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MEXICAN ROCK AND ROLL

MEXICAN ROCK AND ROLL
By Diana McLeod

     

       SAN BLAS, MEXICO, 1983: Electric guitar and drums pulsed through the languid tropical night. Dave and I had to investigate. Why were we hearing live rock music, on a weekday evening, on the backstreets of a sleepy little Mexican fishing village?

       It was easy to find the band, rehearsing in an open garage. We introduced ourselves as fellow musicians, and our new friends warmly welcomed us to join the jam session. (This was back in the days when we were eeking out a living entertaining around Vermont, playing in a bar band. We hadn't started Tradewinds yet.)

       Musicians everywhere have a "language" all their own. Soon we were all catching the groove and sharing songs and guitar riffs. The band leader even invited us to a party on Friday night. It sounded cool - we were always up for a musical adventure. He said he would pick us up.

       Right on time. a ramshackle old truck pulled in to the driveway of our hotel, piled high with sound equipment and band members. We scrambled in back, along with everyone else, and headed out of town. On the way, they made a brief stop at a local gas station, and one of the guys did a furtive deal with somebody there. We were suddenly nervous. Drugs? No, the item being purchased was a large jerry can of gasoline, which was promptly loaded into the back with everything else.

       After cruising down the coastal road for about ten miles, the truck turned and headed up into the hills, bouncing along a narrow dirt road. Where were we going? What if we were driving so far away that we needed extra gasoline? The band leader explained everything, but our Spanish was too weak, at that early date in our travels, to get the gist of what he said.

       We came to a scruffy little village called Las Palmas (the palms). It was barely big enough to have a village zocalo (town square) with a modest church and a couple of little shops bordering it. The truck stopped right in the middle of the plaza and the band members began to unload sound equipment. Puzzled, I asked them about the party. (I had assumed that it was at someone's house).

       "Si, si," replied our friend, "Es una Fiesta."

       Another bystander tuned in to my confusion. He smiled and said, in English, "You Americans rock-and-rollers are going to play for the town." He pointed to a poster, tacked to the side of a light pole. It wasn't going to be just a party, after all. It was going to be a Fiesta with a capital F. Somebody had even done some advertising for it. Dave and I were the featured act!

       Oh... This was going to be one interesting evening!

       They set up the equipment. This "rock concert" was being held in the most unlikely of places. and chickens were wandering casually through the square. On one corner of the plaza, a little mountain rivulet was flowing over the cobblestones, slowly eroding the main street. People were squatting beside the water, doing their dinner dishes. Nearby bushes were draped with people's laundry, laid out to dry. The electricity was literally a bare wire coming out of a tree. One band member gingerly grabbed the live ends, and attached them to other bare wires on a funky looking homemade junction box. We were going to be lucky if we survived this gig!

       Our "audience" consisted of a half dozen old men in sombreros and serapes, village women draped in shawls, and little bare-assed kids. Was this a rock and roll crowd? What was going on here? Later, as we neared "show time," people began to turn out. Somebody had been out doing some advertising. Vehicles from adjoining communities appeared, crammed with eager teenagers, I began to relax. Maybe this would be a real dance after all.

       The five gallon jerry can reappeared. As it turned out, it was not full of gasoline- it was full of party juice. The furtive "deal" had been to purchase illegal homemade coconut alcohol. This stuff was rocket fuel! It was really, really strong. Grown men gasped as they swallowed their shots. One guy actually took his shot, ran for the bushes, retched, came back out, and got right back in line for more!

       By the time the local band had finished their first set, the young men were sufficiently lubricated to lose some of their inhibitions, and they were asking the women to dance. Young girls wearing scandalously tight jeans and high heels teetered around on the broken cobblestones with their drunken partners. (Remember, this was a tiny village in Mexico in the early 80's, when tight jeans and bare shoulders really were scandalous.) Little kids danced with each other. Whenever the band played a slow song, older couples joined in,. Almost everyone enjoyed the music, except for a couple of diehard old coots in the back row.

       Then Dave and I were on. We found ourselves challenged by the funky instruments, a drummer whose ability to follow was less than optimal, and the squealing pig who ran through the sound equipment, almost knocking over the mike stands. I'm sure we had been billed as American pop stars (ridiculous) so of course we didn't meet the high expectations, but we pulled out a few rockin' classics that the Mexicans loved. One young girl in astoundingly tall high-heeled shoes came up to Dave to make a request. "Disculpé Señor," she asked politely, "Conocé usted Another one bites the dust?"

       The party swelled until the zocalo was packed with dancers (and dogs and chickens, who seemed perfectly at home in the middle of the gyrating crowd). The devastating effect of the firewater on some of the partygoers was growing increasingly obvious. A tin cup was shoved in my face. "Hey, try this, Señorita!" one of our musician friends grinned. I was very dubious about this, but my drunken amigo insisted. He explained that, if the stuff was heavily cut with warm coconut milk, it was safe "for girls." I have to say, it was one of the most delicious drinks I have ever tasted.

       At the end of their second set, the band put us back on "stage". Now it was their turn to hit the jerry can. By the time we wrapped up the show at midnight, there were few who were still on their feet. The band had disappeared -probably off to sleep it off at someone's house. The driver of the truck was obviously not going anywhere. He was sprawled across the front seat, deep in an alcoholic coma. How in hell were we going to get back to town?

       No transport! We had to get back to San Blas; not only did we have an early bus to catch, but our friend Jean had no idea where we were. She would panic in the morning if we were not there. Out of options, we decided to walk down the mountain road, even though we were about twenty kilometers from our hotel. The full moon streamed through the jungle clearly enough for me to see the coral snake I almost stepped on! It took half an hour to reach the main highway on foot, and it was already well past midnight. If we couldn't flag down a passing vehicle, it was going to be a long. long hike.

       In the end, we managed to get a ride, but our driver had been to another party. He veered into the ditch at forty miles an hour, and nearly got us all killed. Luckily, he somehow miraculously managed to regain control of his vehicle and steer it back out onto the road. Crossing himself solemnly, he slowed down after that...

       If this story has a moral, it is this: if you're going with locals to an unknown place or event, be sure to pack survival gear... a flashlight... and water... and aspirin... and hitchhiking is always dangerous... but the adventure is often worth the risk.

      Thanks for reading! Diana


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