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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Mexico's Street Musicians Celebrate Independence Day

Independence day in Mexico

I was in Mexico last week during the Independence Day celebrations.

This was quite an experience for me, since I am of Spanish background. Spain, like the UK, has dedicated huge amounts of energy to not giving independence to the (now) ex-colonies, and here I was in Mexico listening to a roll-call of names honoured for having sacrificed their lives to their independence struggle with Spain. Although the leaders of the first ram-shackle rebellion which started in 1810 were caught and executed Spain's torment of Mexico started much earlier with Hernán Cortés, the cunning and ruthless adventurer who conquered Mexico during the 1520's in the name of God, Spain and the King. He completely destroyed the magnificent Aztec capital and looted much of the gold shipping it back to Spain, as well as inflicting unspeakable horrors on the population.

Small wonder then that I detect a tragic undertone behind the stoic exterior of many Mexicans, their features shaped by the pre-Spanish origins of those first immigrants who crossed over from Asia into the Americas some 20,000 years ago or so. There is a turbulent interior which their quietness and almost infinite patience with adversity cannot mask.

Back to Independence Day – I saw a huge procession wind its way round the whole town. In it were representatives of the armed forces, the police, ambulance drivers, horsemen, senior citizens and above all school-children of all ages marching in quasi-military style – two short steps and one long. The procession was animated by the many bands, most of them populated by teenagers blowing trumpets and other brass instruments, and beating a variety of drums. They played some quirky rhythms in perfect unison, needless to say all performed nonchalantly from memory.

The next day I sat in one of my favourite restaurants, an unassuming place with its front door permanently open to the busy pedestrianised street beyond. It faces an ancient wall, once part of a monastery. It was Friday 16th September and a national holiday to mark the uprising 201 years to the day. Hundreds of people streamed by: families with two, three and four small children, young couples hand in hand, and older people out to savour the atmosphere.

I sat at my table about to dig into my plate of grilled fish when I felt a faint tap on my shoulder. A very old lady, completely bent over, extended her arthritic hand towards me. It reminded me of Agustín Barrios' similar experience which inspired his sublimely beautiful tremolo piece Una Limosna Por El Amor De Dios.

A few minutes later three unlikely characters set up camp just outside the front door: a tall, long-haired young man who could have passed for a North American Indian, a manly-looking young lady dressed in jeans, and a more feminine-looking girl in colourful clothes who was carrying a rain-tree. The other two had strapped to them a big drum each. This could have been an inferno of deafening sounds but no, gradually there emerged a thrilling improvisation of irresistible rhythms and vocal interjections that was greeted by a loud collective cheer of bravo! from the diners. Their music had summoned some ancient spirit and transported me to a distant place and time interrupted only by the rain-tree girl coming round every table with a smile and a collection tin.

No sooner had I returned to the present, and taken another mouthful or two, than a boy of 16 or 17 years of age stood at one end inside the small restaurant, quietly tuned the guitar he was carrying, and without any introduction sang to his own accompaniment a series of Mexican ballads in an expressive and engaging voice. We were back in the present, in the music of the rancheros and today's idol Alejandro Fernandez, a tenor of operatic projection and magnificent presence.

On the next day I went out of town to see the archaeological remains of the city of Tula the centre of the pre-Aztec Tolteca civilization which thrived from 900 – 1200AD. Beautifully carved columns are witness to a people who appreciated the finer things. As I left the site I saw two hollow wooden frogs for sale. The seller, who turned out to be the maker, explained they were replicas of ancient Tula musical instruments. A little stick rubbing the frog's contoured back produces an amazingly croak-like sound! What fun they must have had – those ancient people long gone – with this frog-percussion instrument.

And so ended a memorable week for me, viewing as an outsider a country's celebrations, but as an insider a series of varied musical displays that will linger in the memory for a very long time.

Read more:
The Aztec Empire by Felipe Solis Tula
http://www.amazon.com

Tula and the Tolteca Civilization
http://archaeology.about.com/od/tterms/g/tula.htm
Listen to:
Agustín Barrios: Una Limosna Por El Amor De Dios
On CD From the Jungles of Paraguay: John Williams Plays Barrios
http://www.amazon.com

Alejandro Fernandez: Mexican ballad singer
http://www.amazon.com

September 2011

Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=731 .
© 2017.

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