La Música Mexicana

Steve Koenig

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

I have a lot of concerts to catch up with, as well as the scene in the streets. Next issue I’ll report back on the effect President-elect Fox has on the arts scene; the word so far is not good. Although the vast majority are delighted that P.R.I. has finally broken its stronghold, my informants believe Fox and his party P.A.N. (cleverly, pan means bread) have a very corporate anti-art(ist) outlook. What’s good for Cola Cola (Fox, before becoming Gobernador of the state of Guanajuato, was former CEO of Mexican Coca Cola) is not necessarily good for the muse, although the business economy is bound to improve. Meanwhile, as Mexico’s political scene progresses, what better time to cover the “progressive rock” and jazz scene and hold off the opera and classical music for next issue.

The discs below are distributed through an amalgam of interlocking friends through Sr. Alex Ruíz and Julián Cruces de Gyves of MEISA, Música y Editora Integral, S.A. All can be purchased and the artists contacted via julianmex@netscape.net.

Corcobado y Manta Ray. Diminuto Cielo. (Astro Discos A-009, 49:20.) Interesting rock sound. Jangly rhythms or dreamy slow tunes with theremin, scratching, and “here we come to the twenty-first century…” with lyrics about assassinations, gluey tears, life and death, love and hate. The singers’ voices don’t do it for me, but again, those instrumental textures, processing, and noises raise this above generic rock en español. They pronounce “s” as the Castillian “th.”

Decibel. Fortuna Virilis. (Momia 09, 49:20.) Previous Decibel releases have been more in the prog-rock vein. Fortuna starts out as total free-improv. There’s a wah-wah type sound that might be Walter Schmidt’s or Alejandro Sánchez’ loops, and Carlos Alvarado’s bass clarinet playing is strong. Juan Carlos Ruíz of the excellent group Culto Sin Nombre guests on oboe. Sánchez’ violin and other string playing is excellent, bringing an emotional element to a genre that often is cold and, pun intended, “dark.” I’ve liked their earlier discs, also on Momia, and this is their best to date. Fans of Emanem free-improv discs are encouraged to try this one. If this were an American release, it would probably be on Cuneiform, if British, on ReR. Cuneiforms’ Wayside distribution arm carries Decibel and some other Mexican jazz and prog-rock discs in the USA. vico@astroscu.unam.mx; www.cuneiformrecords.com.

Linea Continua. Linea Continua. (Rock’n’Roll Circus RRCD016, 50:26.) Rock en español. Generic song-based rock. Lyrics included.

Marcos Miranda and Fernando Zapata. Dueto. (Jazzcat/MEISA RA009, 65:57.) Miranda on bass clarinet (see Sâma below) and Zapata on acoustic bass in a set that will hold its own with any free improv. Highly recommended, and I will cover this and other Miranda releases, including a brilliant disc of Thelonius Monk covers, in more detail in my “Incredible Risks” column next issue.

Mexican Jumping Frijoles. Bazooka. (MJF/Rock’n’Roll Circus/Swenga RRCD50, 46:06.) An interesting humorous, bilingual, no-wave, punk, rap-influenced disc with a lot of electric guitar and quirky rhythms. The Breeders meet The Ruins perhaps? Some singalongs, anthems, lotsa BritPunk influence too. Zappa/Hendrix/Worrell guitar too. These guys know their Funkadelic and Sublime. Somehow it all comes together. Titles include “Blunted Aztec” (pun obvious), “Cactus Erectus,” “Big Time Double Bubble Trouble.” As with so many American and British indie-punkpop discs, this is a joint effort of several labels. swenga@hotmail.com

Piel. (Serie Quetzalcoatl CD-06, 41:02.) Piel means skin. Pianist Raúl César Romero and percussionist Victor Baldovinos offer a duo set, unless you count the synth as a third voice. Some pieces recall Paul Bley’s moody stuff, others such as “Valle en Eclipse” bring to mind Jarrett’s more intense Impulse work. Distantly recorded. Incredibly erotic (not crude) picture label.

Sâma. (MEISA RRCJF001, 62:11.) Marcos Miranda on winds and percussion and Santiago Fortson on percussion. Both play psaltery on “Salmo,” or psalm, the opening track, based on a Japanese pentatonic scale but sounding to me more klezmeric than Asian. Many of the other tracks have an Arabic origin. If you like Euro-chamber-jazz from hatHut or Between The Lines, this one is for you. An excellent jazz disc with an ECM-worldmusic tinge which strengthens rather than dilutes the music. Miranda and Fortson you listen closely, and the percussion takes your breath. A major winner.

Via Lactea. 1977-1997. (Momia CD 08, 67:20.) Starting out with great slabs on noise, they add beats. The cover pic shows Via Lactea in performance at the Museo Universitario Del Chopo, a modern art venue close to “El Chopo,” where the outdoor record vend and swap, populated by punk-dark-metal kids and other weirdos like me, meet every Saturday. Some tracks were recorded live at the Concurso These tracks cover all the genres from prog-rock, gothic, noise. Their noise stuff is great and varied, and if they’d drop the beats, I’d be enamored. Other is synth-grandiose. A mixed bag, natch, and recommended mostly to prog-rockers and perhaps to goths, whom the Mexicans call “darkies,” not having US historical precedents to fear.

Speaking of Progressive Rock, Mexico is the land where, in exchange for coffee and cacao, prog-rock took root and grows wild. One of the longest-lived independent labels is Smogless. cesgar@prodigy.net.mx

The High Fidelity Orchestra. (Smogless/Magog SR 2011, 39:43.) This is excellent; recorded in 1982 and 1984, but not at all dated. “Las Hormigas” (The Ants) rapidly scurries electric bass chords up and down. “Ocho Veces..” lifts the guitar chords directly from Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” The nine cuts are all short. “Anacronia” mixes a “You Really Got Me” chord progression with a Doorsy organ, adding synth space effects that are a gas. There’s no pretense or rambling and everything is played with panache. A simpler Zappa-esque band, with, thankfully, no lyrics and just-right time changes. Good clean fun.

Humus. 4th. (Smogless SR 2014, 43:52.) I have their three previous releases, and this bests them all. This has two tracks. “Fatscope: A solid state suite built around 24 themes” open with flute and a bouncing electric bass by Victor Basurto acting like a digj, and then it turns Thick As A Brick rhythmically, with Jorge Beltrán’s guitar soaring like Randy California, and then guitar and time changes like Zappa. These guys know their roots.

Iconoclasta. La Rencarna de Maquiavelo. (Smogless JRCD010, 42:02.) Despite the Machiavelli tune, this one’s a disappointment. Prog-rock 101 for beginners. Trumpet-like synth fanfares, generic drumming on machines. Paint-by-numbers prog-chord changes.

Iconoclasta. Suite Mexicana/ Soliloquio (Art Sublime ASCD1291-003, 51:07.) What a difference! Opening with a folk tune on acoustic guitar, a flute obbligato, but then come the synth-rock stuff. An advance from Maquiavelo, but still too flavorless. The notes tell about a mestizo influence as found in Ponce, Revueltas and Moncayo. Balderdash. Both tracks of the fifteen-minute “Suite Mexicana” start with one minute of ethnic sound, then jump to arena-rock. Deluxe heavy gatefold LP package with thick plastic insert to hold the CD. This is a 1991 reissue of original 7″ EP and LP, with bilingual notes, insert and group history.

Le Nut Le. (Smogless SR 2017, 63:03.) Saxophonist Germán Bringas with vocalist and percussionist Sergio Bustamante have a semi-rock semi-prog disc of tunes with keyboards and strained vocals. Lots of interesting details which don’t quite cohere.

Smoking The Century Away. (Smogless SR 2017, 38:50.) A single track, starting with jangling guitars and keyboards and fun choices of sounds, rhythm and textures. Jorge Beltrán and Victor Basurto have the rare ability to take this fusion of music and make it fun but not silly. Rich sound from the guitar and electric bass, no mud, all sparkling. No section overstays its welcome, and the contrasting sections are not haphazard jump-cuts. The space game synth effects are not corny. Excellent red-tinted graphics of turn of the century photos. Nineteenth century, that is. Good stuff.

Opcion Sonica is a great label covering many types of Mexican rock and experimental records. Like the American Cuneiform label, they also serve as a distributor for the imported weird-rock and experimental genres of music which are overlooked at Tower Records Zona Rosa. Opcion Sonica has a sister label, Lejos del Paraíso which covers folk and rock releases. Many are licensed to Rounder. Opcion has an American office and Website, which is worth a gander. I’ll report on more releases in the future. www.opcionsonica.com.mx

José Fors and Carlos Esege. Duda Mata: Versión Original. (Opcion Sonica OPICD 109, 42:30.) A 1999 remaster of a 1987 release. This one’s on the simplistic side, but has a style and a sound. Deep male vocals, with lots of echo a la Jim Morrison, but these moaning, spaced voice drones and arabesques, with random flute and percussion accents, are quite riveting. It’s all voice, percussion and DX-7. Ultimately, I quite like this. Some cuts are proggy, others a bizarre cross between carousel music and operetta, such as “Space Race,” with its high soprano voice, although no women are listed on that track. Excellent packaging, with photos of stream tractors and stream engines in turn of the (1900) century photos, in the booklet, tray card, and picture label.

Jaramar. Entre la pena y el gozo. (Lejos del Paraíso CDGLP 047, 57:04.)

Excellent disc by an excellent folksinger, with Gaelic-sounding acoustic and keyboard background. Picture a hybrid of between EuroFolkers such as Maria Del Mar Bonet and Renaissance specialist Esther Lamandier. Indeed, here are Sephardic folksongs and one by the Renaissance Spanish composer Luys Milan.

Jorge Reyes. Nierika/Ek-Tunkul. (Exilio/Lejos del Paraíso CDEX 028, 45:58.) Ocarinas, flutes, percussion, chanting, conch shells, white noise, didgeridoo, synths, to recall pre-Hispanic times as authentic as Zeena is to her time. Gorgeous fantasy stuff. Two bonus tracks from Reyes’ 1983 disc Ek-Tunkul. My favorite Reyes disc is El Costumbre, on (Australian) Extreme XCD 021 label, easiest to find in the US and UK through Cargo Records distributors.

Jorge Reyes and Suso Saíz. Crónica de Castas. (Lejos del Paraíso CDGLP 39:09.) An ethno-ambient outing from 1990, these musicians use guitars, flutes, ocarina, strings drums, sequencers, voice and “atmospheres and treatments” to evoke the different ethnic mixes after the arrival of the Europeans. Standout track is the fifteen-minute “Saltatrá Cuarterón,” which using flutes and percussion grab you by the throat. Extra sound smears remind me of Jon Hassell’s groundbreaking Vernal Equinox (Lovely Records). “No Te Entiende” uses clapping and rhythmic vocal grunts seconded by guitar to good effect, with tape of children playing as an underlay.

Finally, on the smaller but diverse Global Entertainment, which also has classical and traditional gems among budget reissues and compilations:

Antonio Zepeda. Brujos del Aguatierra. (Global Entertainment GECD-7853, 64:31.) If you’ve heard one Zepeda you’ve heard them all. Perhaps the best of the ethnic explorers in the ambient/new-age vein, Zepeda uses pre-Hispanic instruments to invent sonic pre-Columbian scenarios and environments. The other masters in this vein include Jorge Reyes and J.L. Fernández Ledesma. This disc is one of Zepeda’s best and worst, depending on your taste, for though the music is exemplary, many have lyrics which spoil the mood for me.

Next issue, we’ll sit in on recording sessions with groups more indebted to free-jazz or chamber music: Culto Sin Nombre and Banda Elástica. Also, hat have Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, Paul Panhuysen, Alvin Curran, Carl Stone and Peter Garland been up to in Mexico? Later this year: the producers behind the elegant slipcases and bilingual books of two independent labels breaking all the rules in classical and beyond: Quindecim and Urtext. Concerts at Palacio de Bellas Artes, including an amazing complete Beethoven violin sonatas by Osorio and Markson, who recorded then for ASV. The music of the people, on Pentagrama and Corazón. Mexican composers on Sony and BMG. Then banda, mariachi and tropical. We haven’t even come to the field recordings yet, or the American (I mean U.S.A.; México is one of the three North American countries) labels doing yeoman service for Mexican music and composers: Dorian, Bridge, CRI, and Arhoolie. It’s a big country, so stick around.