Discovering Music on the Road
I met the same dying man twice once summer in two different places in Mexico – once in Merida on the Yucatan peninsula (near Cancun) and a week later in San Cristobal de las Casas in the deep Mexican south.
He was a tall, white-haired old man with strong dark eyes and a gaunt, bony face. I can’t remember his name. I thought I had written it down in my notebook, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe I figured I would never forget it.
He was European – from Belgium, I believe – and spoke good English and basic Spanish. He dressed how a hippy traveler in his twenties might: baggy pants, loose shirts, small knitted hats and imitation Birkenstocks. Lots of well-worn layers in earth tones. But he was old and looked it. He was much too thin. He had cancer.
I first met him in Hostal Zocalo, a friendly and spacious hostel in a historic building right on the center square in Merida. He stayed up all night in the common room, huddled down on the couch under the glow of his tiny laptop. He never ate the hostel’s generous breakfast of fruit and eggs any style that was included in the price. He rarely looked up from the laptop.
He slept all day. We shared one of the rooms full of bunk beds, and when I took a nap in the afternoon one day, I heard him coughing. I asked if he had a cold, and he laughed. I didn’t know the truth yet.
A few nights later I came back well after midnight. There he was on the couch, laptop on lap. I finally introduced myself. He shut the laptop. His cheeks were so thin and caved-in that you could almost see the outlines of his teeth.
He talked about travels all around the world, especially his many years in India. He talked about Latin America and the good people he’d met. He was writing a book about his travels. Could I see it? No, it wasn’t ready yet.
There was sadness in his eyes. A great weariness. But also a calm resignation. He never mentioned a family. He never mentioned his cancer. I never asked. I found out because everyone in the hostel who spent more than a few days there knew, though few spoke to him.
I eventually left and made my way to San Cristobal. He was already there in Tata Inti, the friendly little hostel full of musicians where I always stay.
We shook hands. “What a surprise,” I said. “Yes. How are you?” he asked. He always spoke very deliberately with unbroken eye contact. I may have forgotten his name, but I’ll never forget those exhausted black eyes.
He was getting worse. He still stayed up all night, coughing and vomiting more now. But he also spent more time awake in the daytime, chatting with everyone and bumming cigarettes.
The days when he slept in the afternoon and we were noisy (guitars, drums, singers, and even my friend Angel with his noisy accordion), he never complained but staggered out to the veranda to listen. He smiled while listening to the music. When a song started up that he recognized, he said, “It’s good.” He never ate but drank lots of tea and bummed lots of cigarettes.
He spent less time on the laptop too. I asked him about the book. It still wasn’t ready. “Would you email it to me when it’s done?”
“Sure,” he said. I gave him my email address. I haven’t heard from him.
I bring a cheap guitar on all my travels. I bought it for the equivalent of five dollars at a guitar market in La Paz, Bolivia seven years ago. Now it’s full of stickers, scratches and sand.
The guitar is a great way to make friends on the road. Other than the general friendliness of the place, the reason I always stay in at Tata Inti in San Cristobal is because Victor (the owner), several of his local friends who hang out there and many guests are musicians. Jam sessions are frequent and often spill out into the street.
Playing music with someone from another culture is a great learning experience. But playing isn’t enough. I need to find new music, at least music that’s new to me. I need more and more.
Before the ease of downloading I went to markets, where pirated CDs with photocopied liner notes in plastic sleeves hang from big white racks. Whenever I heard music I liked, I’d ask the person who it was, what kind of music it was, and which other groups I should listen to. I walked away with stacks of bootleg CDs.
But what’s even better is to have a musician or a music fan write me a list of their favorite bands. Then after a long trip I sit down with my lists and listen to the suggestions on YouTube.
So during one of our chats about music in San Cristobal, I asked my sick friend for his list. Here’s what he gave me:
Many posts on this modest blog are my suggestions for music from Latin America. Many fine artists are practically unknown north of the Mexican/U.S. border, the great cultural divide in North America. This is my list to you, from one friend and curious traveler to another:
The Bus, Dance Floor and Block Party – My introduction to some major styles in Latin American music.
Music in Mexico – currently my five favorite Mexican groups/artists:
Some great songs, chosen to give a newbie a nice intro to the diversity of Spanish rock:
Rap and Hip Hop in Spanish:
Los Tigres del Norte, described as “The Rolling Stones of Mexico” by Israel, one of Tata Inti’s best musicians:
Vive Latino 2012, the biggest rock festival in Mexico:
Vive Latino 2013, a great Sunday lineup of some of my favorite Latin bands:
Thanks, and please comment with more suggestions or comments about any of these bands or songs that you like or don’t like. Or send me your own list.
Posted on September 29, 2013, in Lessons from the Road, Mexico, Music, Travel, Travel in Mexico and tagged cancer, guitar, merida, mexico, San Cristobal, street jamming, tata inti hostat, travel in mexico. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.