Friday, July 11, 2008

Aztecs in Austria

I careened into the Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle, managed to find my unsigned "motel" (a room in the compound of Josefina Ruiz, widow of Eligio Bazan, with cauldrons suspended over smoldering fires and shared outhouses), dropped my bags and headed toward the town center, where a brass band was playing. I'm a big fan of Mexican banda music.

Before me was a scene as rife in contradictions as any I've experienced. In front of an ornate 17th century church (built, conquistador style, atop a Zaputec temple), vendors were selling pulque (Mexico's second lowest-class drink, a sour, sulphurous, slimy potion brewed - not distilled - from maguey). Dancers, dressed in fabulously ornate native costumes made from chicken feathers dyed with the skin of Cochineal beetles, among other colorings, and with enormous round headdresses that made them look like Aztec kings, somehow managed to perform fierce pre-Columbian Indian dances while the village band performed, for some unfathomable reason, their repertoire of lyrical German waltzes. On the backs of some of the dancers' outfits were intricate pen-drawn crucifixion scenes.

It was all part of a religious festival whose origins are so knotted up between Zapotec, Christian, and ancient village customs that participants were unable to clearly explain exactly what was being celebrated. Yet a feeling of religious awe hovered over the scene, as did the ripe aroma of mezcal, bottles and bottles of which were being passed freely among all present.

The increasingly inebriated band negotiated their stodgy waltzes less and less politely, which to my ear increased the musical value tremendously. The musicians on my banda recordings sometimes sounded a bit blotto, and here I was, watching the process first-hand. The dancers, too, were at a mezcal saturation point, and I stared and stared, trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance as they plied their earnest war dance amid all the sonic schnitzel. I shot a video, which you can view at the bottom of this entry.

Finally, suddenly, late into the night, the band closed their music and ripped into a purely local tune of maniacally brisk tempo, intricately layered polyrhythms and mind-boggling complexity. The conductor barely bothered to wave his baton, and the band played from memory, obviously having played this song hundreds of times. The effect was nothing short of galvanizing. Finally, the music matched the dancing! The sense of released tension was astounding.

I had been warned to drink no mezcal, having spent the previous day in a Mexican hospital where a diligent doctor, baffled by the notion of Lyme disease, painstakingly researched the condition - a tick bite from last week's hiking having produced the tell-tale coloration - finally prescribing me a fourteen day course of Doxycycline, one of the most blindly genocidal antibiotics in the physicians' canon (and the correct one for this situation). "No MEZCAL?" I'd wailed to my bemused doctors. "Well, perhaps one shot per day," offered one physician, obviously speaking more as a sympathetic civilian than in any strictly professional capacity.

Back at the concert, late at night, in the jubilant rain, I was on my seventh mezcal, plied without option for refusal by the trombone and tuba sections of the band, which had early on learned that I'm a trombonist (made fairly obvious by my screaming and hooting after each low-brass soli section), when the alto saxophonist, an anachronistic budding jazz musician who is apparently cousin, nephew, brother, or son to every inhabitant of Teotitlán del Valle, invited me to tour the church steeple. It was a thrill for me, because I was a fan of the bell-ringing guys.

The church bell itself is unimaginably cheap, each clang sounding like an air conditioner dropped from a roof into a huge tin trash can. But what they did with it! One team wielded the enormous bell (ingeniously mounted on a flimsy-seeming three hundred year-old wooden frame allowing a full terrifying 360 degrees of vertical rotation) and another slugged away at an even larger one, with a clapper like an oar. They bashed away in a state of advanced religious frenzy at seemingly random intervals, the cockeyed harmonics colliding in impossibly nuanced ways.

We descended to the church proper, which was truly awesome and enormous, festooned with flowers and photos (photos are a part of sacred life here, the flip side of the provincial "superstition" that makes villagers loathe to pose for tourists for "fear" of having their soul captured, which I now better understand). At the alter, six tough-looking young men dashed in and fell to their knees, sending instant tidal waves of palpable devotion slamming to the back wall of the church and beyond. That's bhakti, baby. Was it for Jesus, the Zapotec Gods, or simply the mezcal? In the end, does it matter?

Let's back up for a moment. It had been my previous opinion that mezcal was supposed to be young; that aged ones strictly pander to tourist demand. They inevitably contain a whiff, if not an outright clobber, of turpentine due to poor selection and handling of wood. But I was wrong about that. Among my many shots was one of a deeply golden añejo with the purity of a great young mezcal, only smoother and deeper. The craftsmanship nearly brought tears to my eyes, and jazz sax guy, for whom the appearance in his village of a professional NYC jazz musician constituted a sort of minor miracle, told me he'd hook me up with a bottle. I insisted on paying, to help support the makers. A few minutes later, he sat out one of the waltzes, and went dashing off into the village, returning with a bottle which he thrust into my hands, with a wink, and took his seat back with the band. He would accept no money.

Anyway, as we descended the baroque narrow circular stone stairs from the church's bell tower, I gingerly broached the topic of mezcal trade. I know an importer, I told my new friend, who'd likely pay good money to sell the village's mezcal in the States. After the briefest silence, the subject was changed. It was one of those moments where you realize you've committed a gringo faux pas and been hastily forgiven, but the particulars are not to be further discussed.

After the concert, I was invited into the room where the dancers keep their sacred feathered costumes. Private religious rites were about to take place, and I watched a village elder devoutly, lovingly kiss a mezcal bottle. It wasn't like an alcoholic smooching his hooch, it was more like a rabbi kissing a sacred scroll.

I immediately realized that I must forget about ever seeing this mezcal exported, or even of paying for my single bottle. Furthermore, my respect for the banda music I'd listened to for years was no longer slightly diminished by the drunken bits. It's not sloppy drunkenness, it's a part of the ecstatic whole. There is no difference between sacred and secular/cultural. Here in Oaxaca, with its deep Indian bloodlines, everything is both.

So many seemingly contradictory parts! Mezcal, Jesus, ancient Indian traditions, European waltzes, shamanic polyrhythms, incense and snapshots. Yet a tangible spiritual continuity subsumes all, and the surreal result feels remarkably unmuddled if you really dive in. You may have seen amalgamated Hispanic cultures portrayed in movies, where the trappings always seem kitsch. Up close and live, it's no such thing.

Many fear that modernization in places like this means the loss of vital essence, and that the incursion of alien culture incites the flight of younger generations from villages worldwide. Indeed, Manuel, the aberrational jazz saxophonist is young and possesses a degree of sophistication not found in village elders. There are no jazz clubs for him in this place. Clearly, he's ripe for ditching this scene. But he vowed to me that Teotitlán del Valle is his village, has always been his village, and he'll never move away...aside from brief forays to the big city of Oaxaca for gigs.

Places with far more coherent cultures have proven far less magnetic. But there's clearly something transcendental going on here. It's the source of that divine wind at the church alter, I suppose, and though it finds expression through Jesus, indigenous tradition, swigs of mezcal, and sanctified snapshots, it isn't specific to any of those things.

UPDATE: I'm trying to upload the video, but Blogger sucks in numberless ways, and this is one of them (I'm looking forward to Google running the online world with nearly as much trepidation as China running the real one). To make sure you don't miss it when it's up, I'll give it its own entry. Hopefully later today.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Read about my follow-up visit to Teotitlán del Valle, and my taste of the rare and perilous Medusa Gruel.


Pat said...

Do you have more video, Jim? I'd love to hear and watch the progression from the Viennese waltz to their own local tunes.

Thanks for this; it's terrific!

Jim Leff said...

There was only one single "local" tune, the very last one of the night. And, alas, I didn't catch it. But it sounded similar to some of the banda music featured on my ChowTour (which I linked to).

Anonymous said...

I was really moved by your description of the bell ringing — the crappiness of the bell itself and the daffy centeredness of the ringers.

The essential disconnection between the spiritual and the worldly — the more spiritual access you have, the more casual the so-called "sacred" but still worldly trappings become. All they have to do is spark the connection, not pretend to be it.

And the Austrian waltzes signal the reality the inhabitants experience as opposed to the purity of the other that the visitor wants to experience. But the presence of the visitor is in itself enough to deny the possibility of that "purity," where the purity of the real is all around.

Jim Leff said...

The essential disconnection between the spiritual and the worldly - the more spiritual access you have, the more casual the so-called "sacred" but still worldly trappings become. All they have to do is spark the connection, not pretend to be it.

The infinitely accommodating process by which the spiritual comes to feel worldly is the process by which we imagine a merely worldly world to exist in the first place.

And the Austrian waltzes signal the reality the inhabitants experience as opposed to the purity of the other that the visitor wants to experience. But the presence of the visitor is in itself enough to deny the possibility of that "purity," where the purity of the real is all around.

Quantum mechanics ethnography?

Of course, the term "purity" doesn't really apply at all, except in the driest academic sort of view. On the other hand, experiencing particularly daffy varieties of otherness helps remind us that while the varieties of manifestation are numberless, the spirit behind it all is absolutely uniform. Living in the worldly world, we tend to over-focus on the particulars of the manifestations, but that's not where the juice is.

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