Church Musicians At Rancho Fiesta

Patronal festivals are an important part of rancho life. They are major events, lasting several days, and they serve to gather family and friends together. People from nearby towns come, and people from faraway places as well. There are plenty of ways to spend money. Colorful booths with vendors offer food, products, artisanal candy, and regional items.

Today we went to play for a mass in a not-too-far-away place where we’d never gone before. It’s a rancho called Sitio de Maravillas and maybe someday I’ll find out why it’s named that.The name means place of wonders/marvels. It looked like a typical rancho, and there were no wonders in sight. It did look typical, if there is such a thing, but the guitar player said, “These people look like they’re from Michoacan, and most of them have the same faces as my family.” As it turns out, the rancho is an ejido. From wikipedia: In Mexican system of government, an ejido (Spanish pronunciation: [eˈxiðo], from Latin exitum) is an area of communal land used for agriculture, on which community members individually farm designated parcels and collectively maintain communal holdings. And the area is only two or three miles from where many of the guitar player’s cousins live. There are some good photos of Sitio at this site: 

http://mexico.pueblosamerica.com/foto/sitio-de-maravillas

It was a rather typical-for-us first time visit. We arrived more than an hour early and began our set up. It was difficult to find a power outlet, and there was no one to let us know where we should sing and play from. 

The colorful umbrellas are masking the equally colorful vendor booths. And that spindly-looking tower is for – fireworks!

Anyway we were a bit nervous, and the church began filling up about a half-hour before the mass was to begin, which was not exactly a calming influence.

Although you can’t see the silent watchers, they’re there – right behind the photographer.

We were surrounded by people, some praying, but mostly silently watching us set up.  We felt more nervous. But when the priest entered, we knew we could relax, because we knew him, and he’s a helpful guy (not a person who corrects you or gives mean looks or cuts you off in mid-sung-syllable). And we went on getting prepared, guessing at which kind of music they might want for whatever saint was being celebrated. There were several Maria statues in the front area of the church, which is not necessarily a clue. But we did the Ave Maria for communion (the guitarist made a good call on that one, because as it turned out, the patron saint was Maria). In the last 6 years I’ve sung Ave Maria more times that I had previously accumulated in my lifetime of church singing.

There was a pretty ceiling treatment there. The only difficult thing in creating it would be using a long, long handle for the paint brush.

Pretty ceiling treatment, done with paint.

Afterwards, the same silent watchers converted in front of our eyes into friends! and wanted to know WHERE we were from, and WHY they hadn’t heard of us before, and, and, and…And WHAT is our phone number so they can call us for upcoming events. They were welcoming, and invited us to eat móle, a famous Mexican dish often served at big gatherings.  

As we were leaving we had to hurry to get the car moved because there were about 40 Aztec/Indian dancers in wonderful costumes setting up for a show right in front of the church, which I don’t recall seeing before. Not right there in front of a church.

Fireworks image from YouTube.

When we got home we took a nap, and now I’m sitting here with a little headache, yawning, and it’s only 8 p.m. I’ll bet they’re getting ready for the fireworks in Sitio De Maravillas.

Waking Up in California – Posadas 2016

It’s so difficult to photograph an Aztec dancing hummingbird!

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.

These are some of the hupiles I wear during performances.

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.

“They are, umm, rejected? dejected? ejected?” The Guitarist’s reaction.

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?

Musings – My Personal Tried-And True Method For Memorizing Music

A recent party set-up at our house. You'll just have to envision the other side of the stage, which looks nearly the same as "my" side, but with additional speakers for the guitar.

A recent party set-up at our house. You’ll just have to envision the other side of the stage, which looks nearly the same as “my” keyboards side, but with additional speakers for the guitar.

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.

Instrumental introduction

Verse

Verse

Chorus (often the “high” or dramatic part) often based on the IV chord

Instrumental introduction 

Verse

Chorus

Bridge (optional)

Chorus

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=CIUMfWDykOwI had never heard it before. We learned it last month,

A sample set-up on a small stage.

A sample set-up on a small stage. Battered keyboard, smaller speakers.

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”.

Time Is (Not!) On Our Side

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.

Work list:

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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.

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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.

 

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Get the invitation posters printed.

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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.

What Beautiful Chayotes!

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On the left are two chilacayotas. We can discuss those later. On the right – a “different” type of chayote. Larger, and a darker green color than the ones I’ve seen in markets.

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!

 

Quiet Sunday, Except For The Practicing

img_4963It’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!

REAL Day Of The Dead

I love the photos I already posted, but this is what it was really like:

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These women stayed nearly all day. Ask me how I know.

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People – visiting their families, dead and alive.

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Flowers for Don Antonio, a humble and warm man. RIP.

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It’s a large cemetery, and there’s no map. You’ve just got to know, or know somebody who knows.

I felt comfortable here.