Music is everywhere in Oaxaca. Meander down its beautiful cobbled streets (careful of the potholes!) and you’ll find yourself serenaded by street musicians wielding mandolins or guitars. You might hear the sounds of an accordion wafting over from a colonial square. Pause for a moment to enjoy a cerveza in one of the restaurants lining the main plaza, the Zocolo, and you are likely to encounter a mariachi ensemble, playing guitars, violins and trumpets and singing popular folk tunes.
Oaxaca´s enormous range of both traditional and popular music is one of the many reasons why living here is such a pleasure. Something I’ve noticed about the street musicians here is that they have a wonderful energy. They might have a small repertoire limited to five or six songs, but they play them with heart and charisma. The marching bands are particularly fun to watch. A number of German immigrants arrived in Oaxaca in the 18th and 19th centuries, bringing with them their brass instruments. Oaxacan musicians learned to play these instruments with a twist, incorporating traditional tunes and adding local instruments to form a special style of their own.
A type of music unique to Oaxaca is Son Istmo. Son means sound in Spanish, while Istmo stems from Istmo de Tehuantepec, the largest region in Oaxaca state. Son Istmo features a wide range of music styles, including pre-Hispanic dance tunes for flute and drum, festival dances for violin, marimba and drums and troubadour songs in Zapotec and Spanish.
Appropriately, Oaxaca city is teeming with live music venues. El Nueva Babel, a tiny local bar, somehow manages to squeeze in a crowd for a daily dose of live music and poetry. You can listen to rock ´n´ roll at Barracuda, mellow jazz music at Praga or lively merengue music at Candela in a colonial-era building. Regardless of the venue, you’ll inevitably be swept up by a partner and spun around when the rhythms of cumbia or salsa fill the room.
Fundación En Vía recently hosted a fundraising concert in the gardens of the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. It was a fantastic night and the audience was treated to a musical feast, with local bands playing music ranging from cumbia and rock to cabaret and jazz. One band, Los Raices, played son jarocho, a form of folk music originally from the state of Veracruz but popular in Oaxaca elsewhere in the country. It’s a fusion of African, Spanish and Huastecan (an indigenous style from Veracruz) music. One of the musicians in Los Raices was playing an instrument common to son jarocho, a quijada, which is made from a donkey jawbone. Probably not the fate the donkey would have chosen for itself!
Countless times, I’ve been strolling and daydreaming in Oaxaca, only to suddenly stumble across an enormous, colorful street parade, featuring a Tambora Oaxaqueña or brass band, and led by an enormous tuba (with a person attached). Then there are the inevitable marimba players who play in local markets, with their diverse repertoire ranging from Mexican folk songs to the theme song from Titanic. Once, I walked past a man selling tamales from a cart only to look back with astonishment, as he started singing an aria from an opera in a strong baritone. Only in Oaxaca!
By Helen Lyttelton
Photos by Kim Groves