In which is described events in The Glamorous Life Of Professional Musicians
It’s the morning of Christmas Day. The Guitar Player is sleeping. He has a gift for sleeping in the mornings. I do not, although I’m jealous. I have slowly begun to adjust to the two-hour time difference. Our home in Mexico is on Central Time. The first couple of days I awoke before 6 a.m., and today, in spite of the fact that we were awake until well past one in the morning, I slept until 7 a.m.
On December 14th we flew from Central Mexico to Tijuana, crossed the border, rented a car in San Diego, drove to the San Fernando Valley and got a room, all in less than ten hours, from house in Mexico to hotel in California.
We store the equipment we use annually for the posadas dinner party in la bodega “warehouse storage” part of the restaurant, upstairs. The building itself is an old winery. Every year when we arrive (and throughout the year as well) Chon is anxious about the equipment. None of it has extremely high monetary value, having been collected from pawn shops/thrift shops/chance purchases, but all of it is exceedingly difficult to replace. Picture microphones, speakers of various sizes, cables (many, many cables!), microphone stands, a keyboard stand, a good-but-old keyboard synthesizer, two now-vintage drum machines (we haven’t had a drummer since Sara moved to California), a PA/mixer for the system, vintage handmade textiles that I use for unique performance wear, an ancient tape recorder, and other items I can’t think of right now.
We arrived around 3:30 in the afternoon for the first night of the posadas dinner parties. For the last 5 years our equipment was all there, exactly as we had stored it. Only this year it wasn’t. There. The area had been cleaned and re-organized, and our equipment had been re-located to a small corner storage room in the old, old building. More apprehension. The first thing I noticed was the absence of my performance outfits, and the gorgeous, multi-colored thrift shop bag I kept them in – four huipiles.
You can read about huipiles here, or better, Google huipil and see gorgeous images. Three long skirts, cleverly chosen from thrift shop purchases to match the huipiles in color, and in varying sizes, to accommodate a variable-sized waist, were also missing. I spoke to the office manager as calmly as I could, and told her that the huipiles were worth at least a thousand dollars. She wasn’t unfriendly, but there was obvious disinterest in her face. She said blandly, “Sorry about that.”
One of the waiters we’ve known for six years kept searching. In an ancient locked and unused bathroom he found two missing speakers and my bag of clothes. During this search, we discovered that a weighty bag of cables, including two very long, professional quality speaker cords, was not to be found.
We began to set up on the small stage anyway, while other people looked in various secret storage spots, to no avail. The night manager offered to replace the cords. Ummm – in downtown Los Angeles, about two hours before performance time? Well, it might have been possible to locate and purchase them, but all the available helpers had their own jobs to do. We kept on setting up speakers, instruments, sound equipment. We found a long speaker cord of dubious quality, with a couple of frayed spots wrapped with duct tape, belonging to the restaurant, and substituted that for one of the essential missing cords.
To make a frustrating story short, Chon worked his magic and got a good sound for us. We had a very nice supper, and the show went on, as it does. The audience that night was made up mostly of the large family-and-friends of a lovely man who has been bringing them to the show for 27 years. His thirty-two-year-old daughter has been attending since she was 5 years old. There is now a flock of pre-adolescent boys, most of whom have very nice manners when approached individually, but together – well, not so. But on this night they mostly refrained from throwing candies and using laser pointers, which helped to make everything more pleasant.
The kind and gentle man came to greet us and chat with the marionette master.
We wound up the show before ten, neatly stacked up our things on the stage, and headed to our motel, about a half-hour drive away.
Somewhere during the evening the office manager advised us that we’d be doing the show only five nights this year. Instead of nine. Imagine how we felt.
I won’t do a night-by-night breakdown of the posadas performances, but this twenty-ninth year was an excellent one. I will give you a short vignette of a silly thing that happened to me one night. We direct a posadas procession through the restaurant, with the children playing the part of the shepherds in Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter. Each year we’ve worked from a 50-year-old script most likely written by one of the then-workers in the restaurant. There is narration in English, and the traditional Mexican songs of the posadas procession are in Spanish. There is one word that I’ve never thought was a good descriptive word in the story script, and it’s always bugged me. When Joseph is begging for a place for them to stay, the person denies his request and the narrative says: “They are rejected.” Well, the narrator, ME!, got stuck right there. I said, “They are …………”. I couldn’t speak the word I’ve disliked for lo, these 29 years, and I stood there, just – tongue-tied! Other words raced through my fogged brain – “dejected”, and then, “ejected”, which struck me as such a hilarious visual image that I made an unlovely sound with my mouth closed as I laughed at the thought, and at myself. The seconds ticked by. But Chon covered for me, saying, “She’s really more accustomed to saying this part in Spanish”, which was fanciful and so not true, and another hilarious image. I got the giggles, and barely made it through the rest of the little story without completely losing it.
The last night, the traditional end of posadas, was particularly fun, as a family from Guanajuato, the Mexican state we live in, came – lovely and lively sisters, their parents and children came. We expected them – each year they come on Christmas Eve. And a couple we’ve nicknamed the hippies, also arrived as expected. These folks all greeted us enthusiastically, as old friends, and the night turned out just the way you’d hope a live performance could be. We played well, the beautiful Mexicanas danced, teaching their children Latin rhythms, and the hippies danced to all the vintage rock songs.
This year we added some vintage music to our song list, including some original cumbias and melodic rock songs like Midnight Confessions and Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In. Food, music, good company – really, what more could anyone ask for during the winter holidays?
My sister Eileen is an author and blogs about dogs, dog training and learning, among other things. On December 19 she made a blog entry about learning theory and definitions. In it she discusses the differences between latent learning, the Eureka effect, and memory consolidation, all terms used to describe learning. You can read it here if you’d like. Her writing made me think, as it often does, about my own learning modes and habits. Today I thought about memorizing music, and I’m sharing my thoughts here informally. I’ve tried not to use many technical musical terms for my readers.
When I’m learning a new song that we plan to add to our set list – only about three minutes long; the average length of a pop song you might hear on the radio – I’m learning “by ear” as opposed to reading written notes on paper and then memorizing.
First I listen to a recording of the song if one exists. Maybe I’ll listen to a couple of different recordings by different groups or performers. My job is to make a reasonably accurate re-creation of the original, on a synthesizer or a piano, replacing most but not all of the other people who might be playing in the band/group in the recording.
I usually learn the melodic line first (it’s pretty difficult to resist). Once I have a grasp of that I focus my attention to the bass line, rhythm and harmony, which gives me a more complete understanding of the harmonic structure than the melody alone, and I begin to put the melody, harmony and the bass line together. If I don’t have access to a keyboard I visualize myself playing along with the recording. The last thing I learn is the structure of the song. In popular songs it’s often a variation of the outline below.
Chorus (often the “high” or dramatic part) often based on the IV chord
Instrumental “outro” (often identical to the introduction)
The two of us usually play it together. I make lots of mistakes, but receive guidance and prompts from C, who usually knows the song reasonably well, having heard it many more times than I have over the years.
The structure of the song is often the last thing I learn. Sometimes I write it down in outline form as in the example above.
We play it a bunch of times – maybe eight times. My version improves during the rehearsal until I get it or I get frustrated and take a break. I estimate a “normal” first-time rehearsal for a brand new song takes about 45 minutes or more (time flies when you’re having fun.)
At the next rehearsal if it is later that same day or the next day, I often (usually!) can’t recall how the song begins (“How does it start again?”, and I ask C to sing me my part, or refer to the recording. I pretty much make the same mistakes I made at the last rehearsal, but remember to correct them faster.
At the next rehearsal, given the same parameters of time lapse between rehearsals, I play it better, but I still sometimes need a reminder, especially for the very beginning. If it starts off right, I usually play it the way I like it, but sometimes forget the structure. If the next rehearsal of the new song doesn’t take place for a week or two, I have to start over, but the re-learning is usually rapid. If we have a few days without rehearsing, sections or connections slide out of my mind, and I have to rehearse, focus and work more. But sometimes over those few days, it gets better, “magically”, without practicing.
What would you call that – just normal, everyday, B-flat learning? Memory consolidation? The Eureka effect, latent learning? Just plain-old, B-flat learning?
The most recent song I learned was “Enamorado”, a happy cumbia, from a group named Tropicalisimo Apache, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIUMfWDykOw. I had never heard it before. We learned it last month,
and now we’re playing it in our holiday gigs. I don’t sing the lead; only some minor backup. Please don’t assume that the structure/form outline above fits this song. It doesn’t, at least not in my mind.
Funnily enough, the first 8 notes of the introduction sometimes escape me in performance. (“HOW does it start, again?”) I think that may be because the first four notes are a very common combination in so many phrases of popular songs. Hah! They’re the first notes of those old-timey songs, “How Dry I Am”, and “Home On The Range”.
Yes, we’ve been practicing, but – life happens. Our next gig is coming up fast, and we’re trying to stay ahead of it. On December 8, we’re playing for The Guitar Player’s birthday party and concert. Here, at our house. Yes, we’ve had the very best of intentions, and we’ve made schedules.
Clean up the garden, which is rapidly returning to its natural state. (store the big squashes, haul the dead and dying vines to the lot behind the house, dig the weeds – they show no signs of dying, protect the chile plants from children running through the garden.
Clean up the yard, which is lined with hand-made-by-us bales of the large sacks our farming salts and fertilizers come in, and sad looking cardboard boxes, and sacks and sacks of plastic bottles and containers. That requires hauling the heavy trash to a recycling center in our big truck.
Get the invitation posters printed.
Make sure the food people are prepared – yes, we serve a meal to our guests! At least this time we don’t have to go grocery shopping the day before the party.
Practice, many more hours. We have a list of well over a hundred songs that are at the ready, but this time we’re featuring brand-new-to-the-public original songs. We’ve planned a set list of 60 songs, about half of them originals.
We’re also preparing our annual Christmas/Posadas Parties set list, of about 30 songs that we alternate from night to night.
And one of the band members just doesn’t feel good. He’s got a sort of flu-ish thing that’s lasted a few days. What to do? Except for practicing and memorizing lyrics, the rest of the band can’t practice alone, by herself.
It took me several distinct steps to get to the point of saying that, over a period of a few years.
Step 1: What’s this in my soup? Bleh. What’s a chayote?
Step 2: Chayotes are OK, I guess.
Step 3: What else can you do with chayote besides put it in soup? What’s “agua fresca?” OK, I’m just kidding about not knowing what agua fresca is. I liked that right away. Who wouldn’t? Fresh fruits blended into gorgeously colorful drinks are wonderful in the summer alongside a meal, or just by themselves. Some of them may sound a bit unusual – agua de pepino, for example, is a cucumber drink. I was skeptical, but it was just as delicious as lemon, or strawberry.
Chayote (chai-OH-teh) – it’s a pear-shaped squash with (usually) thin, pale green skin. It can be eaten raw or cooked. It has little flavor of its own, and picks up the good flavors in soups. Some people make agua fresca with it, and some people put it in salads.
Today I prepared albondigas (Mexican meatball soup) for Thanksgiving, not having had much opportunity to purchase a turkey, and not having an oven to roast it in. I do have a 6-quart slow cooker, but….
A friend, hoping for a favor from us (thank goodness it didn’t involve money), gave us these chayotes the other day. I put one in the albondigas, and blended one with some guayabas for a fruity, vegetable-ish drink.
Ready for Thanksgiving!
It’s cold this morning – 40 degrees! That’s 4.44 Celsius. We’re a little concerned about the two baby ground doves that have been sitting on the tile floor of the patio for two whole days. But we can’t see them, so we’re hoping for the best.
We haven’t been feeling our best, either, but today we’re going to practice anyway (that’s what musicians DO!)
if you haven’t made your Thanksgiving plans yet, well, make them. I’m thinking albondigas, Mexican meatball soup. Have a good day, all y’all!
I say that today was unique for several reasons. We are jack-of-all-trades musicians. (Can I say that?) We play for religious ceremonies, dances, and special events of all kinds.
We played for a mass in nearby El Tecolote, and it was an occasion that we had not played for before: it was a mass for San Juditas, a familiar name for San Judas. Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes. This saint is popular in Mexico City, and people make pilgrimages to temples dedicated to him all over Mexico. Unique.
We were told that there is a temple dedicated to this saint in El Tecolote. In a house. Unique! There’s a story told to us with little detail. An owner of the house promised San Juditas that he would make and dedicate a temple to him if he would answer a prayer about a desperate situation that was affecting him. The temple bears witness to the answered prayer. It’s inside a house on a street near the edge of the town. They say that at one time the house was the very last house in town. Now the street boasts several more houses, and as we came to surmise, the houses belong mostly if not completely to descendants of this man. It’s their own family neighborhood!
The houses in this area are different in that nearly all of them can be shut completely up. The entrances are very large solid metal sheets fashioned into gates by practiced metal workers. .Some have people-sized doors cut into them, but most of them are just enormous doors or gates, opened only enough for people to slip in and out. There is no view at all of the house for the curious.
It can be trying to figure out driving directions given in another language, and often the gestures are just as foreign. We were told that the church was at the end of the town, so we turned onto what looked like the last street. Since it was a mini patronal fiesta, the street was already lined with vendors, and as we were gawking, we just about tore off the right sideview mirror of our big truck,
Here’s another unusual thing, if not unique – we drove our big truck. It’s a large old panel truck that’s big enough to carry large equipment for playing for a couple of thousand people. One might ask why we took it. I’m really not sure what provoked that decision, but as we were leaving (it’s tricky getting it out of our parking in the back lot) I noticed that the brake pedal was squishy, and I announced it. Chon said we would get brake fluid tomorrow. After we loaded up our regular equipment (that can ride comfortably in the back of the PT Cruiser) we drove about a mile to the turnoff for El Tecolote, and headed down the narrow paved road leading to the town.
We asked for directions. Down there, a woman said. Turn right after the second block. And that’s where we came right up on vendors! and lots of people milling around! By this time, the brake problem had reached noticeably scary levels. We drove right up to the vendors’ stands, and an enormous piece of plastic that covered most of the street. After the unfortunate mirror incident, I unhappily backed up the truck onto the main street again, and went further to the bottom end of the town. A lovely woman approached, smiling, and said yes; at the next street turn right. It will be much easier for you. It was a narrow street that looked like it ended right away, but it didn’t – there was just a sharp curve that we couldn’t see around. So we made it almost to the house-that-is-a-church, and parked. In front of our truck was a castillo; a fireworks tower, so we couldn’t go any further forward. A butcher in his apron came over to us and said he would get people to help us carry the equipment right to the door, and he did. Shortly we had everything set up, and then we waited for the priest to arrive. There are few priests and many churches and people, and they are pressed for time. One priest may serve up to eight churches in one day. We were hoping it wouldn’t be the bland-faced cura who often stops us mid-song, and it wasn’t – it was the new priest, who is easy to read, and (so far!) easy-going, too.
Right as we began the first song/canto, a large bus pulled right up behind our truck, and many men in uniforms got out. No, they weren’t soldiers or drug dealers. They were a band; a banda, with uniforms, instruments and sound equipment, and they traipsed right in front of us in a row in the street, to take their instruments to the other side of the entrance to the house/church.
We continued the mass with no incidents. I wasn’t surprised, since I had read the wikipedia article about San Judas De Tadeo, when the priest admonished us all, after the mass had finished, that the children should not dress as witches, or La Santa Muerte, or devils, or zombies, but instead costumes should be of saints, or religious personages, etc.
We were wondering how we would get out of the area. But the answer to that question was obvious – we couldn’t leave at all until the bus moved. And so it was that we stayed to hear a banda performance. (talk about a captive audience!) It may have been the worst live banda I’ve heard in Mexico so far. Take a listen. (I hope you can hear this. It’s my very first time converting this kind of audio file to an MP3). At least in this example, the tuba was playing generally in the same key as the rest of the band.
The band played on, and I do mean on. We needed to move our truck because of the impending tower of fireworks, and so did the band. The fireworks guys who built the tower and strapped on all the fireworks (spinning wheels, sparkling flowers, shooting rockets, etc) stood there, at times shooting anxious looks up at the tower, the two big vehicles close to the tower, and other vehicles that were blocking us from behind.
The band moved into a set of banda with vocals, even worse than the first songs. There were two men’s voices, each one thin. The lead voice sang close-to-in-tune (and those of You Who Know, know that sometimes is even worse than badly-out-of-tune singing), and the voice singing harmony, sang really, truly, badly out of tune, which sometimes created augmented chords instead of major and minor chords.
We bought some some excellent enchiladas from one of the women in front of the church/house. Well, we were hungry, and trapped in El Tecolote! How to make enchiladas for a crowd? They’re prepared on a very large disc with a bowl-like center that holds hot oil. One woman dips a tortilla in the sauce she has prepared, then dips the tortilla in the hot oil, and lays it on the outer edge of the enchilada maker. Another woman fills the red, soft tortilla with the filling of – mashed potatoes (!), and rolls it up into its familiar enchilada-ish shape. When there are several, they are transferred to a plate, and the toppings are added. Thin slices of tomato and onion are layered on top with sliced lettuce. Then, on top of that, thin cream is drizzled over the whole thing, and then some green salsa. They’re very satisfying and delicious.
By this time it was getting cold. I’m not exaggerating. I had already put on a light-weight blouse over my linen dress, and I wound my way through the crowd to get a long sleeved shirt from the truck. It wasn’t enough, but I felt a little more comfortable.
We waited and waited until the painful banda was finished with their contract. They moved over to the previously-mentioned butcher’s shop for their (free!) tacos. Hey! Why not for us? Then the large butcher and several of his equally large brothers began the process of moving the vehicles so that the bus and we, too, could get out of the narrow street. After some pickups that were stopping up the whole movement moved out of the way, the bus backed up and parked on the side of the narrow street, and the family of large brothers began to convince me, the driver, that I could back up our big truck into a side yard to turn around (thank you, gods of driving!). That’s when I remembered that the brakes weren’t exactly in working order. In spite of this, I backed the long truck into the yard. One man was telling me to Go, go, go! When I asked who was watching the other side he said There’s no problem! There’s lots of space! It was all rather jolly, and we made our way back out the narrow street, stopping only when the lovely woman who had earlier given us the (correct!) directions said to me “Don’t forget the way! You’ll be coming here every year for the fiesta for San Juditas, godwilling!”
Heading back up the street we had come down several hours earlier, we crossed each traffic-slowing tope, and made it up to the small highway, with (almost) no brakes. Slowly, we traversed the highway back to our home in our rancho. It was after midnight, and after we made our way with extreme caution past the neighbors’ house with its overhanging walkway that could be destroyed by my carelessness in driving our tall truck, we were greeted (surprise!) by our-dog-that-is-not-our-dog, Manos. He was thrilled to see us driving something (even though it was not his thrilling super favorite moving thing), home. He leapt on us and pawed us happily, making puppy sounds. We hadn’t seen him for weeks. We surmised that his other humans had gone to the big fiesta in nearby Jalpa, and he had somehow escaped his rope or chain. It was an unusual if not unique happening…
It was the date of “falling back” from daylight savings time here in Mexico. We fell into bed late but uniquely satisfied.
Forty-six degrees this morning on our thermometer. In Central Mexico.
There’s a very soft-spoken chiropractor twenty minutes away from here. Occasionally there are rather odd people in his waiting room. Including us.
A contract to buy a new tractor doesn’t always mean that tractor will be delivered. It may not be available. What’s up with that?
A rancho like ours that’s big enough to have great colors of crepe paper available may not have fine wire to make big flowers. Or pipe cleaners.
There is a lapidista/headstone maker in just about every town, no matter how small. They charge by the letter.