Volunteering at the Cumbre Tajin Festival, Mexico: Tool by night, traditional pottery by day
As the gringo volunteer in the traditional pottery house, I was interviewed many times for print and television. Where are you from? What are you doing in Mexico? And of course, what brought you to Cumbre Tajin?
I had to be honest. I first noticed the festival because two of my long-time favorite bands, Tool and Primus, would be there, along with plenty of other groups I wanted to see live: Jack Johnson, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Tomahawk, Puscifer, Illya Kuryaki and the Valderamas, Babasonicos, Jenny and the Mexicats, Banda el Recodo, and even a whole night of DJs.
Each of the five nights of music had a general musical theme, reflected by the crowds for each day. Tool fans sported black Tool shirts, tattoos and piercings; electronic music brought out teenagers in pink tank tops and funny hair; and cowboy hats and tight jeans reigned supreme for Banda el Recodo on the final night.
But Cumbre Tajin, near the Tajin archeological site in Veracruz state, is much more than a music festival. From Mar. 20-24, the local Totonaca culture was on full display at extensive Takilhsukut Park.
Neither Aztecs nor Mayans, the Totonaca have a unique vision of the world, with their own language, colorful clothing, rich food, and ritual dances and ceremonies, such as the Papantla fliers, indigenous acrobats who spin in the air from tall poles with thick ropes tied to their ankles.
The festival features workshops of traditional art, healing ceremonies, traditional music and parades, and the huge pole for the Papantla fliers in the center of the festival grounds.
And outside the main gates, a ten-minute walk past taco stands and bootleg t-shirt vendors leads to the Tajin archeological site, ruins of a massive pre-Colombian city of angular pyramids and crumbling palaces rising up from the deep green jungle. By night colorful floodlights lit up towering pyramids, and by day tourists were free to explore the site and learn about the long, mysterious history of El Tajin.
My volunteer duties took place at the alfareria, the traditional pottery cabin, a high-ceiling bamboo structure full of heavy concrete workstations and smiling Totonaca women. My job was to clean up, keep all the stations supplied with balls of black or yellow clay, and help out in any way I could. When I wasn’t busy I talked with the ladies or stood out on the path, answering questions for passing festival attendees.
Doña Amada was the coordinator of the group, a friendly, smiling woman who gave little talks to the groups of children who often came into the alfareria. She schooled them on Totonaca culture, reminding us that we are all part of nature: humans, animals, corn and clay.
Some of the ladies either couldn’t speak Spanish or preferred to speak in Totonaca. We laughed together all day, making jokes and telling stories. They asked me about last night’s concert – you must be tired! – and I asked about their families, their culture, and how to finally knock out my clay masterwork.
They live in a small community of 500 people next to the festival grounds. The festival is thier big event of the year – one of the biggest and most important in Mexico even – but Takilhsukut Park and the alfareria are open year round.
They are true artists, forming and smoothing large pots, cups, and animal figures with only their hands and lots of patience. And every day began with a ceremony, where we lined up in front of the altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, each person passing in front to make the sign of the cross and wave a smoking urn of incense and copal.
Then Doña Amada would say a prayer, and still in line we silently walked along all the walls of the cabin, the air thick with smoke, as the first festival attendees waited outside or shot furtive photographs.
Their grand- and great grandchildren who were helping out or hanging around tried out their English on me and, in return, taught me a few words of Totonaca: kgatlen (hello), paxtivatsini (gracias), and tlanchitanintit (welcome).
Each day we finished cleaning up the alfareria between 6 and 7 p.m., just about when the concerts started. So I said goodnight to the ladies, made the 3-minute walk to the volunteer campground, changed out of my green volunteer t-shirt, and went to the evening’s show.
Volunteering is a great gig, with transport from Mexico City, a cot in a spacious tent, three meals a day, and of course free access to the festival and all the concerts. The ladies in the alfareria had no problem letting me leave early to squeeze up front for Tool or take a morning off to visit the pyramids.
The Tool show and their openers was a definite musical highlight of Cumbre Tajin. It was the only day that sold out, and it sold out early.
It was a wonderful sight to see tatted-up and pierced fans, all in their t-shirts of disturbing Tool symbolism, sitting at the pottery tables working on their little cups, ashtrays, and Tool logos, while my friendly new Totonaca friends taught them about the traditional pottery of their culture.
Tool is music for people who like all kinds of music, not just metal – and it’s debatable whether to classify Tool as metal anyway. Therefore, all kinds of people go to their shows, and there’s not nearly the quantity of leather jackets, black makeup, moshing, or fists pumping devil horns that you might expect from, say, a Metallica show.
Tool is a heavy-metal anomaly – strange time signatures, profound lyrics, and a great musical evolution since their beginnings in the early ‘90s. Cumbre Tajin was their second concert ever in Mexico – the first just two days earlier in Mexico City. And for me it was my first time seeing them since ’94 in the Phoenix Amphitheater near Detroit, which also happened to be my first rock concert ever, when I was 14 or 15.
Tool delivered a super-tight show with astounding visuals, completely winning over the quite crowded crowd. I met several Americans and Canadians who had made the pilgrimage, including Andy from Toronto who has seen Tool more than 25 times. He told me that the Tajin show was the best he’d seen them.
I happened to run into all my compatriots on the final night as well. We all loved Jenny and the Mexicats – what’s not to love about her smooth mix of flamenco guitar, Latin rhymes and soft vocals, a sort-of groovier Norah Jones.
But I wasn’t sure what they would think of Banda el Recodo. We hear banda music in the U.S. in Mexican restaurants and the one or two Mexican radio stations in every major city. I’m sure most Americans simply think of it as “Mexican music” and dismiss it – like jazz or salsa, if you’re not into it, it all just sounds the same.
But with 18 people on stage, harmonized horns, driving percussion, wailing vocals, and a wildly enthusiastic crowd, the smiles on my new friends’ faces grew even bigger. They laughed, they danced, they drank beers, they took photos.
They loved it.
Posted on April 2, 2014, in Mexico, Music, Travel, Travel in Mexico and tagged cultural festival, cumbre tajin, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, jack johnson, mexico, music festival, papantla flyers, primus, puscifer, tool, tool mexico tour, totonaca, veracruz, volunteering. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.