Category Archives: world music

from San Miguel to home

Back in my last post I said some stuff about Mexican music.  About how in San Miguel in Mexico I hadn’t heard any rap and rowdy music on the streets because the town was so small & quaint, etc. etc.  Most of those ideas had to be changed the next night when the neighbors next door had a crazy pool party.  Or maybe it was the neighbors.  Actually, we think it was probably some of teenagers who were doing construction on the house, which to that point consisted primarily of a concrete shell and a hot tub and a swimming pool.  So with the tarps flapping over the window spaces the guys switched on the lights, brought in the stereo, and got the water ready.  By midnight the pool was filled with girls and the wheelbarrows with beer.  And the music went on all night.  Loud. Right by my room.  Thus I got a good overview of what a party full of Mexican teenagers listen to all night. 

            Really bad pop, really bad rock, a little rap, and (by 2 a.m.) mariachi.  A few American songs mixed in, but nearly all Mexican.  The only thing that got the sing-along chorus going outside was the mariachi–and the wails and the yee-haws went on for quite some time, until I finally fell asleep.  Until then most of the music was pretty wretched….It’s funny how bad cliched tunes transcend all languages, especially in the early morning when nobody wants to hear them.  I’d be moved by this idea if it hadn’t been so painful.  The kids seemed to be in disagreement about the song selection, with the volume turned up then down, a love song replaced by a rap song, etc. In the morning, the detritus of the night (empty bottles, clothes, who knows what) lay scattered across the cement until finally someone woke up and cleaned it all up again.  Since most of the large walled houses on our street were owned by rarely present whites, it’s unlikely that the owner would ever have known.  (Unless, of course, the house is owned by Mexicans–but Mexican owned mansions didn’t seem to be the norm in our part of San Miguel.  The full time residents seemed to live in the small adobe houses abutting the little fruit stands.  The trend seemed to involve razing these houses to construct walled complexes for the gringos, like us.)  At any rate, the drunken house party gave me a chance to hear some watered-down  mainstream Mexican rap.  The next night I heard it again, playing quietly on our street as a pack of six kids loitered around a low-slung Chevy.  Just like in our neighborhood at home.        

            Once back in the States, I found that the carniceria a few blocks from us no longer looked so forbidding, even if I didn’t speak Spanish.  Mexicans, even Mexican Americans, seem to just take us stupid gringos in stride while they work and collect our cash.  I guess when we leave town, they have a celebration.  I vow yet again to learn Spanish and to go engage our neighbors in conversation.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it.



wandering San Miguel


I find myself in San Miguel Allende, a Mexican town in the center of the country.  I’m lucky to be here, putting in my pesos to stay with my friend Sharon Solwitz.  She is renting for the month; Paige (my daughter) and I for only ten days.  I understand now the desire for a month of writing time in this place.  Although there are internet cafes and even (if you really really want one) a Domino’s pizza, the place is relatively separate from the kinds of traffic and noise and strip mall clutter that you get anyplace in America.  There is no stream of WalMarts along the highway because there is no highway.  The road to San Miguel, a paved 2-lane, winds through a string of towns selling tamales and Cokes in bright shacks along the roadside.  The only thing in the states I can really compare that drive to was a trip once made through the South.  It is the rural, but not American rural—instead of tractors, nearly all of the farmers used plows and donkeys.  It was lush, mountainous, beautiful—green, after the monsoon season—the cacti and the trees all enormous, not failure like the shrunken Colorado cacti I’m used to seeing.  For some reason I thought I was expecting scrubbrush, a place so horrible that people would fight border guards to leave it.  The only thing I see plaguing this particular spot is poverty, and even that seems to be kept to a relative minimum by the number of gringos and Mexican tourists who flock to San Miguel to patronize its many shops and restaurants.  

This place is not exotic or rustic or cute or any of those labels that you might expect to apply to a non-coastal Mexican city.  If there’s a label of that sort to be had, it might be quaint—. It feels in some ways old and untouched and still a town.  You know that everyone here knows one another.  You know that they watch to see who you are and what your name is and where you are staying and if you plan to stay and if you have dogs and children.  There are many dogs and children here.

And there is music.  And this is a music blog, so I swear to keep mentioning it.  There is music every night here somewhere, and I won’t have time to see much of it live.  I hear it on the streets, though, everywhere I go.  From shop to shop to shop a radio is playing.  From private windows comes music, and to seduce us inside the restaurants, a guitar player or mariachi band.  The dogs bark and roosters crow in rhythm.  (And they bark and crow a lot.)  From the cars comes some Mexican rock.  So far I haven’t heard any rap or anything that is cursing too loud.  I’ve heard a lot of Mexican rap in my neighborhood in Denver, but none here; I don’t know if that’s by choice or whether the teenagers are kept under lock and key because the town caters to tourists. There’s plenty of Mexican pop on the radios, pretty much interchangeable with Britney Spears-type stuff, and there’s some Mexican rock, not too rowdy but with a lot of rhythm and some spicy inflections, but I don’t know my music well enough to identify who is playing.  Much of the music, though, is traditional.  I’ve come to think that it’s the Mexican version of country and country/folk—I guess here they call it regional.  Some of it seems to be more authentic than others—and I get this impression in part by flipping through the many Mexican language channels on our cable TV here.  Lots and lots of music channels.  Mexican MTV (like ours, same audience, more music), VH1 (the same), plenty of other channels, and then the Mexican version of CMT (Country Music Television) which has rougher production values, more crusty men (or young soulful men) in matching outfits and cowboy hats.  What am I saying here….Mexico is not very different in what it likes commercially than us in the States—their music breaks out urban and country, likes ours—their music TV seems to be either directly patterned after ours or run by the same US companies—.  But walking the streets here you just hear one melody after another and nothing is too loud or too obnoxious—it’s tuneful, melodic, light on the bass.  It fits the town, it doesn’t grate against it.  Perhaps the kids here never rebel against their families in that way.  They’re trying to figure out how they’re going to help support them, and to take care of brothers and sisters.  I’m only guessing.

Our cab driver from Leon to San Miguel told us he had crossed the river ten times to take jobs in Texas and North Carolina.  He would work and then bring the money back to the family in San Miguel.  He said that on his last trip he had been jailed for six months and told if he returned he’d be in for 3 years.  Several of men I’ve talked to here speak decent English, come from spending time, they said, in Texas.  

Yet I’ve seen no more beggars here than I would in any US city.  I don’t know if they keep them off the streets or if everyone gets by okay.  There are many people with small shops in the neighborhoods.  Many sell cokes, fruit, laundry detergent, and such.  The shops have names like “Victoria” and “Laura.”  Many of these places have children, girls, as vendors; they know very little English but are willing to work with my very little Spanish.  Closer to the tourist center the shops focus on crafts and clothing, the tamale stands turn into Japanese restaurants and Irish pubs.  There are street vendors, too, roasting corn and meats over open flames.  The streets are cobblestone and the traffic (many cabs and buses) wind through them slowly, all one way.  Everywhere, buildings are being constructed and rehabbed; there is always the sound of hammering and sawing.

The ultimate destination in San Miguel, the center of life, is the medieval church on the plaza.  Pilgrims come to this church and spend time in its courtyard.  The church is old, a bit battered, almost frightening in its serious saints and Mary.  It does not have the feel of a welcoming church—but then, I’m not Catholic.  It is all arches and points.  

There are many churches in San Miguel.  We hear the bells tolling all the time.  I suppose that is a kind of music, too, although it also seems to be a kind of alarm.  The birds are plentiful and here on my balcony that’s the music I hear.  LIttle bird chirps, abrasive sqwawks and wings flapping.  (At least when the people next door aren’t drilling on the new stone mansion that probably replaced someone’s little home.)   It all moves very slowly; it is a flowing rhythm, no pounding or jarring.  

I imagine that the young people must be bored.  But it moves at about my speed.

I hope to add some photos later (perhaps even of local musicians).  Right now I don’t have the cord to attack my camera to my computer.  I am, though, able to hang out at a local coffeehouse and use their wireless service.  And so here I am.

–Becky Bradway

the occasional random world song

 Cheb Mami’s Rim Lachoua

I’m going to pop up some thoughts about individual world songs once in awhile, thereby placing my blog into that category known on the web as the “mp3 blog.”  Rather than pick new things, I thought I’d pull from songs that I have that, for some reason or another, stick with me & serve as an example of what a particular interesting artist is up to.

I’m beginning by talking about the song “Rim Lachoua” by Cheb Mami, the Algerian raï-pop-African punk singer.  He’s one of my favorite Middle Eastern singers because his voice is exceptionally sweet and riffs up and down and all over the place.  Mami, whose real name is Ahmed Mohamed, (“Cheb” means “young,” and is a common appellation given to Arabic popular singers),  grew up singing raï on the streets of Algeria.  (Rai, for those who don’t know, is a kind of reggae-ish singing that is a mixture of Arabic, Spanish, French, & African folk forms.  Apparently its origins came from bedouin men & then was popularized by women in the early 20th century.  Raï translates as “opinion” formally & as “oh yeah!” casually–making it kind of like rock music was supposed to be, right? –Yeah.  It was political, sensual street music.  Originally, raï was the music of the poor, sung in protest and celebration.  Now it’s gotten more mainstream, recorded (of course), and popularized globally as its sound and beats mix in with other pop forms.  Cheb Mami is one of the figures who’s had much to do with the music’s spreading popularity, as he’s happy to record with American soul and pop artists like Sting.  The album from which our selection “Rim Lachoua” comes is Dellali, produced by the soul/disco wizard Nile Rodgers.  While this might seem to dilute the sound, Mami’s approach doesn’t seem to cause objections among other raï performers, and he certainly wasn’t the first to add Westernized approaches.  And, to his credit, Mami hasn’t (for the most part) begun singing in English. 

Mami began his career by singing on the streets, making his own cassettes, in Algeria.  He didn’t get successful until he moved to France in the late 1980’s; over time, he’s become one of the most popular artists in Algeria.  (Apparently, he’s the “Prince of Raï” to Cheb Khaled’s “King of Raï,” causing all of those Mami fans a lot of distress.)  Rai singers have often had to live in France, since the political and religious conservatives in Algeria find the music to be the  corruptor of youth; as time goes on, and camera’s flash, Mami’s music comes to sound more mainstream French pop.  And, like fans everywhere, people in Algeria prefer their stars to be hot, meaning that there are lots of beefcakey photos of Mami floating around the cybersphere.

The song “Rim Lachoua” is a good example of a Cheb Mami song on the poppy end.  It’s from one of Mami’s earlier albums, Dellali, from 2001.   I  have a soft spot for a genuinely sweet (but not saccharine) pop song that is just, well, cheerful.  I grew up with The Cowsills’ “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” stuck in my head, and I still get all mushy whenever I play Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds (as any  person with a hint of life in them would).   For some reason, when Cheb Mami’s lovely tenor and this particular upbeat riff comes up my shuffle, I feel better.

I made an attempt to find the English translation for these lyrics (or to find these lyrics at all).  No luck.  I’m a bit shocked that, with all of the information out there on the internet, these translations aren’t there.  I’ve had this experience with other quote-unquote world music songs, especially those in Arabic and African languages.  When I found some Cheb Mami songs in the original language and tried to run it through my Google language translator, the software got completely flummoxed.  The closest I could get was a French to English (the Arabic to English got me nowhere), but even then, many of the lines were bungled.  The particular lyrics from another song from Dellali seemed to have some political undertones, but who can tell?  (One of the few sites I found that has Arabic to English song translations is a blog, Arabic Song Lyrics and Translations.)

With world music, I’ve just learned to listen without understanding the words.  I get frustrated at times when the intensity of the voice clearly demonstrates that the words matter, but it hasn’t stopped me from loving, say, the sweeps and sails of Mami’s voice.

Cheb Mami’s most recent CD, Layali, seems to be mostly sell-out dance music, some really bad disco of the late 80’s variety.  Repetitive electronic beats, chick backup singers, a multitude of American soloists, etc.  It’s clearly a bid to get over internationally.  It loses that distinctive flavor of a particular place; it loses all atmosphere.  If I want Mariah Carey, and I do not, I would buy it.  When I hear it, I see French discos in my head.   I also noticed that he relies on the backup singers far more, making me wonder if his voice just isn’t as strong & he’s trying to cover it up.  (One popular song of this record has the chorus “Come on, baby, let’s go dance.”  You don’t even need a translator for that message.)  It’s kind of sad to see someone who is so talented and distinctive go the way of all sap & mush.

Cheb Mami’s album Dellali & his other work can be purchased just about anyplace; here’s the link on Amazon.

So: I leave you with another catchy, pretty song from Dellali:Viens Habibi.

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