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Rescued notes: Mexico

(Only about six months late, here's a partial text about MUTEK Mexico that was written for, and rejected by, an American magazine. It's incomplete, angled particularly for this non-specialist magazine, and only one of many possible accounts that I could have written. Consider it a draft, but one that I hope is worth sharing.)

You fly into a blaze of smog; the plane pitches as if being resisted, as if the particle mass could not stand the displacement. A lake gleams below. You pick out a bull-ring, the futbol stadium adjacent, a strange strip of pink-roofed buildings lying between. The Golden Arches rise up triumphant above it all. Piling into the promoter’s SUV, minimal techno from Detroit’s Matthew Dear is slurping out of the stereo, and if it weren’t for the fact that we roll up the windows and hit the autolock as we approach the red light outside the airport, it would almost be as though we’d never left home.

That, perhaps, and the woman with horns who is following us across Mexico. They are red and sparkly, certainly more jaunty than sinister, and affixed to her short hair with invisible clips. The first time we see her we think, “raver,” but she has come to every show wearing the things, always with the same inscrutable expression hidden behind her digital camera, and it quickly becomes clear that she’s no raver – certainly, not like the young man in Mexico City who dances wildly to every set no matter the tempo, frugging to his own inaudible rhythms while beatless ambiance steams forth from the speakers. No one but us seems to comment on the horns, and if they’re a statement, I’m at a loss for what they might mean. (Look up: Mexican trickster mythology, I scrawl in my notepad, and never do.) Cartoon Satanism? A Gothic reverse cuckold? Do these glittery scarlet appendages signify? The first time I remember seeing her was the first afternoon in Guadalajara, and then she was there at every event thereafter, and when we finally arrive in Tijuana, she is there all over again, as much a fixture as the smog and VW Beetles and the ubiquitous Götland Vodka, which seems to have sponsored this particular tour, much to our collective detriment, if only for our overimbibing. Is she for real? (Look up: Götland vodka, hallucinogenic properties thereof, I scrawl in my notepad.) One thing is certain: they’re enthusiastic, these Mexicans. We feel welcomed.

Who would have thought that a dozen Canadian musicians – laptop musicians at that, plus one DJ – would inspire such devotion in Mexico? We feel like emissaries, delegates, perhaps even evangelists – but then, everyone who comes to the shows has clearly already been converted, and besides, we believe in our mission, and we have come to share the Good Word with brethren like Fax, Murcof, the Nortec Collective. Electronic music may be a globalizing presence, but at least it’s an alternative to the Pepsi Chart TV show hawking blonde, bland imitations of the U.S. culture industry’s most debased products.

It’s hard to say why Montreal’s MUTEK organization has decided to come here for a nine-date tour. True, MUTEK, an annual electronic-music festival modeled after Barcelona’s Sónar, but with a bent toward minimal techno and still more esoteric forms of digital experimentation, has been “Latinizing” lately, mounting events in Chile and Brazil. And with a growing roster of home-grown talent like Akufen, Crackhaus, Deadbeat, Tim Hecker, Egg, and more, tours help to seed the way for international distribution at a time when domestic sales are shrinking and audiences further afield merely download. Festival director Alain Mongeau speaks of exchange and solidarity at the opening conference, where a hundred or so serious-faced young men and women hang on every word and an excitable, tattooed academic harps on about “capitalismo salvaje” and “la cuestión colonial.” Are we colonizers? Alain goes so far as to proclaim that the Quebecois are themselves Latin Americans, after a fashion, but the differences are too vast not to notice: a Canadian welfare state that funds the most unmarketable of art music, versus this place where more than 100,000 people are marching, the day we arrive, to protest a government privatization scheme, Kevlar-clad riot cops standing sentry like evil Samurai. At the protest, Tim Hecker – ambient noise musician, outspoken radical, and conflicted employee of some World Bank subdivision – mugs for a photo behind the shock troops while Crackhaus’ Steve Beauprea records the chanting masses on his minidisc recorder. Perhaps this is the next logical step after ecotourism: politourism. I envision bus tours to Chiapas, digital camera cards filling up on riots in La Paz. When I was in Ecuador, 13 years before, I had picked up a spent tear-gas canister as a souvenir. It bore U.S. governmental logos on its crushed side. I finally left it stuffed at the bottom of a wastebasket in my hotel, envisioning the inevitable customs nightmare. But today’s march is peaceful and -- aside from the police cordon prohibiting our car curbside access to the hotel, forcing us to lug records and laptops the last block, much to the promoter’s chagrin and disgust -- without incident.

There are nine dates in all, featuring not only MUTEK’s artists but some 40 Mexican acts ranging from respected names like Murcof and Nortec to eager up-and-comers and underground veterans. The shows and acts blur together. There are actually more performances, if you count afternoon and evening gigs separately. There are conferences with Mexican electronica luminaries; afternoon jam sessions pairing Montreal’s Scott Monteith (Deadbeat) in live laptop improv with Mexico’s Manrico Montero. There are innumerable, at times interminable, live laptop sessions in Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo, where motherboards birth pixel-pocked bastards and PowerBook-punching VJs explore every last expressive nuance of the pound sign. An enormous projection reading “Silencio” blankets the Tamayo’s cement walls, as though the weight of the building itself – an almost ominously legitimizing presence – weren’t enough to cow us into submission. In Guadalajara, there are shows in the ultra-modern Museo de Zapopan, the ultra-yuppie nightclub El Hangar (where every last detail is modeled after the airline industry), and the actually very cool El Gato Tuelto (or One-Eyed Cat) – despite an invasion of undercover narcotics agents who sequester several visiting artists in a side room while they unzip every pillow, but find nonthing – where Montreal’s The Mole plays stunningly deep disco-house on the cusp between Thomas Brinkmann and Theo Parrish. Every woman in the house dances, the men shelve their fronting, and for an hour or so there’s absolutely no question about why we’re here.

At the Tamayo, the sound man, whose bread and butter consists of equipping mariachi tours in California, gets drunk on Maker’s Mark – in which I cautiously join him – and dismisses computer music as mere “play.” He’s burned out on the music industry, wants to buy some nice little cabañas somewhere to rent out to tourists. He regales me with tales of field recording expeditions in the 70s, of lugging reel-to-reels to remote corners, sleeping on dirt floors, taking peyote. His stories echo as if from another century as I sit in the van later that night, swilling Götland from the bottle with the crew from Montreal. Götland, if I haven’t suggested this already, is evil stuff, especially when paired with with Boost, an energy drink the color and flavor of antifreeze. This is especially true when that combination is paired with tequila. I’m not in a position to go into detail on that subject, but you can ask my colleagues about the pavement incident – or, as other versions have it, perhaps the lawn incident – for confirmation.

Our last night in Mexico City, we hold our afterparty in La Rioma, a dingy underground club on the site of a former pizza joint once owned by the iconic comedian Cantinflas. It’s all glass and mirrors and earthquake warning signs, and the meaty doormen search every pocket of our record bags – something about a gun problem they used to have. Akufen plays a bag full of skippy treats, and we ease our throbbing heads deep into the couches. On the cab ride home, we pass two of the bar’s patrons who have been stopped by local police brandishing black, complicated-looking weaponry. Club-going in San Francisco or Montreal has never seemed so carefree.

Guadalajara feels like some kind of accident: MUTEK is here as part of Quebec’s aggressive Voila! Quebec en Guadalajara cultural program, despite the fact that no one in the Canadian organization of authors and dramatists seems to know what to do with this crew of space-bar-pushers. Still, 8,000 locals come down to the outdoor concert where Egg, Akufen and Crackhaus showcase Montreal’s finest hyperkinetic house music. Despite the fact that both Crackhaus’ Scott Monteith and Egg’s Guillaume Coutu-Dumont are throwing up backstage before the show, their insides churning with what are later theorized to be microscopic scorpions (cf. equally implausible theory, devised mid-tour, by which Immodium A.D.’s efficacy derives from squadrons of miniature beavers which build intestinal dams to keep said scorpions at bay), the show is a success, and 8,000 teens and 20-somethings dance wildly in the reflected glow of the nearby amusement park to three artists of whom the vast majority have likely never heard. Upon chants of “Una mas! Una mas!” Crackhaus bravely tears into an encore, but the Voila! Quebec representative is clearly nonplussed and cuts the sound. Her crew begins striking the stage almost before the duo’s laptops have quietly clicked shut.

Leaving Guadalajara, we are a collective mess. Our 8 a.m. van arrives promptly at 9, leaving us perhaps 45 minutes to make our flight. Traffic, predictably, halts midway along the journey – an overturned SUV, or rather the charred husk of one, lies on the roadside, surrounded by grim-looking firemen. Alain leaves his window open the whole trip, highway exhaust gradually filling the van until our eyes tear liquid carbon monoxide. No words are spoken. Curbside, at the airport, an artist slumps against a column, spitting thin trails of vomit, as we unload the gear. As they say, “Beware the water,” but in this case the culprit is an errant hit of E dissolved in mineral water – on top of a pill or two intentionally taken – that broke the proverbial burro’s back. We spring for the gate and, much to the consternation of the Mexicana ticket-takers, board the plane.

My seat-mate, a stylish, twenty-something woman reading an American teen magazine, is met at the baggage claim by a brick wall wearing Kevlar and a sidearm hidden beneath his khaki vest. Governor’s daughter? Drug-cartel wife? I can’t decide whether I’m relieved or disappointed that I didn’t hit on her.

Tijuana we assume should be relatively normal, given its proximity to the U.S., but an air of residual strangeness hangs over it. Our hotel is perhaps half a mile from the American border, its snaking wall visible from our bedrooms. When we arrive, the atrium-like dining room, with geometric glass walls you’d expect to see in a well-financed Evangelical ministry, hosts a group of middle-aged women playing bingo, their children screaming as they receive intricately tied balloon figurines – Spider Man, the Little Mermaid – from a clown. Further back, in the hotel’s Caliente! sports-betting franchise, men stare impassively at banks of TVs broadcasting dog racing, football, Jai Alai.

The Tijuana promoter promises us “the best fish restaurant in Northern Mexico,” but instead we eat shoe leather slathered in canned cream of mushroom soup, every dish on the laminated menu complete with its own ™ sign. A forlorn keyboardist plunking out Christmas tunes in his own private tonal system fails to warm the cavernous, thatched-roof warehouse. 2,000 ravers come out to the event at Avenida Revolución’s disued Jai Alai palace but it feels less like a party than a prom, plagued with strange circulation and short attention spans. (The betting window, at least, was closed.) On our last day in Mexico, the Montrealers daisychain their laptops with those of Fussible and Murcof and set about pioneering a sort of North American Free Beat Agreement, democratizing the kick drum and deterritorializing the realm of 128 BPM. As with all such experiments, there are moments of brilliance and still more of utter dreck, but the way the growd gathers there in the shadow of the Centro Cultural’s strange, dun-colored org – hipsters and Catholic school girls alike sitting cross-legged on the floor, alternatingly giggling and rapt – excused every errant snare.

Catching a flight out of San Diego, I decide to cross the border by foot – I like the sound of that, walking home from Mexico. The border is as I have always imagined it, at once dreary and enthralling, ominous and banal. I snap photos of the sprawling, delta-like toll plaza until apprehended by a furious, uniformed official who questions me briefly and forces me to delete every image from my digital media card. Cowed and ashamed at the way I buckled beneath the power of Orange Alert, I slump into my seat in the trolley that will carry me downtown, belatedly thinking up snappy rejoinders and taking photo after photo of the rail cars, chain link fences, and “Land For Sale” signs that blur by as we roll north.


that's lovely philip!

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