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[Blog] Amazing Musical Magical Moments in Mexico City

Originally published on the kick-ass Nacional Records blog in three parts in February of 2008. For the Nacional blog I wrote with the persona of a Spanglish speaking, Spanish music-obsessed “teenage gringa chick.” 

Guess what! I’m no longer the gringa 17-year-old music loca – I’m now 18 and still anxious to tell you more about my adventures when I went to Mexico City and saw the Soda Stereo concerts last month. I had some amazing musical moments on the streets of DF. (That’s ‘day-effay’ for Distrito Federal, as the Chilangos – the hip residents of DF – call their city.) Tell any Chilango you’re from LA and they’ll say, “That’s where all the Mexicans are!” And even if “all the Mexicans” have moved to LA, the music just isn’t the same as in DF. Mexico City has been described as the most surreal place on earth. It’s also described as delirious, anarchic, chaotic, vibrant, horrendous, indescribable and magnificent. I believe it all. After spending a week in DF, I am now convinced that the streets of DF are home to sights and sounds that would never happen in the USA. I experienced some truly amazing, musical, magical moments….

Celebrating the Revolution with…a Sports Parade?

Here’s a musical experience I never could imagine in the USA. November 20 celebrates el Día de la Revolution, a Mexican national holiday. It was the day in 1910 that the opposition made its call to arms to overthrow the rule of dictator Porfirio Díaz. The civil war that followed made héroes of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata and soldaderas like Adelita. DF celebrates the day with a sports parade. Sitting by the statue of Cristobal Colón in front of my hotel, I watched DF sports teams on their march from el Ángel de la Independencia to el Zócalo. There were the Condesa cycling club, the Benito Juárez Bomberos Beisbol team, the Santa Fe skateboarders, the San Angel aerobics group, the Tepito tennis team and the Coyoacán Club Cachibol, motorcycle acrobatic shows, police rescue divers, skaters, bodybuilders, fencers, boxers, dancers, rock climbers, lucha libre wrestlers, gymnasts, and so many more. Many carried banners of revolutionary héroes and heroínas. Most marched; some rode on floats. Every team brought its music; many had bands – drums, horns, flutes, tubas, and clarinets. Others marched to brassy music blaring from enormous speakers. It went on for over FOUR HOURS. The streets were lined with exuberant Chilangos. My friend Santiago, the doorman at my hotel, explained that this parade celebrates what’s most important to Mexican people – their revolutionary history, sports, and their music.


Una Tuna at Café Tacuba

Another big astonishment was una tuna at Café Tacuba. Do you know that the incredible, DF-born rock group Café Tacuba named themselves after this place? It was originally a 17th-century mansion but opened as a restaurant in 1912, serving politicians, businessmen and celebrities, seeing quite a bit of history along the way. The place is gorgeous with its vaulted ceiling, ornate tiles, stained glass and museum-quality artwork. As I ate my enchilada poblana, I was startled by a dozen guys entering from the back in medieval doublets and stockings, like from a Renaissance Faire, playing lutes and tambourines and weird guitars. I thought, “That’s a tuna! A medieval-Spain, university musical ensemble!” (I knew because I had seen one on a Madrid episode of a telenovela.) Well, these guys did turn out to be the Tuna Bohemia del Estado de México and they were incredible. Trust me, there are no tunas performing in Los Angeles, and they deserved each peso I spent on their CD.

Una tuna at Cafe Tacuba

Songs of Love from Toy Guitars

In DF I was serenaded with my first love song. Qué romantico – that’s never happened in Los Angeles! My admirer (I think of him as El Chavo), spotted me in front of el Palacio de Bellas Artes and seemed to fall in love. He asked, “Una canción, señorita bonita?” I motioned for him to go away but his love was strong. He followed me all along the border of Alameda Park serenading me with “Celito Lindo” on his guitar. That guitar! I wish that San Judas Tadeo, Patron Saint of Miracles and Thieves, or Santa Cecilia, the Saint of Music, had been up in the sky with a camera to take a picture of that guitar. You have to image a genuine, amusement-park-prize-quality, bright green, TOY guitar. I was amazed that he was able to make this guitar play. Hm, I like the idea that my first love song was played on a toy guitar. I gave El Chavo a few pesos; he finally stopped following me. When I told Santiago, he said “Mexicans can make music out of anything!”

Buying Discos in DF

If you want to buy CDs, you really must travel to DF for your purchase –not only do you have a great selection of music, you have a great selection of extraordinary experiences awaiting you.

You can select the combination café/bookstore/gallery/record store option. I fell in love with El Péndulo, a small chain of cafebrerías – combination book and music stores and cafés with amazing art. But ‘café’ isn’t a good description – sure, you can have a delicioso café but they also serve marvelous Mexican, Middle Eastern and European meals. Their collection of international CDs is wondrous and there are always musicians performing – from classical guitarists to electronica to anything that’s muy cool. And the special programs are especially inventive – when I was there it was “The Dark Side of the Rainbow” – The Wizard of Oz movie accompanied by Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” album. There are Péndulos in all DF’s hip neighborhoods – Condesa, Polanco, Zona Rosa, Santa Fe and Perisur and each one has its own charm. Don’t even think of comparing it with a Barnes and Noble. You can sit at a table or in an armchair or comfy sofa for hours but computer nerds doing homework don’t seem to be welcome. El Péndulo is all about culture. (www.pendulo.com)

El Pendulo

Or, you might choose to buy your CDs at an architectural masterpiece location. For that, you can go to the Centro Cultural Bella Época in Condesa with the largest bookshop in Mexico. Again, you have books, a café, and a mind-boggling music selection but you can also enjoy the art cinema and art gallery, and live, eclectic music performances. The exterior of the building is Art Deco and the interior features an enormous, extraordinary, glass ceiling by a renowned Dutch artist designed to resemble a bamboo forest. (www.fondodeculturaeconomica.com) Or go back to the Centro Histórico to Sanborns. Surely, you know Sanborns, famous all over Mexico for their pharmacies, books, gift items, and all sorts of things in addition to their remarkable music selection? All Sanborns have great restaurants; they’re open late and are everywhere. But go to Sanborns at the Casa de los Azulejos, the House of Tiles. It’s one of Mexico City’s most precious colonial gems and a national monument. The entire building is covered in magnificent blue and white tiles dating back to the 1500s. Not only will you have your CDs and a great meal, you will also enjoy seeing sensational murals including one by Orozco. (www.sanborns.com.mx)

Casa de Azulejos

Music fanatic that you are, you’ll need more CDs still, so go to Mixup Music, Mexico’s own music chain store, a tienda whose motto is “La vida sin música sería un error” – life without music would be a mistake. The Mixup in the Centro Histórico on Francisco Madero is in a magnificent historic building that just might be more remarkable than the Palacio Nacional. Mixup in the Zona Rosa is also worth a visit. The Zona Rosa is a festive, friendly neighborhood with clubs, music, restaurants and people leisurely walking the promenades. My favorite attraction is the blanket spread out in front of the Mixup selling a selection of hundreds of pirated CDs. No one seems to mind the competition. The display was another reminder that I was not in the USA.


Of course, pirated CDs are sold at stalls and flea markets all over DF, usually for about 10 pesos, a dollar. That’s always another choice for those who don’t take anti-pirating laws too seriously. You might go to Tepito. Santiago warned me that Tepito is “muy peligroso” but famous for its “thieves market” as well as its dangerous gangs and criminals. I thought it was called a thieves market because of pickpockets but Santiago said it’s because of the stolen goods and fayuca, the merchandise illegally imported by the fayuqueros. People shop in Tepito for pirated CDs sometimes containing hundreds of songs and sometimes sold in large quantities for resale. (People also shop there for drugs, guns and pornography but we only care about music.) Santiago said some people think of the fayuqueros as heroic Mexican Robin Hoods, providing a service to the poor by making products available to those who can’t afford full price. Hm, I guess that’s why I have to go to college, so I can understand these things better. For now, I don’t think I’ll go to Tepito for my CDs.

Ay, ay, ay – Mariachi Music!

I love mariachi music and was excited about hearing the mariachis at Plaza Garibaldi. I read in my guide books about the unforgettable experience of “hundreds of singing and playing musicians filling the air with songs of the revolution, rancheros, songs about cockfighting and bullfighting and love ballads.” I read about the “spangle-costumed musicians who entertain for a few pesos, turning the Plaza into a cacophony of competing musicians.” I must have been at the wrong Plaza Garibaldi because it was as quiet as a cemetery. The mariachis stood around in forlorn clusters with their Adidas-imitation jackets over their traditional trajes de charro passing out business cards. They looked longingly toward the closed pulquería. It was a sad, sad sight.

My good mariachi experience was in Xochimilco, land of pre-hispanic canals. And hey, I’ve been around canals – on the Storybook Boat Ride at Disneyland, the canals of Venice, California, and the real canals of Venice, Italy!! But this is a story about my magical musical Mexico moments and I’ve never experienced anything like Xochimilco. (A Nahuatl name, pronounced zo-chee-meel-co, meaning “place of flowers.”) Before I tell you about the music, I have to set the scene. DF is a smelly, noisy place. It’s actually pretty clean, kind of like Disneyland where every time a leaf falls, someone in a uniform sweeps it away. But it smells bad. The car and truck exhaust fumes make the streets stink like the brimstone and sulfur of hell plus the stench of burning, pig and goat from every street corner’s taco stand. This mixes with the sickly, low tide stench of a city with bad drainage problems. A smell that won’t let you forget you’re standing on unstable mud, prone to floods, sinking and earthquakes. A city crying out, “I really want to be a lake again!” And the noise? Motors and engines and car horns and screeching tires and brakes and human frustration and fury expressed by their machines.

Suddenly I’m in the barrio of Xochimilco. It’s smells good and is real quiet. Xochimilco is where DF families spend weekends gliding on colorful, flat-bottomed trajineros through what remain of the city’s pre-Hispanic canals. The canals rest between floating island gardens, chinampas, tethered to the lake floor with reeds. Flowers bloom everywhere. The trajineros are propelled by long poles the boat hombres push along so there are no engines and no exhaust. The water is sweet and clean, albeit a little greenish. There are no bad smells and no bad noises. Smaller trajineros rope up alongside to offer tamales, tacos and cold cervezas. The only sounds are of eight-piece mariachi bands in full regalia wobbling in their mariachi trajineros, cheerfully entertaining the passers-by. They might be singing “México lindo y querido” or “Volver, volver” but not a note of “La Bamba” is to be heard. People are happily talking and laughing, creating the perfect magical, Mexican memory.


Music Videos on the Metro

If you ride the Metro from Juárez to San Angel on a Saturday morning, cute, punky chicas with lip studs will get on your train and display cool music DVDs for sale. You might be able to preview four or five DVDs depending on the number of stops your train makes. Other ambulantes may also ride your car selling chiclets, pen sets, small Mexican Flags, cotton candy or hand cream. But I write about music. The music DVD chica will preview her merchandise on a portable DVD player and you might get 15 second segments of 10 musical numbers before the riders make their purchases and she gets off the car. Her selections might include reggae hits, classics of cumbia, and the greatest boleros along with Juan Gabriel, Daddy Yankee and Abba. I think this is a wonderful innovation in public transportation; I bought the reggae mix.

Organ Grinders Ambling the Streets

I loved hearing the organ grinders playing “Las Mañanitas” and “La Golondrina” around el Centro Histórico. Santiago told me all about the cilindreros or organilleros as they are called. (They are even called burritos, little burros, for carrying these 80-pound street organs around.) They mostly play for tourists, but also play for anyone who might give them a few centavos – drunks and lovers and at parties for people too poor to hire mariachis. Some strolling cilindreros travel between tenements, playing for coins that are dropped from windows. Playing one doesn’t require any talent; it’s really just a music box that is played by turning the handle. “Anybody can play an organ, but not everybody can carry one,” is a standard joke in Mexico. The organists earn up to 80 pesos (about $8) a day, but then pay 50 pesos to rent the organs. Santiago said street organists are regarded only slightly higher than beggars; they are definitely not considered real entertainers. I am reminded of two Mexican-American musicians who started performing on the streets – Carlos Santana and Joan Baez. I think cilindreros should be given more respect.

Organ Grinder

Snaggle-Tooth Clarinet Guy in Colonia Condesa

One of my most memorable musical moments was outside an outside an upscale outdoor café in Colonia Condesa, a hip DF barrio that’s kind of like New York’s SoHo. More street musicians, this time a clarinetist, had stopped to entertain. As a clarinet player myself, I could see his technique was far from perfect but each note was distinct and loud enough to carry across the buzz of the crowded café. Plus, he was playing from memory and even improvising. The lovely patrons stopped buzzing to listen to his bright, bold tones. When he finished, his snaggle-toothed grin made his smile even warmer. I wasn’t the only one who emptied out my pockets into his cup. I tried to imagine him playing outside the California Pizza Kitchen or Spago. I chuckled. Only in DF could there be a Snaggle-Tooth Clarinet Guy.

Música at the Mercado

But there’s even more street music, especially at the mercados. As I make my way through hundreds of stalls selling everything from sea turtle extract to fluffy white first communion dresses to fluorescent-colored, baby chicks to… is that really crocodile meat?…. to pictures of Mexican revolutionaries, to ears of roasted corn – – radios and boom boxes blast a cacophony of salsa, techno and ranchera tunes, norteño trumpets competing with the incessant automotive racket from the streets. From one corner, Belanova’s “Baila mi corazón” plays on repeat. The guitar riff from Manu Chao’s “Rainin’ in Paradise” blares from a car racing by. I make out strains of Héroes del Silencio, Panda, The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Beatles (or rather, “Bitles”). I ask una vendedora to find that cute camisa in size chico. She can’t hear. She speaks. I can’t hear. I can only think, “Did my ears finally break from the music of DF?

I remember hearing two Soda Stereo Concerts, the Ballet Folklórico, the bands of the Revolution Day sports parade, the tuna at Café Tacuba, the green toy guitar, the multitude of CD stores, the Metro music videos, mariachis, organ grinders, even the lone clarinet that seemed to playing with an amplifier, and, well, music of one kind or another everywhere. I am now convinced that Mexico City is the most surreal, delirious, magnificent, musical, amazing place on earth.

el Zocalo


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