Mexico City Trip Part 5

Friday, Oct. 29

I went to hear Eugenio Toussaint last night at the soulbar where I played
the previous night. He’s a very good player but his bag is pretty run
of the mill. His original tunes are a little dry for my taste but he selected
some nice covers by Jaco Pastorious, Egberto Gismonti and Ralph Towner.
The bassist and drummer were very good players as well and I rather enjoyed
the drummer’s playing – it was quite understated. I went with Juan jr.
and the club treated us very nicely. They waived the admission and gave
us the best seats in the house to boot. Claudia, the event director for
the school brought the director of Fermatta over to our table to introduce
us. He was very nice and told me that he heard that the concert went well
and invited me to return in the future to do a clinic or work with the
teachers on some project. All in all it was a nice experience. I can see
how one might get used to being treated like a VIP.

The rest of the trip was spent as a tourist and I did the same stuff
that any tourist guide tells you you ought to do. It was interesting,
but any travel book can tell you about it better than I. One thing I found
out that made me a little sad: the day of the dead celebration has all
but disappeared in the cities – or, more accurately, has turned into a
lame imitation of Halloween where kids with plastic pumpkins hit you up
for cash instead of sweets. They tell me that the traditional celebrations
still exist in the provincial areas but I had no time to make the trip
out of town. All told it was an awesome experience and I can’t wait to
go back and play again.

Mexico City Trip Part 4

Wednesday, Oct. 27

Last night I did a clinic at the music store Veerkamp, which seems to
be the Sam Ash of Mexico. The clinic was at their main store and they
have a small auditorium for concerts and clinics. There were only about
15-20 people there but they were interested in the music and asked quite
a few questions. The ”Americana” things I play seem to interest the
people here, especially the dulcimer. It’s all a little exotic for them
and I think that piques their interest. Rubén, the teacher at the school
Fermatta, has a theory about the dulcimer. He thinks it resonates with
the Mexican people because the instrument comes from Appalachia where
the people are poor and the Mexican people, who understand poverty very
well, hear something in it’s sound that strikes a chord inside them. I
like the theory.

After the clinic, the school (Fermatta) sent a van to
pick up the band and take us to a club where we played a show sponsored
by the school. The school got radio airplay for my disc on 2 different
radio stations and a few people told me that they heard the tunes. That
makes 3 radio stations that have played my tunes in 2 weeks. That’s as
good as in Chicago in 15 years. The club is beautiful – it looks like
something straight out of New York City and seats well over 100. The club
was 80% full – a large percentage were students from the school – but
on a Tuesday night that’s an excellent crowd anywhere. Someone told me
that it was the largest crowd at the club since opening night – what an
honor.

Mexico City Trip Part 3

Tuesday, Oct. 26

Well, the festival was last weekend. It was an artistic success but a
bit of an economic bust. The first night we played in an auditorium of
a private school way on the north end of Mexico City, which is a HUGE
city. On the way I got to see a sampling of the abject poverty that exists
here as well as passing through some of the finer neighborhoods. The discrepancy
between rich and poor here is terrible and I fear the US is headed toward
a similar place. The sound in the auditorium was less than perfect but
the sound guys did a decent job of getting some clarity out of the system.
At show time the auditorium was less than half full but the hall wasn’t
very big so it didn’t seem painfully empty. The opening act was a bunch
of professors of music therapy. Their leader got up and gave an incredibly
boring 30-minute speech before they played a note even though they were
only supposed to play 25 minutes in total. Some people. I didn’t stay
out front for the whole thing because there’s nothing worse than listening
to a boring speech in your second language where you have to work to follow
what is said. The second act was a soloist operating under the name ”Teyas”.
He played pure New Age stuff. It was nice, but very static music. After
his 25 minutes, Mario, Eduardo and I took the stage for our 35-minute
set. From the first note, it was one of those nights where nothing can
go wrong. Mario and Eduardo nailed the tunes and I felt like I could hear
every note 2 bars before I played it and my hands delivered without me
having to do anything. The audience, although small, was very into it
and was with us from the first number. Between tunes my rap in Spanish
was flowing like the music and I felt completely comfortable winging it
and making jokes. If only it was always like that. They audience loved
”Reuben’s Train” on the dulcimer and the blues flavor of our closer,
“Stridin”, was a big hit as well. I stayed on the stage after
we were done because I played on the first tune of Antes del Glacier’s
set. That went well also. After the show ended we bugged out fairly quickly
because the next day’s show at the Cultural Center started and 11:00 and
sound check was at 8:30.

After a short night’s sleep we got up and headed to the cultural center.
At the conclusion of our sound check, I walked down the little staircase
on the front on the stage and when I stepped off, I found the floor to
be at 2 different levels and took a nose dive. I instinctively reached
out with my right arm to break my fall and jammed the middle finger of
my right hand. At first I thought nothing really happened but after 15
minutes I realized that I had a full blown sprained finger. Showtime wasn’t
far off so I just had to deal with it. Playing with a pick wasn’t bad
but the fingerstyle stuff was a struggle to say the least. I remember
seeing Led Zeppelin in 1975 when Jimmy Page played with a broken middle
finger on his left hand. I decided that if he could do it, so would I.
Teyas asked if I would sit in on a number in his set (which immediately
preceded ours) and I said yes. I was able to play ok (with a pick) but
when I returned to the stage with Mario and Eduardo for our set the guitar
had drifted out of tune. I hate starting a set with tuning but I had no
choice. Our first number starts with me playing 2 minutes of solo flamenco.
There is nothing worse for a right hand with a sprained finger than flamenco
because all the rasgueados and golpes involve the middle finger. It was
a bit of a struggle but I got through it. That sort of set the tone for
the set and nothing really worked quite right. It wasn’t terrible or anything
but it just never quite clicked in. The dulcimer was a big hit again and
we closed strong with Stridin’ once again so we walked away not feeling
too bad. I didn’t tell anyone about my finger before the set because I
didn’t want anyone (but me) to worry. After the set it was apparent that
I had to deal on it. I went with Laura, Sofía´s friend to
find ice at a gas station.

The crowd was better at the cultural center but still only filled about
half of the seats. I sold 15 cds between the 2 shows, which basically
will pay for all my touristy activities this week since after the clinic
this afternoon and club gig tonight, I’ve finished my professional obligations.
I still might go and do a little sitting in at clubs, but that’s it. By
today the finger is a lot better and the finger style stuff isn’t much
of a problem. The flamenco however is still pretty rough. Unfortunately,
I’m only going to do one flamenco number at each event because I don’t
want to fumble through it – or worse – mess up my finger even more. On
Monday morning I went to a studio with Juan Carlos and his dad to record
the tune that I’d played with them on stage. The studio was small and
the engineer was running Cubase LE to record. He had no midi interface
on his PC (???) and that meant that Juan Carlos had to dump his sequences
as audio into the audio input of the computer. I played along and we got
a decent take on the second pass. Afterwards we sat around listening to
tunes and shooting the breeze with the owners of the studio who have a
band that plays traditional Latin folk music. They’re not incredible players
but folk music really sounds better to me when it’s not played too cleanly
and proficiently. Their sound was very nice all around. They were nice
guys too and they were freaking out on the Godin guitar as are most folks
down here. Apparently Godin has little or no distribution here and that
strikes me as crazy because their nylon string is great and the nylon
string guitar is the axe of Latin music. The guitar is a bit rich for
most budgets here but still I bet they’d sell a ton. It’s interesting
the prices here. Some things are cheap – apartments cost $400 – $600 instead
of a grand and up and a flick in the theatre costs 4 bucks instead of
8. However a coffee still costs 2-3 bucks (Starbucks is everywhere) and
a guest admission at a health club costs 10 bucks just like in the states.
Taxis are a little less but still aren’t cheap.

Mexico City Trip Part 2

Thursday, Oct. 21

On Tuesday Juan and I went to ”El Zocalo”, which is Mexico City’s giant
central plaza, to see Templo Mayor and the Cathedral. Templo Mayor is
the remains of an Aztec Temple for the worship of the sun. It’s impressive.
With my typical American ignorance, I had no idea that the Aztecs were
such warring people and had such a pessimistic view of the world. I also
didn’t know that Mexico City used to sit in the middle of a lake that
the conquistadors manually drained to build the city. The weather here
has been incredible – 80 degrees every day with 100% sun. It’d probably
be really blue if not for the smog. I went out for a run my second day
here and I completely forgot about the altitude. Mexico City is at something
like 2500 meters and I found myself suckin’ wind pretty bad after about
3 minutes from the combination of altitude and smog. I had to cut the
run short lest I kill myself and pay the price. There is a nice park near
Juan and Sofia’s house that’s ideal for running in. They live in a pretty
tranquil neighborhood and they turned me onto an outrageously good little
restaurant on the corner a block from their house. They serve every Mexican
food you’ve ever heard of plus 200 more. You can get stuffed for about
$3.50.

Today Eduardo the percussionist and Mario the bassist came over for our
first rehearsal. Eduardo has studied percussion in Africa and has a nice
raw feel to his playing although he lacks experience in a band
setting. The bulk of his experience has been in pure percussion ensembles
that accompany dancers. He is eager to learn and he takes well to suggestions
on what he might do to help the tunes out. Mario is a very good young
(maybe 25) bassist and can read well to boot. His solos fall easy on the
ears and don’t sound at all clichéd. He too is very eager to learn.
I don’t see any reason to use the other bassist. He can’t rehearse and
can only make the festival gigs whereas Mario can do it all and I enjoy
his playing. Decision made. One thing that I find interesting (but not
at all surprising) is that on the latin flavored tunes I don’t have to
tell the guys a thing – they just hear the groove and within a bar have
it nailed to the foor. However the shuffle feel of ‘Stridin’ is a problem
for both of them. I had to give them a fairly in-depth lesson on how to
play a shuffle. I guess if you grow up in Chicago, a shuffle is in your
blood and if you grow up in Latin America, those rhythms are burned in.They’ve
picked up the shuffle pretty well and I don’t think we’ll have any problem
with the tune.

I just found out that I will have to give an interview at the public radio
station. I’m a little nervous since the station has a potential audience
of 20 million and I have to do the interview in Spanish. Really, public
radio here has even less public support than in the US, so I don’t think
that many people will be listening. Still, I’m a little nervous. We went
and checked out the theater where the second day of the festival will
take place. It’s a very cool old building that’s been converted into a
theater/art gallery. Mexico City is divided into 7 Colonies that have
a certain amount of self-rule, especially in cultural and recreational
matters. This theater is the colony of San Angel cultural center and they
have plays, concerts and art exhibits going year round. The acoustics
are great and that always gives an added boost to one’s confidence before
a show. The first day of the festival will be at an auditorium on the
north end of the city and they tell me that the space is sort of gymnasium-like
and the sound leaves a lot to be desired. They also tell me, however,
that the sound guy is very good and has experience in the room. I hope
so.

I had my first joyous experience with the Mexico City bus system today.
I wanted to go to the Museum of Modern Art so Juan and Sofia gave me instructions
on how to take the bus. First I got on a bus going south instead of north.
I asked a fellow standing next to me if we were coming up to Paseo de
la Reforma, the street I needed to get off at. He told me basically ”dude,
you’re going the wrong way – it’s way back the other way”. Doh. So I
got off, crossed the street and hopped a bus going the opposite way. After
quite a while I asked the same question of a fellow passenger and he said
”you already passed it, it’s back there”. He didn’t seem 100% confident
and I know that a Mexican is loath to admit he can’t help you, so I asked
another fellow. He said the same thing. So I thought ”doh times 2” and
got off the bus. I saw an upstanding looking businessman and asked him
just to make sure. He said ”it’s right ahead”. – in the direction I
had just been going! So I hopped back on another bus and sure enough –
the businessman was the one with the right answer. I got off at la Reforma
and hopped on another bus to go to the museum. This time the bus driver
was kind enough to tell me I was getting on a bus headed the wrong way.
The other drivers were assholes and didn’t tell me a thing. This guy gave
me instructions on how to catch the right bus. I did as he said and hopped
yet another bus. This bus driver told me we were definitely headed to
the museum so I felt relaxed. The next thing I know we pull into this
market area that kind of doubles as a bus station and he parks the bus
and parks and everyone gets off. Now I’m like ”what the f%$&”. A
young guy comes up to me who had apparently observed me asking the driver
if we were going by the museum. He wanted to try out his English and tried
to explain to me how to get to the museum from where we were. He was struggling
quite a bit and I decided I’d better repeat his instructions back to him
in Spanish to make sure I understood what he was telling me. He affirmed
it. I followed his instructions and came to where I was supposed to turn
left and there were 3 different streets onto which one could turn varying
degrees of left. Argh! I asked a shoeshine guy where the museum was and
he told me not to bother since it was closed! By this time my attitude
was basically ”whatever” and I just picked a street to walk down. I
figured that I was already here so I might as well walk around and see
what there was to see. I walked for about a block when a saw a sign for
the museum on the opposite street corner. I followed the arrows and sure
enough – the museum! I walked up to the ticket booth and the guy in the
booth told me that only 2 exhibits were open because they were preparing
a huge exhibit. The shoeshine guy was semi-correct after all. It was only
a buck and half admission so I said OK. Fortunately, one of the exhibits
was of the cubist work of Diego Rivera and they had an excellent representation
of his paintings from that period. It was worth it after all but WHAT
A HASSLE!! The return trip wasn’t a problem because, first, I knew route
now and, second, I asked the museum folks before I left to make sure I
was headed the right way.

Mexico City Trip Part 1

This trip lasted from October 16th to November 3rd 2004. (again, definitely
not long enough)

Monday, Oct. 18

After a rather bumpy ride, I landed in Mexico City to a gorgeous day of
80 degrees and sunshine. Juan and Sofia, my hosts for the trip, were waiting
for me at the airport, so all went very smoothly – even though I had to
wait in a ridiculously long line at customs. I suppose that’s the famous
Mexican efficiency at it’s best. Sofía showed me the latest copy
of ”El Buscador”, the magazine that Juan works for which has a monthly
circulation of 20,000 and I’m on the cover! Wow.

Soon after arriving at their apartment, I was off to my first rehearsal
with Antes del Glacier, the band of Juan’s son – also named Juan. I’m
going to play guitar on a track for their next disc, so I attended their
rehearsal so I could get an idea of the tune and play through it a few
times. The band is considered New Age here and their sound is in the neighborhood
of Vangelis or Kitaro – but with a kind of techno/trance vibe. The tune
is pretty cool and it will be fun to play on it. After practice I went
with Juan jr., his girlfriend Fanny, and Eduardo the percussionist (he’ll
also be playing in my band). We went to view some ancient ruins in the
middle of Mexico City. There was also a Cathedral from the early conquistador
epoch that was impressive. We then went in seek of food. After trying
3 restaurants that were closed we finally decided on this little hole
in the wall – literally. The houses here are right on the street – just
a sidewalk and then the house’s outer wall. They have nothing like what
we’d call a yard. Well, some people blow out part of the wall of their
house to make it open to the street so they can operate a restaurant out
of the house. Customers can walk off the street right through the hole
in the wall and eat in their house. The food was heavy with grease but
it was tasty and they told me that this is ”muy mexicano”.

The next day I slept in like a slug and basically had the day free.
That afternoon I met with Rubén, a teacher at one of the schools I’m
giving a clinic at. He used to play for a living but now teaches full-time
because it’s so hard for a musician to earn a living here (surprise, surprise).
We seemed to hit it off and got into several deep philosophical discussions
on music. It’s still a little bit of a struggle, but it’s great to be
able to have such in-depth conversions in Spanish. The following week
I found out that Rubén grew up in Washington D.C. and speaks native perfect
English, but he kindly didn’t let on at this meeting. We went to the cafe
on the corner of Juan and Sofia’s street to hang out. Later Juan showed
up and we got into more musical philosophy. Juan and I would continue
the lines of thought started in these discussions for several days. We
have to settle on a bassist for the concerts. Apparently there will be
the 2 festival gigs, 2 clinics and a club date. One bassist who is supposed
to be one of the best in the city is available for the festival dates
but not the rest. Another, named Mario, is younger and less experienced
but is available for everything. I’m leaning toward using one bassist
for everything but I’ll have to play with Mario and see how it goes.

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