Indigenous Culture, Oaxaca life

Celebrating life through music

By Marie Kerrin 

My memories of growing up in New Orleans are deeply sensory.  That peculiar, confusingly sweet smell of the French Quarter: freshly sugared beignets, the thick fried dough still hot, mingling with scents of sour beer spilled onto streets in tribute to late nights of abandon; the glinting gold, rich purples and greens of Mardi Gras banners draping proud balconies; the late night fog-horns of Mississippi barges, sleepily announcing their arrival with a resonant bass warning; and the sweet spice of my mama’s Shrimp Creole, the thick roux of an okra seafood gumbo, or the creamy heat of Crawfish Monica at Jazz Fest. 

But most importantly, you can’t be a New Orleans native without understanding what it means to breathe music.  It’s a visceral knowledge that life is a composition of melodies and beats, and the act of living is a dance, a response to the underlying rhythm of being.  Which explains the affinity I feel to Oaxaca.  The people of this city understand how to embrace and protest life through music, just as New Orleanians do.  It isn’t always a conscious act, just as you don’t focus on each blink your eyes take, but the omnipresence of music makes the energy of this city addictive.

And inextricably linked are the festivities fueled by the music.  Both in New Orleans and Oaxaca, music acts as a cohesive, bringing people together and inspiring bursts of celebration.  Revelries are centered around the live bands, whose tunes feed the energies of hungry crowds, encouraging groups of friends and strangers to gather and rejoice together. 

Last Friday, a good friend Crysthell invited some friends and me to her university’s calenda, an evening parade celebrating the end of the school semester. We met Crysthell in front of the Santo Domingo church at about 7:00 pm, when the sky was already dark and the church was lit in the eerily beautiful glow of its nighttime spotlights.  The parade had already snaked through town, up Alcala Street from the Zocalo, and was culminating at the cathedral.  From blocks away, we could already hear the blasting trumpets and banging drums of the street brass band, accented by the shouts and cheers of the parade crowd.

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Upon arrival we were quickly absorbed into the frenzied energy.  The brass band stridently blasted horns, and the dancing crowd boisterously jostled and elbowed us.  We found Crysthell just in time to grab onto her shoulders as she took off, weaving through the crowd, starting a frenetic congo line (similar to our “second-lines” in New Orleans).  After a couple minutes, so many people had joined us that the line doubled into itself, the head colliding with the tail like a caterpillar running into itself, and we dispersed.  The passion and recklessness went on for at least an hour more in a celebration that would rival Mardi Gras at its best.  And this was just a regular Friday evening in Oaxaca. 

But by far, Etla’s celebration during Dia de los Muertos has been one of my most powerful Oaxacan musical experiences.  As Kim mentioned in an earlier blog entry, there is a magical energy throughout Oaxaca in early November (http://www.envia.org/blog/2011/11/8/the-day-of-the-dead-and-the-celebration-of-life-in-oaxaca.html).  But the celebrations in the town of Etla are particularly renowned for their uniqueness.

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On the evening of November 1, the quiet town of Etla, located just 12 kilometers out of Oaxaca city, comes alive with vibrant street parades accompanied by live music lasting into the morning.  San Agustin Etla is at located at the top of a sloping hill, with the smaller town of San Jose Etla at the bottom.  Both towns host massive street parties, as the prestigious town bands lead revelers along the hillside roads, like pied pipers luring children with magical harmonies.  Most striking are the dancers whose costumes would put every Halloween partier in the United States to shame: elaborate and frightening masks completely disfiguring the wearers.  Particularly distinctive are the men wearing costumes covered in thousands of mirrors, glinting in streetlights and creating music with every dance step, the heavy suits jangling, crashing, and smashing. 

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At 8 am, the sweaty, exhausted but still feverishly playing bands of the two towns meet halfway on the hill for a jovial musical battle.  I danced alongside the costumed monsters and masqueraders until dawn, when I was ready to collapse.  The night was spectacular and one of my favorites in a catalogue of incredible evenings.

In Oaxaca, people abandon themselves to music and celebration.  Of course, just as anywhere, life’s realities and stresses are always impatiently tapping their feet demanding attention, and there is a time for solemnity and work.  However, Oaxaca’s culture has an appreciation for festivity with which music is closely linked.  Music is a seriously respected form of expression here, and as a New Orleanian, I can relate.  If you come to Oaxaca, you can enjoy the random street parades that spring up out of seemingly nowhere, and dance into the early light of dawn with passionately playing brass bands.  Forget your problems until tomorrow—trust me, when you want to find them, they’ll be just where you left them—and embrace the energy of the current moment.  

Come down to Oaxaca, feel that rhythm and dance with the crowd.  You’ll likely bump into me in the heart of it all, and I’d love to extend my hand and swing you around. 

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