time in NY and Atl, saw family and a bunch of friends. Good times!
This weekend we’re playing a big festival in DF- supposed to be 15-20,000 folks! The same place (Iztapalapa) where I went to watch the big passion procession during Semana Santa last year… should be a great place to play.
Kinda tricky being back in the office today for the first time in a couple weeks- the Spanish is rustier than usual!

Back in Mexico

6 10 2011

I actually drafted this a couple weeks ago but it didn’t get published! Will write a fresh post soon…

So once again its been quite a while since I last posted… And needless to say a lot has gone on. I am very happy to be back in Mexico after the unexpected time spent in the states and doing my best to get back into the swing of things. Went running today for the first time in fact- can’t say it felt all that great but what can I expect?
But since coming back I’ve played a couple shows, one here in Qro the weekend after I returned, when we played at Jardin Guerrero – on the stage I have wanted to play on since I first saw it! It was really a lot of fun, was a beautiful day and a big crowd. Nortec Collective played later that night – they’re an interesting hybrid of banda and dance music and they put on a good show.

Been feeling pretty good about work lately too. My counterpart Hilda has recently been asking my opinion about a number of different opportunities the center has received and we’ve had several conservations about them, and I’ve also written up some thoughts on them for her. What I’ve been realizing is how much opportunity the center has to learn about the idea of customer value and getting an understanding of their business priorities, rather than just being good order takers. I think she liked some of my ideas as she has continued to ask about a number of other things that have come up. It’s become a very consultative role I’ve dropped into, and I feel like I’m giving them some perspectives or at least ways of looking at situations they aren’t used to. Its pretty cool. I’m not sure exactly how far its going to go, but I figure as long as they keep coming back for more, they must be finding what I’m saying at least somewhat interesting. Some of these things may turn into bigger internal projects, where they want to get time to explore some of these ideas more fully- I’ve been recommending spending some time analyzing past projects done from the perspective of customer value, and spending some time interviewing customers. I’m hoping some of this stuff will actually pan out. But at least I’m feeling like I’m earning my pay.

Ok, now I’m on the road to Cholula where I’ll be for the grito (the shout of Hidalgo) which is tonight, the night before Independence Day. Then we’re going to a beach in Veracruz for a few days tomorrow. Getting an early jump on celebrating my birthday, which is next week. Very excited. I almost missed the bus in Qro actually, because el presidente Calderon made a last-minute surprise trip to Qro for the grito, which royally screwed up traffic- fortunately it not only made my cab late, but the bus too.

And I’m planning a party for my 40th for next weekend. Its my friend Ana’s 27th the following week so we’re trying to put something good together. Was going to be on the roof of a local cafe but they’re unfortunately having problems with their liquor license so it may be at a friend’s house instead. But planning to have the band play among other activities.. Should be a fun way to celebrate Mom giving birth to me all those years ago, and me still being here to enjoy it;)

He regresado

24 06 2011

Sheesh its been a long time since I wrote. Of course lots of stuff has gone by that I didn’t report on.. Things are good and pretty busy. Been playing a fair amount, 2-3 times a month lately. Still enjoying myself and my time here immensely. In fact, the longer I am here, the more I like it. I guess that’s the right direction. I certainly have no regrets and feel lucky that I got sent down here. I like to think my spanish is improving too- I’ve finally started taking lessons again! (happy Lisa?)

Didn’t report on a couple trips to DF, but I was down there back during Semana Santa with a bunch of PCVs, and it was a ton of fun. Really spent time in the cool parts of town I thought, and avoided the touristy bits. Mostly spent time in Condessa, Roma and Coyoacan- although we did get to Teotihuacan, about as touristy as it gets! Thats where the massive pyramids are about an hour outside of town. Very impressive place. But dang, it was a long day of sun, heat, walking, and knick-knack vendors. Lots of vendors. Got a funny story from our guide about what to buy and what to avoid. The ceramic objects they sell- all kinds of things including jewelry, flutes, plates, etc are locally made and support the indigenous artist communities in the estado de Mexico. But unlike in Taxco, all the silver stuff is made in China! Note to self- although Mexico is famous for its silver crafts, its actually tough (and expensive) to get stuff that’s actually made here these days. So if you find silver products here that aren’t wildly expensive, they’re probably as Mexican as moo goo gai pan.
Speaking of which, I actually had decent chinese food last night! My first (and last) time eating it was shortly after I got here, over on Zaragoza, a major commercial street here in Qro. It was kind of a chinese cafeteria. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was just as horrible as it looked. At the place last night which was in the centro, we had a good meal and an entertaining time trying to figure out the proprietor’s heavily chinese-accented spanish. As he didn’t have a liquor license, we thought he invited us bring our own beers, although he seemed kinda horrified when we picked some up and brought them back. Of course one of the many benefits of being a foreigner (especially American probably) is that you can usually get away with playing dumb, apologizing if necessary, and just doing what you want. I hate to say it but people are pretty likely to treat you like some slightly dim relative who just doesn’t know better. For better or worse, its pretty convenient!

Also spent a few days in DF when Kirsten came down from NYC- we had fun, and we made it to Xochimilcho- the canal area south of town. I’d heard a lot about it – its slightly cheesy but basically very interesting and worth doing. And we got to stay with a friend from the embassy in her beautiful apartment in Polanco, which was hella nicer (not to mention cheaper) than a hotel somewhere. I’m just bummed because she and her husband have just moved on to their next posting! Kirsten and I also hit Guanajuato for a few days, and all in all a fun week away from work.

Tomorrow I’m going up to Pachuca for the weekend- the Junior World Cup is happening in cities all around the country and we’re going to catch a couple games, including USA vs. New Zealand! Also, the US is playing Mexico in the finals of the Gold Cup, which I had never heard of, but has got people really excited down here. I actually hope Mexico wins, just because they’ll actually care, and will probably go crazy if they do. Somehow I don’t think the Times Square vendors will be working overtime on Monday selling Gold Cup tshirts if the US wins.
Couple other interesting things recently: played a show a couple weeks ago in a little pueblito about an hour from here called Colon. Turns out it was this girl’s 18th birthday party. People said it was basically the same as a quincinera, which are of course a big deal down here. Apparently sometimes girls will delay their party until they turn 18.  Anyway we got there around 4pm and it was in the town auditorium, basically like a big gym. Lots of tables set up and all her family and friends were there I guess. They served us lunch, and everybody was kind of staring at us, like we were the freak musicians. Nobody was drinking but they went out and brought us some cases of beer and a bottle of tequila. I guess cause everyone knows musicians need booze!

Just like quincinieras, the girl was all dolled up in a really fancy but sort of ridiculous dress, big and poofy and purple with a black leather corset. I thought she kind of looked like cinderalla if she was into S&M.
After dark, the actual party got started and i think practically the whole town was there. The girl had like 8 dudes wearing tuxes who seemed like her attendants or something, and they did this kinda weird performance with classical music and r&b songs. She kind of danced with each one for a few mins, and it was kinda strange- they all had glasses and were served their first ‘official’ drinks apparently. They also did all these moves like you might see a bride and groom doing at a wedding. But while they were all dancing she also kind of played the guys off each other. It was maybe like the bachelorette if it was performance art instead of a tv show.

Anyway, at about 10 we finally went on, played for almost 2 hours. It was a pretty good show, with a really fancy stage set up, spotlights, even fog machines. Although no monitors so kinda tough to keep track of the music and how we were playing. But the huge crowd of kids was pretty into it, dancing etc. I was exhausted by the end, and didnt get home til close to 3. Long day out in the campo, but fun to see another slice of culture down here.

Will try to put some pics up sometime soon..