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

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, cempasĂșchil 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.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Day of the Dead Dance

In San Agustin Etla, the village in which I am living, they perform an amazing, seemingly never-ending dance - actually it last two days, I think, because I left and they were still going strong. The costumes are incredibly heavy, covered with mirrors or bells. Just walking up and down the mountain roads tired me out and I only had camera equipment, so if these dancers looked wiped out, they probably are. They had been dancing for 14 hours when I found them - and eating and drinking mezcal, too. I had gone out twice the night before to find them but I did not understand that they just keep moving from house to house and the roads here are dark. I had been disappointed not to have found them, but at six in the morning th next day, I just followed the sound and here's what I found. The dancers are amazing and so is the band. Not only are they good musicians, but their stamina is unbelievable. Party on!

Monday, November 5, 2007

El Dia de los Muertos - finalmente

After coming to Oaxaca for so many years to finally experience El Dia de los Muertos was quite remarkable, an inspirational and eye-opening series of events that will take some time to process and post. I have enough material between photos and video to do an entire site on The Day of the Dead, but for now, this is the place.

As was mentioned in an earlier post, Oaxaca had great expectations for this particular El Dia, because it presented the first potential real economic surge that this state so sorely needs. It certainly succeeded in that respect as the city was filled and many businesses had the best week in almost 2 years.

There is a reason why Oaxaca is famous for its celebrations of El Dia and for those of you reading this, do yourself a favor, come and experience it first-hand, if not next year, then the year after.

The Mexicans have the right perspective on Death. I observed much in the past week that has changed me and my perceptions. To watch children playing on graves in cemeteries filled with joyful people, music, food and flowers makes one think about not only life and death and human behavior, but also about cultural differences.

Simply put, it blew my mind.

I have a whole new aspect of respect for this culture. Their attitude about Death is so much healthier than ours in the States.

Over the span of four days, I visited six different cemeteries, many people’s homes and some pretty wild village fiestas.

Under a spectacular sunset, with the mountains as a backdrop, I watched families celebrate around the graves in the weaving village Teotitlan del Valle.

In San Miguel, the large pantheon in the city, I saw an old man in a crypt seated at a beautifully set table with wine, candle and a boom box playing Chopin.

In San Antonino, in a cemetery overflowing with the most beautiful flowers, I watched as they mixed dirt and water to make an adobe paste that they spread on the graves to make a smooth surface which they then decorated with dried flowers.

In San Agustin Etla, the pueblo in which I am living, I drank mescal with the locals at seven in the morning and followed them from house to house as they danced and drank (as they had been doing for a day before I caught up with them) in incredible traditional outfits covered with mirrors and bells.
Sunrise in the mountains with an incredible band and a couple of hundred people going crazy? Not bad.

Out standing in the field was where I was when we heard another band playing across the valley in a different village. The band I was following all turned and assembled on a ledge overlooking cornfields and facing the other band, played an “ in-your-face” good morning. Yes, I did get it on tape and will post it.

And then there was the mole that Emelia Ruiz from Teotitlan made. It was a rich shiny purple black that was just perfect. One of the best I have every experienced. We had it served over fresh homegrown turkey and delicious tortillas. And, of course, Pan de Muertos, a sweet bread that comes in all sorts of designs.

And all the altars or ofrendas, one in every house and business. This large one to Frida was in the Governor's Palacio.

It will take some time for it all to sink in and process. I will keep you posted.