When I arrived in Mexico three years ago, there was a vacant lot at the corner of Calle Aldama and the highway that serves as the town’s main street. Along an informal street parking area at the front on that lot was a food truck, Kamello’s , owned by a Mexican – Lebanese couple. They produced great Middle East-flavored tacos and burritos which patrons could wash down with beers on tables in front of the truck.
Next door was another truck – actually an airstream converted into a kitchen with a tarp roof stretched out from it to cover a bar and tables. Called Baja Norte, it specialized in seafood, after its namesake. Baja Norte added music on weekends and, with the bar churning out margaritas along with beer and wine, it was lively place. The music was local jazz-rock bands keeping the tempo quick enough to provide energy but the volume down to allow talking.
Then, about a month ago the owner of lot decided he did not want food trucks renting his property anymore and told them they had to move. Which turned out to be – I think – a good thing. Kamello’s opened a small restaurant on a busy side street next to the water agency and seems to be doing a thriving business.
But it is Baja North that really took the opportunity and ran with it. The couple who owns it took over a closed, practically falling down eyesore of an old Italian restaurant on the highway in the middle of town and turned it into a faux beach resort with a huge bar, sand on the floor around the many tables, and – most important to me – a big stage for bands and a dance floor.
Last Wednesday, we were bushed and decided to go out instead of cooking. Our favorite restaurant was closed so we decided on Baja Norte. When we looked them up we saw that it was Tardes Muy Mexicanos noche – Mexican music night – and the Mariachi Real Axixic was playing. Woo-hoo! MRA is part of the Medeles family, the local emperors of all things Mexican music. Many of the Medeles are local and national musicians, they run a music school, they operate mariachi, their sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren play in local bands, orchestras, and mariachis. MRA is known to be one of the best and most innovative mariachis in lakeside.
And they rocked! They rocked classic mariachi songs, rock and roll covers, fusion mariachi blues and swing, bluegrass, and originals. All-male, they invited one of the Medeles daughters at the restaurant celebrating her birthday ( teens) to come up and sing and she belted classic Mexican ballads like a pro – a small body with a HUGE voice.
The band rocked and we danced. At one point it seemed like half of the restaurant was on the dance floor. One of the waiters, or maybe a family friend, was circulating through the crowd with a bottle of reposado pouring tequila down the throats of everyone who put their head back and opened their mouths.
And while we were seated, catching our breath from dancing, enjoying the tuna ceviche tostada and grilled octopus taco with a sipping glass of Patron añejo and a cold Modelo Negro, the lead singer toured the tables and stopped to sing (with radio mic) to the diners. Which is how we found out that the little girl with the big voice was having a birthday – a first he sang to her and then we all sang to her.
Mariachi is Mexico’s national music, and a must for celebrations like birthdays, weddings, grand openings, quinceañeras. But, like all music forms, it evolves and changes and creates. The classics are always there –songs like El Son de la Negra, México Lindo y Querido, and of course, Las Mañanitas. But it is so flexible that it easily absorbs rock, cumbia, rap, soul and jazz. The proliferation of mariachis in the US, Canada and Mexico, male, female ,and mixed, is a testament to its joyful adaptability, and to the young mariachis like MRA, Flor de Toloache, Mariachi Las Colibri, and Nancy Sanchez who have taken it to new levels..
Guadalajara, right up the road from us, is the site of the annual International Mariachi Festival which sees over 10,000 people a day thronging into the city to experience everything from street corner rock mariachis to 50-piece formal mariachis playing as part of a musical theater.
Outside of Mexico (and sometimes inside of it) mariachis are thought of only as the bands that wait around the plazas to get hired for a party or quinceañera. And the bands that do that are an important part of the local musical community. But there is so much more (and often the bands at the plaza will surprise you with their talent and creativity). And there are mariachis everywhere- Tokyo, NYC, Toronto, London and on and on. Although I often visited Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights Los Angeles, held my birthday party at Mariachi restaurants, and have friends who play in them, it was not until I came to Mexico that I realized what a huge, dynamic and totally fun music it is.
I think I will be spending even more nights exploring fun dynamism. Of course, a couple of fish tacos and tequila poured down my throat while I am dancing doesn’t hurt.
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