Monday, February 10, 2020

How do we know if a culture has a traditional music scene?

I’ve just spent a wonderful month in Mexico. While I was there I tried to find local live music, but to no avail.

Silvia María Zuñiga

How does one find the traditional or representative music of a culture when we’re so inundated by Western influences?

I’ve written before of the time I spent in the Baltic States (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia). All three countries have rich, traditional singing cultures, but we didn’t encounter any on our travels. I wondered Where is a culture’s music tradition to be found?

We spent a whole month in Oaxaca in Mexico, mainly in Oaxaca City. There was plenty of music and dance around, but none from Oaxaca or Mexico.

There were pan pipe players from South America in the streets. There were marimba players half-heartedly entertaining tourists outside restaurants. We would often hear snatches of stereotypical tunes like La cucaracha and La llorona, but they were hard to recognise.

Bars and restaurants pumped out adult-oriented soft-rock with Spanish lyrics. The rooftop terraces had gentle jazz. In the tour buses it was compilation CDs of American rock. There were live concerts in town, all of Western classical music.

You could go to Salsa classes. Every Wednesday evening in the main square was a large band playing music for people to dance to. It was Danzón, a dance from Cuba.

We asked around for places to go to hear live music from the region, or even Mexican music. A mariachi band would have been fun. But there weren’t any. There used to be, but not any more.

People showed us videos on YouTube of Lila Downs, a famous Mexican singer who was born in Oaxaca. But she only plays big stadiums these days.

We were lucky to get a private performance by Silvia María Zuñiga at the Spanish language school we attended. Silvia María is a Oaxacan singer and guitar player who specialises in local traditional songs.

I also bought two CDs of (apparently) local music, but the shop owner had little idea of what that contents were!

Every July in Oaxaca City there is a major event called a Guelageutza. Guelageutza is a Zapotec word meaning a coming together or gathering. In contemporary Oaxaca, indigenous communities from within the state gather at the Guelageutza to present their native culture, mainly in the form of music, costumes, dances, and food.

But we weren’t there in July, so we missed the Guelaguetza in the same way that we missed the big singing festivals in the Baltics when we went.

It is clear that there is a rich tradition of music throughout Mexico. It is still alive and flourishing and is not just for tourists. However, if you visit the wrong place or at the wrong time, it may not be evident.

Similarly, if you’re a foreigner arriving in the UK, it’s quite possible to think that we have no traditional music scene at all. But stay awhile and go to the right places, and you will soon realise that we too have a rich and flourishing traditional music culture.

So next time you visit somewhere new, maybe do a bit of homework in advance to try and find where a culture’s music is still alive and well. And when you do find it, spread the word!

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Chris Rowbury




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