Alex Ross, Barack Obama, Carlos Chavez, Condesa, Coyoacan, El Parnita, Los Angeles International New Music Festival, Mercado Medellin, Mercado Roma, Mexico City, Panaderia by Rosetta, REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Rick Bayless, Roma, Tacos Hola!, Tambuco Percussion Ensemble, UNAM
If you are what you eat then Mexico is probably already in your system. At least UNESCO agrees, inscribing Mexican cuisine in 2010 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It’s a long overdue recognition, but at least from here on there is no argument about the prestige of one of the great cuisines on Planet Earth.
A little comparison is in order. Were Mexico superimposed against the map of Europe, it would span from Greece to the United Kingdom, absorbing the Balkans, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, a good part of Northern Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, eventually reaching a good bottle of Scotch in the UK.
Corn. Squashes. Chocolate. Tomatoes. Vanilla. A garden of edible flowers. More chile peppers than one can count, tropical fruits and vegetables like avocados, huauzontle, papaloquelite, cherimoya, guava, sapote, prickly pear, papaya, pineapple and more. There is the truffle of Mexico, huitlacoche, a divine corn fungus. And then there is tequila from Jalisco and mezcal from Oaxaca. You’re welcome, world.
Jan and I were in Mexico City for a few weeks in April, our sixth visit to the capitol. We’ve just about lost count of all of the trips we’ve made to our beloved southern neighbor. Our schedule was packed with meetings almost daily, reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones. It was also an auspicious time to be in Latin America. President Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro of Cuba was, to put it mildly, front page news. Ricardo Gallardo of Tambuco pointed out that Obama’s approval rating, which Ricardo compared to a stock market listing, was at 85% in Cuba and equally high in Mexico, obviously a bit better than he enjoys in the States! Since Jan and I have had numerous meetings in Washington and follow-up phone conversations with our State Department about policy regarding Vietnam, we aren’t getting started when it comes to understanding the strategy behind shaking hands with Castro. Stay connected as time moves on!
We were honored to lecture at UNAM about our Grammy Award winning CD recordings of Carlos Chavez, joined by Ricardo Gallardo of Tambuco, to a very appreciative young audience. Composers Gabriela Ortiz and Alejandro Escuer had extended the invitation, and we reconnected with the incomparable percussionist of Tambuco, Alfredo Bringas.
We discussed programs and ideas for the future that left us inspired, and we hope will inspire you, in our upcoming REDCAT concerts this July at Walt Disney Concert Hall and beyond. Because our LA International New Music Festival progams with Tambuco this summer will cast a wide net of composers you have not heard in the United States, you can trust me on that. A partial list includes Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Cuba. And this is just the start of things to come!
So let’s get started!
We divided our time in Mexico City in two places, often a good idea when faced with the logistics of any large city. The first part was spent in Condesa, a vibrant and well located area that is thriving in all ways, and a short walk to the Roma district or Chapultepec Park. For our second part we were with our friend Ricardo in Coyoacan. Location is always a good idea!
We started our first morning with a trip to the Mercado Medellin, which by design wasn’t far from our hotel. Markets are always good first stops, wherever you are. I’ve never met a person who doesn’t like to eat! At markets people are busy with their daily lives, there are few tourists and you can get a sense of what is unique about where your flight has landed you on Planet Earth.
After the Mercado Medellin stroll, we found a gem of a bakery at 179a Colima Street, called Panaderia by Rosetta, a place praised by Chicago chef Rick Bayless as a bakery that is outperforming most of the ones in France or Italy. The chef and baker is Elena Reygadas. I’ll leave formal reviews for others, but I do know this – you won’t get Mexican cinnamon in your coffee in Europe. The baked goods are incredible, light and fluffy with a cinnamon roll that was out of this world with its Mexican canela. This is a must stop for a morning pastry or afternoon sandwich. Enjoy a triptych of photos and use the last photo for your landmark to find this amazing bakery.
If you need an indication that Mexico is hip and trendy, you should check out Mercado Roma on Queretaro Street, also in the Roma District. We enjoyed a Spanish chocolate at El Moro, and planned future trips in return that first morning.
Need ceviche? Fish tacos? Smoked marlin with guacamole? Here’s an insider tip. There is a very good chance that after many years apart an old friend will take you to a great spot for a first lunch. Ricardo Gallardo did not disappoint (and here’s a tip for not putting on ten pounds in Mexico – focus mainly on the extraordinary seafood dishes and your waistline will be happy).
So here’s a photo to identify your destination. Find El Parnita on Avenida Yucatan in the Roma District. And when we mentioned we’d been there with Ricardo to our other friends in Mexico City, the chorus was unison that we’d been to one of the best in the city.
Perhaps my next set of recommendations will close the deal as you book a flight to Mexico City!
Because getting lost in the Condesa Taco Triangle is a happy way to enjoy a few meals while engaging with a genuine Mexican food tradition. The taco can be a challenge – an open canvas if there ever was one, you will find it on the street and in the finest (and I mean finest) restaurants in Mexico. You can search numerous web articles on the tacos of Mexico City but I’m happy to simplify your search to our favorite.
Finding a sign is difficult, but a No Name aesthetic is a good thing with a popular place. The name is Tacos Hola or Tacos El Guero, we never easily found the signage (on our second trip we realized the sign is faded from years of exposure to the sun), but you won’t miss the line of people at roughly the corner of Avenida Amsterdam and Avenida Michoacan. The tacos are prepared guisado, which means you have about 20 different cazuelas to choose from for your stuffing. Who says you can’t find heaven on earth?
They do run out of fillings – one sad customer was not able to order his beloved guacamole taco as he was late in the day. Notice the pink X’s on the menu in the photo above. So if you have a hankering for a special topping, plan to get there earlier rather than later.
And being in Mexico means that a good tequila will not be far away!
Though our poll was not official or scientific, we do know this. When it came to tequila, all of our friends in Mexico City reach for a good bottle of Herradura. The quality of tequila (from Jalisco) and mezcal (tequila’s smokier sibling from Oaxaca) is as protected as any French wine, it’s AOC, that’s for sure. But tequila never leaves us with a hangover, which is a good thing as our Mexican friends do straight shots, no fooling around. I don’t think we bothered with a margarita while we were in Mexico. A sangrita with tequila, yes, and orange juice with sal de gusano for mezcal, but always straight shots.
Speaking of Coyoacan, this favorite district of Mexico City holds many memories for Jan and me. We love these streets, the Plaza Hidalgo, the echo of Spanish haciendas of Hernan Cortes and La Malinche, and La Conchita Church, the oldest church in Mexico. Because we have a past in Coyoacan, the area of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and many others.
As in life changing meetings with Ana Chavez, the first person we would meet in Mexico City. She was a gracious and helpful advocate as over the years we recorded all of her father’s chamber music, and she was giddy for our success with the Grammy Awards, excitement that was refreshing. Walking into her Tres Cruces home was to be surrounded by her father’s impressive Pre-Columbian art collection and works by David Alfaro Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Rufino Tamayo on the walls. Ana became our personal connection to Mexico’s Golden Age, the inspiring 1920s era of cultural reconstruction after the most bloody revolution of the 20th century, a family connection for us that we will never forget. And Ana shared with us the depth of friendship her father had with our American heroes Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, immediately respecting the fact Jan and I had performed and worked with them at Tanglewood. She made us always feel at home in Coyoacan.
Fate has a way of creating facts and not coincidences. Chavez was living at the end of his life in New York City, sharing an apartment across the street from Lincoln Center with Rufino Tamayo. He returned to Coyoacan to visit his daughter. One can’t control fate, and he passed away while in Coyoacan, not the United States. Mexico’s entire musical life was built by Chavez, a to do list that Bartok, Shostakovich or Copland could only dream about. He was a truly gigantic figure. The El Sistema systems now adopted all over the world orginate in Chavez’s teachings, absorbed by his Venezuelan student Jose Abreu, social ideas for music Chavez clearly set forth in his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University, an essential read for any serious musician.
Back to some food dreams!
I’d be a bad host if I didn’t mention the great enjoyment of stuffed churros in Coyoacan, a local specialty. There are a few shops, and for old times sake we crossed the street at Francisco Sosa and Tres Cruces to this Churreria.
Certainly the Spanish brought churros from the Iberian peninsula, and realized quickly that with the chocolate of Mexico there was a great meeting of tastes. If you are planning to go to Coyoacan, take a look below at the choices you have to stuff your churro. Start dreaming! Jan is pointing to her favorite, cajeta.
But of course all these visits and memories are pointing to our next Los Angeles International New Music Festival at REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall this July. And like the cuisine of Mexico being inscribed by UNESCO as a world treasure, we spent a lot of time exploring the creative forces not only in Mexico, but from all of Central and South America.
Our July programs with Tambuco and Southwest will hopefully jolt the complacency of programming in the U.S. Who are we kidding if not ourselves? A few posts back, I quoted the astonished reaction of Gabriela Ortiz to the omission by Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise of any and all composers from Central and South America. “So we don’t even EXIST for this powerful gringo critic?”
I have no desire to single out Mr. Ross, because for me most all music journalists never adjusted to the landscape of our times the last 30 years. There is little recognition that their main focus concerns yammering for the sustainability of celebrity and large institutions, which follows the pattern of advertising dollars. This constitutes an advocacy for the views (usually center-right) of the 1%, or perhaps they’ve never accurately studied who funds what and tied that funding to the endless conservatism of another cycle of Beethoven. We basically have critics concerned primarily with writing personal opinion reviews. Before we reached the confused point we are in today, we needed cultural journalists placing the arts in a much broader context. We needed to tell arts and educational stories, not opinions about tempi and technical ability. So for me Mr. Ross is symptomatic of a still ruthless East Coast cultural superiority complex, itself a mirror image of the ruthless but now tiring cultural world of Europe. From these combined vantage points Latin America has no importance, the West Coast is an emerging annoyance and Asia an exotic concept, though ironically we journalistically embrace the commercialism of Lang Lang or the short dresses of young female pianists (let’s be honest).
And lest you think my observations on American critics comes out of left field, let me point out personal experience. When I was interviewed over the years by numerous news agencies in Mexico or South America about our recordings of the music of Carlos Chavez, the unison question I received was what were my thoughts about American policy towards the immigration of Latinos and why performing Chavez was important, what was the link, the statement, the idea behind the music as it related to a critical question facing society.
My next observation answers itself. Do you think any such question was ever posed to me by an American journalist or broadcaster? We had the measurable achievement of 2 Grammy Awards and 6 nominations for all four Chavez CDs, with two nominations from Latin Grammy, so this was not a pipe dream project on a small stage. Larger cultural questions from the American press? Not even close.
And so the handshake of Obama and Castro begins a new chapter. Ironically, we had much better musical ties during the era of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (his wife Felicia was Chilean) with Latin America than we do now. But those ties were formed before Castro’s revolution against Bautista, before the Bay of Pigs, before Iran-Contra, the Pinochet-Allende debacle in Chile, or the Sandanista revolt in El Salvador. Now we have a chance to reset our clock in our own hemisphere. In a small but we hope predictive way, our friendship with Tambuco, Gabriela Ortiz and other artists in Mexico has waited for this icebreaker moment. We are all just getting started!
For we have a new reality in the United States. No political party will become POTUS without securing the vote of the Latino population of the United States. A simple equation of electoral math. Extending a handshake to Cuba was unthinkable just a decade ago, and now is a reality. Welcome to a changing world. It’s about time we figure out who we are, and where we are, in the United States.
And so reconnecting with our old friends in Tambuco for our next Los Angeles New Music Festival is a natural. I’ll have a lot of blog posts about other recent adventures in Mexico, as Ricardo took us to Veracruz for a visit to Antigua, the landing post of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish Conquest. And Ricardo lives across the street from the compound Cortes built for his Aztec mistress La Malinche.
Because to love Mexico is to acknowledge a complicated world. There are no easy answers for the culture created in large part by Spanish Conquest and that survived the bloodiest revolution of the 20th century. Visiting history can help so I hope you enjoy these photos of Antigua, with a full post coming soon.
H.L. Mencken once quipped that for every complicated question there is a simple answer, but it’s the wrong one. You will wait forever to hear music from Ecuador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru and other countries in our own backyard if you rely on the 1% Big Orchestra or Big Opera Company or Big Festival. The reason? They don’t want to do it, pure and simple. But like UNESCO inscribing Mexican cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Central and South America create a staggering cultural life. Come and sample some of it at the Los Angeles International New Music Festival with Tambuco and Southwest at REDCAT Theater in Walt Disney Concert Hall this July!
Carlos Fuentes is a big influence on my thinking, and while in Mexico I was catching a chapter here and there of The Death of Artemio Cruz, my fourth novel by Fuentes. I can’t imagine life without Terra Nostra or Christopher Unborn. I’d finished The Crystal Frontier before traveling back to Mexico in April, a most telling book about how Mexico and the United States are bound up with each other. So allow me to close this post with his apt description of our mutual reality, a reality we would do well to address.
poor Mexico, poor United States, so far from God, so near to each other.
Best, best, best,