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A Guadalajara adventure in experimental jazz

When Juan Castañón, the electric guitar player for the D/zazter band, said I could ride into Guadalajara for the band’s gig at the Chango Vudú Club, I jumped at it. I had never been to or even heard of the Vudú so it was an easy way to learn another venue and cover a gig. Little did I know what adventures awaited.

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Radio interview at the bar

We got into Guadalajara in around 40 minutes; its infamous traffic was pretty much gone on a late Wednesday night.  After a stop at a nice neighborhood to pick up Juan’s guitar, we headed to the entertainment zone – Districo Americano, home to Avenida Chapultepec, the Hollywood Blvd. of Guadalajara.  After driving past the blocks and blocks of clubs, bars, venues, and restaurants we turned into an upscale residential neighborhood and pulled up in front of a large wine bar next to a fancy-looking open-air restaurant.

SAMSUNG CSCI wondered which of these two expensive looking establishments housed the Chango Vudú when Juan and his friend Miguel who rode in with us shouldered the equipment and opened a small black gate between the wine bar and the restaurant.  My first clue was the weather-worn arrow painted about three stories up pointing down to the gate which read in Spanish saunas, showers, steam, baths. We descended stairs through a dark corridor and reached a landing with a table, an old electric typewriter, and a card promoting either sushi or mezcal – it was hard to tell which one. Behind the table was a beaded curtain festooned with Christmas lights.


Juan Castañón

We pushed through the curtain and on our right was what looked like a large 1940’s era non-working steam heater, about 6 or 67 feet square.  Across from it was the entrance to the Chango Vudú, which indeed had been build inside the carcass of a long-dead shower area for a long gone health club above it.  Actually, it looked like a bomb shelter that had done its duty more than once.

The ceiling and some of the walls were faced with old white bathroom tiles, One wall had been demolished to make way for the stage, with its ragged edges left hanging.  Support columns had been partially stripped of their tiles and showed raw, pitted brick. The walls were painted with very stylish black and white and color graffiti. The well-staffed and well-stocked bar was essentially a waste-high concrete slab with a smoothed top and bar stools.  Part of the room was furnished in low, Danish-modern picnic-style tables and part of it was filled with 1950’s-style but very new  Formica, chrome and Naugahyde dinette set. The stage was a 4-inch high concrete slab with plenty of room for three musicians, light bars fore and aft, wood slats on the back wall to reflect sound, a very good sound system cabled to a high-end control board in the back, and a curtain.

I loved it. It felt immediately comfortable and welcoming and kinda cool and mysterious at the same time.  Miguel and I pulled up a dinette set, laid out our equipment and waited for the show to start.

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Secret entrance?

About 20 minutes later a full-scale TV station crew arrived, setting up three-tripod mounted studio cameras, a mobile editing station next to the sound control board, spread cables all over the bar’s concrete and cracked tile floor, and down ramps to protect them. There were two men and one woman running cameras plus an editor and producer who told me that they were from and they were going to tape the first set for broadcast in two weeks. They were also going to tape a radio interview by the popular host from Jalisco Radio, Sara Valenzuela, who arrived shortly.

And here I thought I was going to kick back, listen to progressive experimental jazz and shoot some video.

Juan Castañón’s band, D/zazter, is a high energy experimental jazz group comprised that night of Castañón on electric guitar, Itzam Cano on standup bass, and  Gabriel Lauber – a Swiss living in Mexico – on drums.  Before the band played Sara Valenzuela seated them at the end of the now-quite full bar, pulled out a radio mic connected to the cameras and the sound system, positioned herself on the other side of the bar facing them like a bartender and kicked off a 40 min interview in Spanish.  The crowd in the now very full bar hung on her every word while the TV crew circled getting shots from all angles and Miquel and I squeezed in edgewise for our photos and videos.

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Cano on bass

After the interview, the TV crew disappeared, Miquel and I went for pizza, the band got coffee and the bar returned to its boisterous noise level. We got back in plenty of time to distribute pizza, get a beer and set up for the first set.  The crew got in position and the band commenced some of the most interesting, difficult and precisely delivered jazz I have ever heard. The resumes of the band show why.

Castañón’s range and deep skill make him truly a musician’s musician. He plays the guitar and sarod and is superb both in his technique and his improvisational skills.  He collaborates with dance companies, experimental theater, silent film scoring, art installation sound and videoart.  He works on projects involving free improvisation, freejazz and classical music from North India.  He lived for a time in Italy, studying at the Universitá della Musica di Roma Italy and participated in numerous diplomatic exchanges, workshops, and course on contemporary music and jazz.

His two bandmates are equally skilled and experienced.  Drummer Gabriel Lauber,
born in Switzerland,  studied with master percussionist Pierre Favre. He has played and/or recorded with such jazz greats as Marco Eneidi, Elliott Levin, William Parker, Frode Gjerstad, Akira Sakata & many others.  In Mexico since 2001, he has formed many jazz and free jazz assemblies and toured widely. Stand-up bass player Itzam Antonio Cano Espinosa of  Mexico City studied at the National School of Music of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.   At the end of 2005, he joined the Zero Point ensemble,  considered one of the most important Mexican free jazz ensembles,  and was awarded the Young Creators Scholarship of the National Fund for Culture and the Arts.  He has played with greats across the country in venues, festivals and concert halls.

SAMSUNG CSCBoth sets were wild. It is always exciting to watch highly competent, highly talented and creative artists collaborate almost wordlessly to create improvisational musical art….one of the most difficult aspects of music.  Both sets rocked the house and awed the crowd. Lauber created a shimmering backdrop on the drum kit, punctuated with high-speed bursts and occasional slow rhythms.  Cano attacked the bass, sometimes violently, sometimes lovingly, moving up and down the strings like a madman, occasionally zeroing in on one tight space pulling out unbelievable sounds.  Castañón’s fingers moved on the guitar sometimes too fast to see – literally a blur.  One had rapidly picked in a kind of Spanish classic style while the other hand raced up and down the frets like a separate creature. I think if I had looked closer I could have seen the sparks.

The last set wrapped up a little before midnight.  By the time the band had cooled down, downed some more pizza and beer, and packed up it was past the bewitching hour, but no one was tired.  The adrenalin was still running.  It was still there when I got home at 1 am….that’s what great music does to you.

Patrick O’Heffernan is the host of Music Sin Fronteras radio

Juan Castañón.

Chango Vudú



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About Patrick O'Heffernan, Music Sin Fronteras (442 Articles)
Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist based in Mexico, with a global following. He focuses on music in English and Spanish that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America, especially Mexico like cumbia, banda, son jarocho, and mariachi. He is also edits a local news website and is a subeditor of a local Spanish language newspaper. Check out his weekly column Music Sin Frontera on Sunday nights.

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