Tag Archives: Becky Bradway

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

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Atlantic Records, Ahmet, Aretha, that thang

images-2.jpeg     images-11.jpegLast night, on one of my insomniac binges, I put on my latest Netflix movie, Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built.   Turned out to be one of those PBS American Masters series, so it had that standard sincere TV documentary structure that almost means that the music clips get cut right before they hit the high point.  That said, the clips that are here–those moments–are exciting, at least in the first half of the show.  If you know the story of those early Atlantic years–and most people do, a little at least, from the movie Ray– you know that these are the best years of mainstream R & B: Aretha, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Lieber & Stoller, doo-wop groups getting on platters, Otis Redding, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, the early genius nutjob Phil Spector….Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler recorded black blues artists and sold them to a white audience & to a larger extent than Motown let them play and sing what they  wanted.  These guys loved, breathed, R & B and for awhile there they didn’t water it down.  The hired terrific session players; there was a real excitement of people doing, for a time, exactly what it was they loved, and getting it out to the public because it was the right thing to do–they it did despite the fact that they weren’t making any money. Before this documentary I always had the sense that Ahmet Ertegun was the guiding force behind all of this, and in the beginning he was.  images-5.jpegAhmet was the wealthy son of the Turkish embassador, lived in many different countries, absorbed the culture and music, and when he and his brother lived in the States as teenager he went crazy for jazz.  Did whatever he could to go to the clubs, hung out.  And he had the money and the time to be able to do something completely insane: start a record company.  He had the cash to back up his obsession.  He knew enough about music to embrace what mattered to him. And he was aware that black performers were doing the most creative American music & getting no (white) play.   And thus the beginnings of Atlantic Records.    I suppose there was a little part of me that was irritated by Ahmet’s wealth and contacts.  It made it not quite as starry a story for me.  Entirely unfair on my part.  And surely the documentary doesn’t present it in any kind of negative light; this was a hero worship doc.   He was able to recognize the people to sign, like Ray & Aretha; he even wrote R & B songs himself, and they’re pretty good, too.  The documentary shows him as a talky old man, full of attitude and ego and brightness, and (in his eyes) quick to assess human behavior.  The doc is structured around having famous people tell stories with him–people like Robert Plant, Aretha, Mick, Phil Collins, Ben E. King.  Clearly, it’s one of those career retrospective, “better get this done before the old fart dies” tributes–which turns out to be the right idea, as Ahmet died shortly thereafter by falling at a Rolling Stones concert.  For me, the structure got in the way.  I hate Phil Collins.  As for Mick, Atlantic signed the Stones after they’d done their best work.  Don’t applaud those later years.  I read another story, spun very positively in the documentary:When Atlantic began to struggle financially, Ahmet started signing white acts.  The company also waited until there was a monumental lawsuit to begin paying proper royalties to its original black performers.   In the 70’s, Atlantic went disco.    I remember some of those images-11.jpegcheesy records, which are loveable in their cheesiness, but look, they’re really not Aretha & Ray.  And certainly this was a survival move, and it all happened when they sold Atlantic to Warner Brothers (which became Time Warner).  And while Ahmet was still running things, it just wasn’t the same.Here’s the moment in the story that struck me: the turning point in the company came when Jerry Wexler went to Stax/Volt.  Jerry Wexler’s in Ray, too; it was really Jerry Wexler who had the soul, images-3.jpegespecially as times passed;  Stax/Volt with its Southern roots really had the balls; Ahmet became more of a businessman who frequented the New York discos and screwed around with beautiful women while married (made clear in the movie) while Jerry Wexler went to Memphis and hung out with the blues people.  The documentary made it look like the move of Atlantic to Warners was Wexler’s fault.  It seemed to me, more, that Wexler kept loving R & B and would rather work with the music than be successful.  The movie spun the move to Warner’s as a savvy one, and continued toimages-4.jpeg applaud Ehtegun’s discoveries, but for me: well, the documentary made me respect Ahmet Ehrtegun a little less.  Not its intention. It also made me haul out by Atlantic Records box set and play that amazing music from the 1950’s and 60’s.  The stuff that I taped off of my transistor radio as a kid, and the stuff that never made its way over the white Midwestern airwaves.  Without Aretha, I would not be me.  Without soul,  I’d have understood and felt so much less.  Less soul, less possibility for heaven.  This little blog entry could applaud all of the lost records labels, the little ones that did the same thing as Atlantic and passed into oblivion with the monopolization of the industry.  But there’s no time for that story right now.   **a note: I wish that this DVD had included full clips of the original performances by the key Atlantic players.  This is just the straight-up documentary, nothing else.