It’s low season in the Guadalajara region of Mexico. The snowbirds don’t arrive from Canada until winter, the temperatures are mild so the denizens of Guadalajara – the capital of Jalisco State – have not decamped to nearby Ajijic and Chapala for their cool lake breezes. Many of the music festivals are either over or months off. But the music scene is still lively with touring groups and local bands– of which there are many.
In Guadalajara, King Crimson is coming to the Teatro Diana, Mumford and Sons is booked for the Auditorio Telmex, and tickets are going fast for Ballet Folclórico at the Teatro Degollado. At the clubs it is mostly top local bands with Club Capilla De Los Muertos hosting The All, MTM, COW, and Diluvia; CH3 Rooftop is blasting karoke and beer, Javier Blake of División Minúscula and MTV fame is gracing the Foro Independencia, and of course, there is lots of mariachi in the Tlaquepaque neighborhood
The town of Chapala and the state of Jalisco are known nationwide as the birthplace of mariachi, the signature music of Mexico. The mariachi style of music and musical group performance dates back to at least the 18th century but it has evolved, absorbing polka, waltz, rock, rap, indie rock along the way. No longer confined to men in charro outfits and sombreros, there are dozens of female mariachis like Flor la Toloche which won a Latin Grammy in 2017, and mixed-gender mariachis with over 20 players, and even mariachi operas. This means that not only are there many mariachi bands in the area, but many musicians, some of whom play mariachi in one venue and other genres in other venues – giving the region a great musical presence.
Locally in Ajijic on Lake Chapala, where we are about an hour from central Guadalajara, the swing queen Diana Terry is at the Hot Spot Club, Club Huerto is featuring the jazz duo Juan Castañón Acasia on guitar and David Perez on bass – both of whom I have heard before and both of whom are outstanding. The smokin’ blues-rock No Borders Band is at El Barco, and the restaurant-bar-venue Javier La Bodega De Ajijic is laying back with the smooth tunes and voices of Eduardo Trujillo and George Crooner doing 50’s, 60’s and 70’s covers. And that is a small sample.
We worked too late unpacking the radio studio to go into the city even if it is only an hour drive – the time it took me to get to downtown Los Angeles or even Hollywood at rush hour. So we decided to stay close to home, skip cooking, combine dinner and music, and check out some very local, very Mexican regional music.
A few blocks from the studio is a place called Go Bistro, a walking-distance restaurant and bar that also features local talent specializing in the traditional music of the region. Founder chef Pedro Palmer is a connoisseur of local music as well as food and wine. A cordon-blue trained chef, he has cooked and listened to music all over the world and it shows in his menu and his ear. Currently, Go Bistro is alternating among locally-based traditional bands, starting with Tradicion-All, a salterio-led band (a salterio resembles a hammer dulcimer but is plucked), the Mexican harp band Arpa de Chapala, and a traditional Mexican quartet featuring Armando and Abel Rivera on standup bass, guitar and vocals.
We arrived just in time to get a front table for Tradicion-All so we could watch Isabel Hernandez Sotelo’s fingers fly across the strings. Her expression shifted from a smile of pure joy to deadly serious, depending on the song. The melodic “Toda Una Vida” was followed by the boisterous “Chapultepec” (“at grasshopper hill” referring to the Toltec hill/altar now a vast public park in Mexico City) and other songs using the near-vocal quality of the salterio to deliver a unique but very Mexican sound.
I have encountered this phenomenon in Latino music before – instrumentation combinations that allow a band or artist to rock, rap, belt the blues, blast metal or produce EDM that is true to its genre but is instantly recognizable as Mexican. In LA, the band Las Cafeteria (who are booked for two shows at the Hollywood Bowl in August) take rock and rap and mix it with the jarocho – the donkey jawbone, and the zapateado – the amplified Mexican tap dance platform, to rock several thousand people while making them feel the spirit of Mexico.
Because we were in a restaurant, every now and then the band would play an American or Mexican standard or even a pop tune to keep the dining audience engaged, but even in these, the band was able to put its traditional stamp on each song. The result was exactly what we needed – as a thunderstorm formed over Lake Chapala and frissons of lightning flashed in the distance over Guadalajara we were relaxing with fine tequila, great food, and music that welcomed us to our new home.
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