Friday, April 24, 2009
Ever since Johnny Cougar Mellencamp made me feel better about moving to Indiana, I’ve tried to soak up the music of whatever place I happen to be in. In Chicago, I listened not only to the neo-soul rap of native southsider Common (and his more famous colleague Kanye West) but also the decades-old city blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, blues that grew out of the Great Migration of the early twentieth century. Later, my time at the Old Town School of Folk Music led me to discover another side of Chicago’s musical heritage, from the late singer-songwriter Steve Goodman to the Chicago-based folk-rockers Wilco. As much as good regional literature, good regional music can help deepen your sense of place, in whatever location on God’s green earth you happen to be.
In Mexico, though, this has been a lot harder. For one thing, I hardly knew where to begin. I started with the big names in rock en español, artists I’d already heard of: Maná, Café Tacuba, Julieta Venegas. Then, last fall MTV released a collection of songs culled from their Unplugged series, which is apparently still going strong in Latin America. The nice thing about Lo Mejor de MTV Unplugged is that its 19 songs are like a who’s who of the last two decades of Latin rock. At least a third of them are Mexican artists: Not only the few I already knew but also artists I hadn’t heard yet, like Soda Stereo, Caifanes, and El Tri. It’s a quality disc, and a good introduction to the recent landscape of rock en español.
The thing about rock en español, though, is that much of it just sounds like rock in English but with Spanish lyrics. It’s true, sometimes these lyrics are super-Mexican, even if the music is not. When I started reading Chris the letras (lyrics) to some of the songs from Guadalajaran rockers Maná, she started laughing and pointed me to an essay by Alma Guillermoprieto in which the journalist describes a typical Mexican party that ends with grown men with their arms around each other, wailing tequila-induced songs of lost love. Nearly every Maná song seems to be about this topic, none more so than "Clavado En Un Bar" (Nailed in a Bar - and yes, it's as pathetic as you'd imagine). When you listen to their live discs you can picture the stadiums full of fans waving their lighters back and forth. Like their northern counterparts Bon Jovi and Journey, Maná can be an irresistible guilty pleasure when you’re in the right mood. The song below is my personal favorite, a song about a (what else?) lost love, in which the abandoned lover waits for eternity "on the pier of San Blas, alone with her spirit, alone with her love, alone with the sea..." Click here for the lyrics in Spanish AND English.
Café Tacuba, on the other hand, brims with indie street cred despite their status as one of the most popular bands in Mexico. Their music grows out of the arty student scene in Mexico City, and their music incorporates everything from traditional Mexican folk sounds (see 1996’s “Las Flores” – The Flowers) to lilting lullabies strewn over Eno-style electronic soundscapes (see 2003’s “Eres” – You Are). While the bleeps and bloops that pepper their most recent album may not seem Mexican on the surface, Café Tacuba definitely captures the one-foot-in-an-ancient-past-one-foot-in-a-chaotic-postmodern-future Mexico City. I consider them the Mexican R.E.M., and they continue to bring back memories of walking through the sprawling UNAM university campus (home of the Pumas!) in Mexico City.
But both of these male rockers take a backseat to Tijuana-born Julieta Venegas. Last year, Chris bought her song “Eres Para Mi (live)” on iTunes. A year later it’s the second-most played song of the past year in our iTunes Library (the only song ahead of it is, inevitably, U2’s “Get On Your Boots”). When we arrived in Mexico last year I immediately went looking for the full disc – again, an MTV Unplugged live album. We’ve listened to this album a lot since then, mainly because it’s sort of, well, awesome. The first song begins like something from Feist, but with lyrics about “Limon y Sal” (click for the music video) that only really make sense from a Mexican perspective in which the combination of Lime and Salt has an essential everyday meaning. From there the songs take the form of little pop gems, but pop gems created with everything from a mariachi-style accordion, which Julieta plays (“Me Voy” (I Am Going) is a good example) to the hip-hop beats and straight-up rap of “Eres Para Mi” (You Are For Me). Julieta’s MTV Unplugged has filled our various apartments time and time again during our year in Mexico.
Whew! All that and we’re only through rock en español. Stay tuned (though not necessarily tomorrow) for parts II (ranchera, inexplicably still popular) and III (the future of Mexican music?) of Los Musicos...