The here and now... and what and why

Complacency is a trap. At least that’s what I was thinking when I up and left the comfort of a Yankee prep school gig, where I taught music, amongst other things, for 28 years. There was also that life long career as a composer, musician and artist.

First, it was a year in St. Thomas, USVI, working as a reporter and shooting photography and then, a year in San Agustin Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Time passed.
More time passed and a year back in the Athens of America followed by a hasty return to Oaxaca where it is all happening.
A couple of years in San Sebastian Etla and now, just down the road in San Pablo Etla. Life is good.

Click on an image to see it larger.
For additional photography please visit my flickr page.
You can find my music on Jango (World & latin - Worldbeat) and at iTunes and most online stores.
¡Soy consciente de todas las tradiciones del Internet!
If you are coming to Oaxaca, please contact me for tours or advice.

Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo
The view from Corazon del Pueblo

The hereafter re me

My photo
Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico
Musician, photographer, videographer, reporter, ex-officio teacher, now attempting to be a world traveler

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Girl Could Sing - New Music

The Girl Could Sing
Two of the latest creations.
The music is just flowing out......

La Boda (The Wedding)

The Bride
Veronica and Joel

As I bounced down an almost impassable dirt road on my way to a boda (wedding) in San Martin Tilcajete, it finally sunk in that I was not in Kansas anymore. There was a Nor'easter in Boston, heavy rain in St. Thomas, the Pats were playing the Jets … and there were flashes of previous lives, school concerts, vacations, the haze that is my past.

Not here not now. Bumpin’ down the road to see the wedding of Veronica and Joel. Veronica is the daughter of Jesus and Juana Sosa Calvo, who are renowned woodcarvers in a village famous for its carvers.

Most weddings in Mexico take place during December and May. That’s the tradition and the celebrations last days. Each village has different rituals, celebrations, foods and customs. This was my first in San Martin.

Jesus and I go back a long way and it was a wonderful honor to be at the wedding. The Sosa family has carved almost thirty of the atriles (music stands) in my collection which numbers around 65 now. They carved the very first stand and they have created many of the most remarkable pieces in Oaxacan woodcarving.
Veronica and Jesus Sosa in December or 1999 with the first atril (music stand)
Instrumentales - August, 2002

I arrived very early at the church early after an easy 90-minute drive down the wide valleys that lead south of the city.

At one point in its history, San Martin Tilcajete was a large military and political rival of Monte Alban, but now it is a small and quiet place with perhaps between 50 and 100 carving families. The fame of their carvings brought much wealth to these poor villages, but now no one visits and sales have plummeted. Tough times. The artists are figuring out other ways of surviving. Some go back to the campo (working the fields), others have opened restaurants and many have left for El Norte.

Jesus’ son and his brother just came back from picking apples in Washington. Emiglio, the brother, is a great painter. Now he has lots of muscles and looks like a different person – wonderfully strong and healthy.

I sat in the zocalo and just watched village life on a Sunday afternoon. It was in the shade, cool breezes, decent music playing across the square. I just hoped I was in the right place.

In time, people started arriving. There were lots of kids with musical instruments. I could see them walking down the long dusty streets lugging their cases behind them.

Joel and Veronica waited in the car until all had assembled and then…

It unfolded, a very simple and sweet traditional village ceremony. As I say, it was a real honor and pleasure to be there.

I, of course, was doing my best to shoot “ a traditional wedding shoot” using the best of what I could remember from the master, Sonya. I couldn’t remember much, but managed to shoot around 400 shots so I played the percentages and got a few nice ones.

After the ceremony, the band led us on a procession through the village and people came out to wave and give good wishes to the couple.

After a ten-minute walk the entire party ended up at the Sosa home where long tables were set under the trees and awnings. There was a great trio singing as we sat down to a meal of carnitas, pork cooked in large pots of manteca (lard), beans, salsas, rice, tortillas and beer, mescal and sodas.

There was a beautiful altar set up off to the side.

The next day Veronica was off to live in Puebla with Joel’s family.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Only graffiti

I had lunch with some young people the other day and we had a wide-ranging conversation. My Spanish is getting good enough to begin to express real thoughts, but not really. I think it was better when I just had to keep my mouth shut and say nothing because I could say nothing. There is an great expression, "En boca cerrada, no entran moscas," translated loosely, "Flies don’t go in a closed mouth – essentially, shaddup, keep your mouth closed.
At any rate, I asked if there were comedy clubs here or an equivalent to “The Daily Show” or Colbert in which people could lampoon the politicians and the system. Their answer was that they did not exist here. One said that people in Mexico carry a fear within them that silences them.As far as I can see and remember, my language skills are limited, the only prominent political protests come in the form of graffiti, which I continue to photograph.

In this photo URO is Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the governor of Oaxaca, who is generally reviled. Puto in this context means something like "male whore" and should not be confused with puto, the rice cake or dumpling that comes in many forms in the Far East.
And what do these represent?
Maybe hope?

Snow? Rain? How about a fresh tomato?

I know it is snowing in Boston and raining in St. Thomas, but here it is the dry season.

San Agustin is very lucky to have water year round from the springs in the mountains. Even though the land is parched, it is such a wonderful sight and sound to have water pouring through the aqueducts throughout the village.

Consequently, I have fresh produce from the garden everyday. I am learning plenty about gardening here. There are a whole new set of problems, pests and solutions.
The higher up the mountains one’s land is means less topsoil. In the valley less than a mile away, the soil is rich, deep and brown. Here it is literally like cement. To dig a hole we use a four-foot long railroad spike and it is real work. Shovels or trowels are meaningless here. Plus, even when dug up and mixed with compost and manure, it still wants to return to its cement-like state. However, the tons of cow manure, abono, that I added are starting to do the trick.

I have lots of gardenias in pots and they are prone to scale, an insect, but no insecticides here. Normally, I use vlock oil to smother them. I went to the vivero, the rural nursery in San Lorenzo, where I bought them and the lady there said eight chiles in some water would do the trick. I know also to add a little soap to act as a spreading agent.

Their fragrance is intoxicating. I love going out each morning and breathing in the blossoms that have opened overnight.

Dia de la Virgen

Wednesday was the day of pilgrimage for the Virgin of Guadalupe. Most of the streets in the city were closed and there was gridlock, so I missed some opportunities. Never found a parking spot, but while I was in traffic I did witness some remarkable sights. Check out this video.

Monday, December 10, 2007

New Music

Oh, what a sale!
Oaxacan graffiti

And here's a link to a site with some new music.
I am working on my smallest setup ever - a G4 laptop and a cheapo keyboard.
But the software allows me to go new places.
I am being forced to learn new techniques and having a blast.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A Matter of Perspective - Dos

The city is quiet again after the excitement of El Dia and the flurry of business that came with the sudden influx of tourists. The streets are full of people. The skies are bright and blue.

It has been a full year since the massive governmental crackdown. The anniversary has given people cause to pause, reflect, memorialize and protest.

Many problems remain, but for now, Oaxaca is working hard to recover. In comparison to the other micro/macro systems I continue to observe and study in the hopes of figuring something out, Oaxaca is doing well.

Yes, it boiled over and is suffering through the aftermath, but it is making progress. The other systems I am watching include U.S. politics, my old prep school, the blogosphere, Boston politics, the Virgin Islands, the universe and my gardens. Some have yet to boil over, (i.e. the economy) or are not making the kind of progress they are making here (i.e. Iraq.)

And if one works hard enough, there are plenty of correlations and connections.

Last week’s convergence brought lots of action on the personal, local, national and blog-world levels. There was an article in the Washington Post by Ceci Connolly that generated quite a buzz on many levels. It was a “year later” story and Ms. Connolly, who I am sure likes Oaxaca, gave it the typical MSM “fly-by” treatment, which oft times now, it not representative of the reality on the ground.

I was motivated to write a response.

"To not speak with and, in more depth, about the indigenous populations is a real disservice to the problems that have still not been resolved. These include, social, economic, educational, political issues some of which have hundreds of years of history behind them. After all, the PRI was in power for 70 years. Why no mention of the election that started all the problems? Or the latest election, in which on one voted, because the outcome was predetermined?
Sadly, this story is typical of today's MSM, a glossy superficial view that ignores the reality that is so obvious to so many. As in the States, there are real problems here in Oaxaca, but they have not been addressed yet. In both countries, the rich and powerful factions that are in control and increasingly more repressive, seem surprised that people actually notice and begin to say, "Y basta - enough already." and start to take action. The Village likes the superficial story, but the glossing over of problems will not work in either country, because the problems still exist.
Pick any mainstream story these days, like Musharaff being "democratic" or the weakening dollar or the sub-prime fiasco or the real number of war dead (including Iraqis), the press does not do their jobs and dig in and present the facts. Instead, they spin it just like everyone else. As an ex-pat living in Oaxaca, what do I know compared to a oaxaqueño? Not much! Talking with normal everyday people would have put a decidedly different spin on the story.
Ms. Connolly's inability to see Oaxaca's soul says more about her than about this place. Being blind to it, she missed the real story. How sad. Even sadder, her story will be read by far more than these comments and the comments are much closer to the truth of what is happening in Oaxaca."

At least in Oaxaca, they are not opening fighting and sniping at each other. There was too much damage done last year. Maybe people are just regrouping or maybe they are looking, struggling to find the seemingly impossible solutions.

In too many of the systems, people are not listening, not doing their jobs, and ignoring the obvious. Yes, that still exists here, but tough times force change.

Oaxaca is changing, refining, aging … working hard to get better ...

A matter of perspective

I continue to photograph the graffiti around the city and out in the pueblos.
Often it is how you see things or how you are allowed to see things.
As with these two photos:


is a very interesting website that explores and analyzes photos in the news and from Iraq. It certainly has made me look at things very differently.

Friday, November 23, 2007

La Catarina

Death and how a culture thinks about it some to be at the very nub of what actually defines a “culture.” Consider the cultures you know something about. How do they deal with death?

Each significantly differently, I am sure, but how, I will never know. To really understand a culture, you must be a part of it and that is hard as an outsider.

I guess it is like my Latin piano technique, which would be better if I were born in say, Cuba. No matter how hard I work at it, well you know … I remain a gringo trying hard not to be a gringo.

Growing up in the States, we definitely have some unhealthy attitudes about death, mostly based on fear and avoidance. I think about the many deaths I have experienced, most are filled with sadness, sometimes with shock and despair.

I do not see that here. I am sure those feelings exist, but they are not as overwhelming as they are in the States. Mexico seems much different. There is an acceptance of Death here that feels right. I know that I am an outsider, an observer, but this culture thinks about Death in a much more effective and efficient way. It’s a part of everyday existence. La Muerte is always with us. Why not be friends? After all, we are all going. I like that Death has a dog, too.
And for El Dia de los Muertos, Oaxaca invites everyone to have a shot of mezcal to celebrate his or her own death. Better now than never.
As I celebrated, I could not help but think what I would like to be brought to my graveside after my death. What music? What food? What flowers? I saw graves that were planted as year-round gardens. I would like that.
In truth, it’s cremation or Tibetan Sky Funeral for me. Or just cover me in honey and roll me in birdseed and put me in the backyard. I won’t care. I’ll be dead.

And that’s the point. It is a universal. It’s a club that we will all join at some point so it is probably best not to fear it, but instead accept it.

Not only accept it, but also celebrate it, get into it. There is a joy to El Dia, to love and remember the dead in our lives in only the best of ways. No tears are allowed. They say that tears make the path upon which the spirits return slippery, so no one cries. It is all done with joy in the heart. Yes, there are quiet moments of reflection and remembrances, but they are somehow still joyful and nurturing for spirits and souls on both sides.
Here is a detail of the ofrenda above.
Un milagro! I got to see my own altar .... or alter-ego.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Teotitlan del Valle

Teotilan is a very old village with thousands of years of history and one that has steadfastly held on to ancient traditions. It is a Zapotec weaving village and one of the best places to learn and observe those traditions.

The panteon (cemetery) for El Dia del los Muertos was exceptionally beautiful and moving.

Before, Now, After

I followed El Dia from beginning to end, from the fields to the graves and plan to stay in the cycle it initiates. Every Day of the Dead is different and while I remember this past one, I am already planning for the next one.

El Dia de los Muertos gave me a much better perspective about life in Oaxaca. I have always felt that this was a special place and now I feel it even more strongly. This culture, these people, knows things that only thousands of years can teach.

Again, I recommend Charles C. Mann’s 1491 as a great read. Here is an extensive article he wrote for The Atlantic. It helps give perspective as to just how old these cultures are and how advanced they were and may still be. The chapter on Oaxaca follows the development of corn and will make you think very differently about both, the plant and the place.

The fields of marigolds and celosia (cockscomb) or as they are know here, cempasúchil and dragon’s claw.

As luck would have it, I happened to shoot the same grave earlier in the year during the rainy season.

The same for this grave. The top shot is from late September. Now, the soda bottle inside makes more sense.