Category Archives: Music

Jambands in the Yucatan, 2017: Ideas and Advice

The word got out: The Mayan Riviera is an awesome place for multi-night concerts at all-inclusive resorts. Widespread Panic has played the Hard Rock Resort five times already; Phish is coming back for a second time, perhaps starting a tradition; and early next year you can add two members of the Grateful Dead to the list of jamband luminaries throwing a party on the warm beaches of the Mexican Caribbean coast.

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These three- or four-day events, played by bands that don’t repeat songs from night to night (just in case you aren’t familiar with jambands), sell out pretty quickly, and they aren’t cheap, that’s for sure. Other bands may or may not be on the bill; My Morning Jacket’s One Big Holiday has Gary Clark Jr., among others, while Phish is the only band performing at their second Mayan Riviera fiesta, which is the norm for Phish festivals.

If you’re coming, then a clearly-marked shuttle bus will pick you up at the Cancun airport and take you straight to your hotel. Hard Rock, Barceló, and the rest are enormous vacation villages with pristine beachfronts, big swimming pools, and all-you-can-eat-and-drink restaurants and bars. You could never leave the resort and still have a great time.

If you do want to leave, however, these resorts are surrounded by the beautiful natural areas and wild party towns of the Mayan Riviera. Most resorts (Hard Rock, Barceló) are between Playa del Carmen to the north and the seaside Mayan ruins of Tulum to the south.

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Getting Around the Mayan Riviera

Your resort should have a shuttle to take you where you want to go (maybe free, probably not). If you don’t mind paying a little more money, you could ask the front desk to call a taxi, although public transportation is cheap and easy to use.

Simply walk out the front gates to the highway, make sure you’re on the correct side of the road, and wave down any passing bus or white passenger van (called colectivos). Not all will stop, but when one does, tell the driver your destination and watch for signs so you’ll know when to get off. Colectivos are cheap: most trips will be around 30 or 40 pesos, which with a favorable exchange rate is between one and two U.S. dollars.

Don’t take a tour to Tulum. Go on your own. Leave early and hop on a colectivo. That way you can avoid the crowds and take your time swimming under the ruins at one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, certainly in Mexico, which often appears on “Top X Beaches” lists.

The colectivos going south first pass the Tulum ruins and then enter Tulum town down the road. The town has some good restaurants and a pleasant atmosphere, but not much else, and it’s far from the beach. To get to big, beautiful Tulum beach (not the little one under the ruins), walk 15 or 20 minutes through the jungle from the Tulum ruins.

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Colectivos going north will take you to Playa del Carmen. (From there it’s an easy transfer for Cancun.) In Playa, the area where the colectivos stop is two blocks from Quinta Ave (5th Ave.), the main pedestrian street full of bars and restaurants that follows the beach. Come here after the shows to party ’til sunrise.

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Downtown Cancun isn’t too exciting, but it has some interesting markets and nice parks. To go to the beach in Cancun, take a local bus to the Hotel Zone (Zona Hotelera), which is a long, thin island of white-sand beach and big resorts.

Another nice day trip from Cancun is to Isla Mujeres, where laid-back beaches with views of the mainland await. Ferries leave from two terminals in Puerto Juárez just north of downtown Cancun (take a taxi), or there’s a more expensive ferry from the Hotel Zone.

Shorter colectivo rides from the resorts can take you to less developed beaches (Xpu-Ha is the closest and just south of the Barcelo) and cenotes, the underground caves and sinkholes with fresh, clear water for swimming or scuba diving.

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If you’re staying at the Barcelo, there are four cenote parks right across the street, including Cenote Cristiliano and Cenote Azul, the two closest ones. Just walk out the front gates and cross the street. They are much cheaper (100 to 200 pesos) than the big adventure parks advertised everywhere with funny names like Xel-Ha and Xcaret.

(By the way, the x in words like Xpu-ha and Xel-ha is pronounced like sh.)

These huge adventure parks have ziplines, beaches, and cenotes, along with big buffets and shows. The resorts will offer to sell you a ticket and take you there, but be sure to compare with the prices on their websites and then take a colectivo. They’re cool places, but I think you’d have more fun and a more authentic experience at one of the lower-key cenotes nearby. I mean, you already have a buffet, right?

Sneaking In?

Well, sorry to burst your bubble of enthusiasm, but my first piece of advice is don’t do it, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. Although Mexican law states that all beaches are public land and therefore must be accessible to everyone, these resorts don’t seem to respect the rules, as their beaches are isolated and surrounded by jungle and rocky terrain. Yes, there’s crocs in them streams (not their Floridian second cousin the alligator), and the resorts are heavily fortified compounds with tight security.

If you’re determined to sneak in, however, I have another piece of advice for you: Offer no resistance to the security officers if you get caught. Don’t try to run past them and don’t bother attempting to talk your way out of it. Unless you’re prepared to offer a bribe (which they may take and still not let you in), do what they say and leave immediately.

In Mexico, especially as a tourist, you have zero rights. Although the security officers probably won’t rob you or beat you up—this part of Mexico has too many foreign visitors for that—they could easily have you arrested and thrown in jail. In fact, I heard that a few people went to jail for trying to sneak into Phish last year.

Again, despite beaches being public land, in practice you can’t really argue the finer points of Mexican law with six angry security guards tapping the guns and handcuffs on their belts.

Just save your money and go another time. It’s not like Phish, Widespread Panic and the rest don’t play your hometown or darn close to it at least once a year anyway. (Unlike poor me living in B.F.E. Mexico—but I did make it to Dick’s last year.)

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Some Thoughts on Price

This brings me to a common complaint about these shows: too expensive. For sure it would be awesome if Phish played a big festival in Mexico with regularly-priced tickets, like Vive Latino in Mexico City or Cumbre Tajin in Veracruz. (I saw Tool, Primus, Jack Johnson, and more at Cumbre Tajin a couple years ago, by the way.) Phish has very few fans in Mexico, and if they played a festival like one of those, they would instantly create tens of thousands.

But these festivals are in the middle of the country. I imagine that Phish and the other bands want to play shows in Mexico because they want to play next to the ocean, with palm trees swaying and the breeze breezing. Trey wouldn’t have written “Breath and Burning” otherwise.

Sure, these resorts are expensive—they’re expensive even without a popular foreign band playing there. And think about it, when Phish comes to play, it’s not just the dudes in the band and a few guitars, but planeloads of gear. I mean, last year they had so many lights, including big ones over the ocean, that they had to bring in a second lightman, the guy from Umphrey’s Mcgee.

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So of course these resort shows aren’t cheap. What do you expect? That the bands would find some empty beach nearby and set up everything themselves, and their massive fanbase (most of whom don’t speak Spanish) would find their own hotels and transportation to the shows? Sure, it’s possible, by why go through the headache, especially when plenty of fans don’t mind paying and look forward to eating whatever they want and drinking top-shelf tequila all morning, day, and night long.

Whatever the price, the shows are happening and will keep on happening. I won’t be going to any this year (too expensive for my Mexican university teacher’s salary, especially with the terrible exchange rates for the peso), but those who do, you’ll for sure have a great time.

Here’s the list for 2017:

January 13-15

Phish: http://www.phishrivieramaya.com

January 25-28

Los Muertos con Queso (Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann from the Grateful Dead, String Cheese Incident, more): http://losmuertosconqueso.com

February 4-8

My Morning Jacket (with Gary Clark Jr., among other guests): http://mmjonebigholiday.com

February 9-10

The Avett Brothers  (with Jason Isbell, among other guests): http://avettsatthebeach.com

February 23-25

Dave Mathews and Tim Reynolds: http://daveandtimrivieramaya.com/the-event

February 27-March 3

Widespread Panic: http://panicenlaplaya.com

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Final Tip

One last piece of advice. If you can, spend a few more days in Playa del Carmen before or after the shows. You’ve already paid for the plane ticket, hotels and restaurants are cheap, the place is awesome, and there’s a even a huge electronic music festival—the BPM Festival—in the clubs and beaches from January 6-15. Even if you don’t like EDM, the scene is wild.

In Playa you can find decent hotels a block or two from the beach for as low as $20 or $30 USD a night. The Mexican peso is low and getting lower against the U.S. dollar, meaning automatic discounts on everything. You can chill in Playa and have an excellent base for visiting all the places you didn’t visit because you were too busy getting shwilly in the Barcelo pool, like the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza.

(Chichen Itza is too far for a day trip anyway, at least without a rental car and a really early start. Don’t take a tour to Chichen Itza—go by yourself when you have a free day. On the tours you spend more time on the bus than at the ruins, and you get herded around like kindergarteners on a field trip. The best way to see it is to stay in the colonial town Valladolid the night before.)

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Shameless plug: I wrote a guide to the region that describes all of these places in detail. You’ll save its low price the first time you follow my advice for a hotel, restaurant, bus or colectivo. (And I’ll spend the money I make on the guide in NYC for the Baker’s Dozen, thank you very much.)

Please click on the book below or the link for more information. If you just have a quick question, I’ll be happy to answer it in the comments.

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Roger Waters in Mexico City: Strong Political Statements and the Best of Pink Floyd

It’s been a good year for big rock shows in Mexico. The Rolling Stones came in the spring, Phish played their first concerts in the country with three nights at a resort near Playa del Carmen, and last night (Sept. 29, 2016) Roger Waters, the creative genius behind Pink Floyd, played his second show to nearly 60,000 people at the enormous Foro Sol in Mexico City.

It’s a struggle getting to these events on a weeknight — add concert traffic to rush hour traffic, throw in some crazy adventures finding parking, and what’s normally an hour-and-a-half trip into the city starts pushing four hours. So although my wife and I see a lot of smaller concerts, we only go to the really big shows when it’s bound to be something spectacular.

And Roger Waters delivers, no question. Though only 1/4 of Pink Floyd, he has the strongest claim to their legacy. Not only did he write all the lyrics and most of the music, his voice is crucial to so many songs. While you could argue that David Gilmour’s soaring, soothing voice could be passably imitated (his guitar, much less so), Waters’ distinctive tones are drenched in urgency, confidence, and at times, desperate madness. Can you imagine “Pigs on the Wing,” “Mother” or “Vera” without him?

And with a tour called “The Best of Pink Floyd,” you can be sure that there won’t be songs newer than 1979. But you might not except early, unpolished gems like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” or “One of These Days.” Sure, you’ll hear a lot from Dark Side of the Moon, but what about nearly every track from (possibly) superior albums Wish You Were Here and Animals, performed in large blocks according to album and in roughly chronological order? The final album of Pink Floyd’s great four from the ’70s, The Wall, didn’t get quite so much play, but probably because Rogers played the whole double album on his previous tour.

The show was three hours long, and other than Rogers reading his heavy letter written in Spanish (more on that below), there were no breaks — the band didn’t even leave the stage before the encore.

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And, along with a stellar song selection and great performances punctuated by swirling sound effects, the night included a simply incredible stage show. Towering behind the band was an extra-wide screen that displayed soapy old-time psychedelia during the oldest songs; thematic images like crazy faces, intricate machines, or blankets of stars over a black moonscape; scenes of Black Lives Matter mixed with the American Civil Rights Movement (shown during “Fearless” from Meddle, only the second time the song has been played live, with the first time the night before); and Waters, band members or their instruments superimposed over shifting, melting and merging shapes and colors.

Guess which song this was:

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Moody scenes, smoke and acoustic guitars for “Wish You Were Here”:

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Before the unmistakable acoustic strumming of “Pigs on the Wing,” four smokestacks raised up from behind the screen:

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The factory smoked during four Animals tracks and stood until the end — never replaced by a wall, to my surprise. The visuals of the imposing factory, colorful graphics and larger-than-life band members were among the most impressive of the night.

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Of course, during Animals, you look up and around for the flying pig. You can’t wait for the flying pig. And after both parts of “Pigs on the Wing” played consecutively and then “Dogs,” it finally levitated up between smokestacks — you can see it on the left below — but that’s not all we got.

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For all of a funky, angry “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” the screen flashed images of Trump yelling, Trump with ridiculous expressions, Trump giving Nazi salutes, Trump wearing a KKK hood, Trump with the body of a pig, and even Trump’s fat naked body with a quick zoom-in on his micropenis, eliciting the loudest gasp-then-cheer from the crowd. More hearty cheers came in response to the huge block letters on the screen, “TRUMP ERES UN PENDEJO,” — Trump, you’re an asshole.

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A powerful statement and clear message: Roger Waters doesn’t like Donald Trump. My wife asked, which public figures have gotten the pig treatment in years gone by? Bush, Netanyahu, ex-brothers from Pink Floyd? I wonder. And what kind of reaction will this get at Desert Trip, the huge festival which Roger Waters will close out on the third night? (A deserving position, I am now certain.)

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Near the end of “Pigs,” the screen displayed Trump quotations translated to Spanish. They were a little hard for us to read, being partly obscured by speaker stacks (which fortunately did not block our view of the stage). This one said something about Ivanka:

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A little later, the Trump-bashing continued in a much more literal way during “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2.” A Trump piñata was lowered down, and the members of the local choir, who had sung during the verses, took enthusiastic swings at it during the extended guitar solo. It finally broke open near the end of the song — what came spilling out?

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But Trump wouldn’t be the only one on the receiving end of Roger Waters’ strong opinions. Waters read a long letter in Spanish addressed to President Peña Nieto, asking him what has happened to the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared during his presidency. At times, the word “RENUNCIA” (resign) was displayed with huge letters on the screen behind.

This riled up the crowd big time, who chanted from 1 to 43 (the number of students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa) or called out “¡asesino!” (murderer), while Roger Waters dealt with guitar problems before “Vera,” which of course led to a fitting “Bring the Boys Back Home.”

There’s a law in Mexico against foreigners making political statements on domestic issues. Manu Chao, for instance, has been banned from playing here since his last concert more than 10 years ago. We’ll have to see what kind of reaction this letter will get. Maybe Roger Waters is too prominent, too important, or maybe his going after Trump even harder will buy him some leeway. (Surprise: Trump is thoroughly hated here in Mexico.)

Politics aside, the music was the highlight of the night, even more so than the awe-inspiring visuals. To finish the show, the band played “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse,” bringing The Dark Side of the Moon full circle.

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The end: Smoke and stars after the fireworks following the “Comfortably Numb” encore:

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Tomorrow on Saturday Roger Waters plays a free show in Mexico City’s zócalo (center square), right downtown facing all the government buildings. Will he read his letter there? I can’t imagine why not.

So the question remains, will he ever be allowed back into Mexico?

Final note: As you can see from the pictures, we were at the opposite end of massive Foro Sol from the stage. With such a grandiose production, these seats were fine — and when the spotlight was right we could clearly see Waters stalking back and forth when he put down the bass or acoustic guitar and focused on singing.

These, the cheapest seats, cost 370 pesos each, less than $20 USD (with the current exchange rate). So, while of course spots up front cost $100 USD or more, there were plenty of good seats available for much more modest prices. Thank you, Mr. Waters.

Learn Spanish by Listening to Music

You’ll never learn Spanish from a book. You’ll never learn it in a classroom — especially if you don’t get a chance to speak. You need more.

But you also won’t learn Spanish just by living in Spain and drinking wine with locals. Yes, these things are important, but they won’t give you a complete understanding of the language.

You need to listen. And what’s better than listening to music in Spanish, in all its regional and stylistic variety. You don’t even need to buy anything! Youtube has everything you need.

Mere listening is not enough, however. You need a method.

First, find a song you like, in a genre you like, with clearly-sung words that aren’t too fast. Do you love rap and hip-hop? Me too, but it’s way too fast and full of slang to study Spanish with, at least at first. (More on that in the tips below.)

The method:

  1. Listen to the song while reading the lyrics. It doesn’t matter if they mean nothing to you. Follow the words closely so it’s not just gibberish. Don’t pause when you don’t understand something. At this point you aren’t learning Spanish, simply developing your ability to listen. You’re getting a feel for the pronunciation of words and the cadence of the language, which is quite different between Spanish and English*.
  2. Repeat step 1 until you can follow the lyrics from beginning to end without getting lost.
  3. Listen again, but this time underline words you don’t know. At this stage, it’s handy to have a printout. To find lyrics, type “group name song name letras” into Google. For example: “Molotov Frijolero letras.” Letras means lyrics.
  4. Look up the words in an online translator and write them on your sheet. I recommend Word Reference or Spanish Dict.
  5. Listen again and try to make sense of the song. What’s it about? A love song? A protest song? A joke? If you get stuck, focus on the chorus. Listen until you know the chorus by heart.

Tips:

  1. Just like in English, Spanish words can have more than one meaning. (Quick examples: possible meanings of the words break, run, or sick in English.) Consider new vocabulary in the context of its verse, and the lyrics as a whole. Choose the most reasonable translation from the many possibilities. If there’s more than one likely option, write down both. With repetition, it should eventually make sense, or ask someone for help.
  2. Remember that songs are full of slang. (Example: so many songs in English, in all genres, use ain’t, which isn’t really a word, as your elementary school English teacher surely told you.) If no translation makes sense, the word is probably slang. Slang is regional, so if you want to learn Mexican Spanish, listen to Mexican music. If you’re going to Chile, find Chilean bands.
  3. Learn to recognize metaphor**, an essential part of countless songs. For example, in “Jefe de Jefes” (linked below), he sings “muchos pollos…quieren pelear con el gallo” — many chickens want to fight with the rooster. What does that mean? In “Rata de Dos Patas” — two-legged rat — the whole song is a metaphor.
  4. If you’re a total beginner and find yourself looking up more than half of the words and still understanding nothing, you need songs that are relentlessly repetitive (Me Gustas Tu, Manu Chao), ridiculously well-known (La Bamba), ridiculously simple (Feliz Navidad), catchy as hell (Lamento Boliviano, Enanitos Verdes), or all of these things (Oye Como Va).
  5. Also for beginners — don’t worry so much about what the song means. Instead, listen for words you recognize. Look up a few. For example, I estimate that 95% of Spanish songs have at least one corazón. Later, listen without the lyrics and let those words pop out at you. I promise you’ll notice them in conversation next.

Don’t know where to start? Here are four songs from Mexico I think you’ll enjoy. Take your time — repeat the steps of my method over and over.

* English is a stress-timed language, which means that entire Shakespeare plays can fit into the framework of iambic pentameter. Spanish is a syllable-timed language, with means that the syllables usually must be fully pronounced, and can’t be easily compressed like in English.

** Metaphor, simile, analogy, allegory — whatever you call it, it’s when you use two (seemingly) unrelated things to make a comparison. “Jefe de Jefes” has nothing to do with roosters and chickens.

For a music lesson about learning Mexican slang through songs, click here.

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Good luck! Tell me some more songs in the comments.

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