Tradition, craft, commerce, boom times, love and unease: Check out my story on Nashville’s Music Row for the NY Times here. Leave a comment. Play “Jolene.”

Photo: A wannabe star playing for country music’s gatekeepers and tastemakers on Music Row, Nashville. [RF]





I was on Southern California NPR affiliate 89.3 KPCC-FM this morning discussing new legislative proposals to liberalize marijuana laws in Mexico on the program “Take Two.” I’ll post the link to the archived audio as it becomes available on their site. For now, here’s the description of the segment from the “Take Two” staff. In my conversation, I emphasized how tough it will be for these efforts to pass given the continuing public opposition to the idea of legalization.


Mexican rock bands highlight indigenous languages


Originally posted at

A Mexican Coachella gives new meaning to ‘roots rock’
Mexican rock bands sing in Tzotzil, Zoque and other disappearing languages of native pueblos, part of an effort to save the ancient tongues.

Story and Photos by Richard Fausset

Reporting from Zinacantan, Mexico

January 1, 2014

Valeriano Gomez was standing on a festival stage cradling his black guitar as fans spread out before him, waiting for the count-off, the downstroke, the next electric blast.

Gomez and his group wore matching woolen ponchos, dyed jet black, that made them look like some far-out garage band from the late LBJ era, the flavor of a long-gone week at the Whisky a Go Go.

But the scene took on a different tone when Gomez, 28, began to sing:

Mi xa na’, bu likemtal la tsunubale

Albun mi x-vul ta ajol …

Gomez’s group, Yibel Jme’tik Banamil, was among the featured performers at Mexico’s polyglot version of Coachella, a festival of rock not en español. The language was Tzotzil, a tongue spoken by Gomez and about 300,000 other indigenous Maya in the central highlands of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states.

“Do you remember?” the song went. “Where your roots are from?… Tell me if you still know the language of your ancestors.”

Gomez’s poncho wasn’t some groovy fashion throwback, but a chuj, the traditional daily costume worn by the men in his Maya hometown, San Juan Chamula. It is a place where the church floor is strewn with pine needles, chickens are sacrificed in religious ritual, and medicine men deliver remedies that predate the arrival of the Spanish.

But television had arrived by the time Gomez was growing up, and it was there that he heard the ’80s band Survivor pound out its thumping hit “Eye of the Tiger” in the movie “Rocky III,” and there that he heard Los Lobos cover “La Bamba” as Lou Diamond Phillips played Ritchie Valens in the 1987 biopic. Thus began an unorthodox rock ‘n’ roll conversion.

“I identified a lot with Ritchie Valens,” Gomez said. “He was like us — young people trying to realize a dream. In our case, it’s a cultural dream, a dream of dignifying the original pueblos of Mexico.”


On that chilly Saturday night in November, Gomez’s group and 14 others rocked, rapped, skanked and swung in nine of Mexico’s 68 indigenous languages.

This third annual “National Meeting of Tradition and New Songs” was part of a curious attempt on the part of the Mexican government to help save local languages by encouraging their integration with the pop genres that are globalization’s de facto soundtrack.

The concerts are the brainchild of Juan Gregorio Regino, intercultural development director for Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts, a noted poet who grew up speaking the Mazatec language in his native Oaxaca.

The government, Gregorio said, is seeking to strengthen a movement that had been bubbling up naturally in Mexico’s far-flung native pueblos.

Gregorio, 57, has no interest in returning to some imagined, more “authentic” past. Rather, he said, he wants the concerts to show how that culture is “amalgamated with all of these other influences — the result of an intercultural process, which is the reality that we indigenous are living.”

More than a century ago, federal officials seeking to unify a vast, diverse nation prohibited indigenous languages in school. But over the ensuing decades, the concept of cultural plurality was slowly recognized as an asset. The sentiment got a boost from indigenous activists, including the Zapatista rebels who took up arms here in Chiapas in 1994 to protest their repression.

Experts say Mexico’s non-Spanish languages continue to be threatened by urbanization, the homogenizing power of global mass media, and a government that still struggles to live up to its promise to provide bilingual education.

More pernicious is the lingering perception in some quarters that indigenous culture is something less than civilized. The day before the bands arrived in Chiapas, a K’iche Maya doctoral candidate from Guatemala said she had been kicked out of a French bakery in the Chiapas city of San Cristobal de las Casas because she was wearing traditional clothing. She complained to Mexico’s human rights commission. The incident made national headlines.

Government statistics show that 6% of Mexicans speak an indigenous language, a proportion that has held steady since the mid-1990s. Scores of languages, however, have vanished.

The members of Yibel Jme’tik Banamil, all in their 20s, grew up in villages where Tzotzil is still the language of the street and the dinner table. But they have seen the kids who go off to the big cities and come back changed.

“You don’t see them in their traditional clothes, or they don’t want to speak the language anymore,” drummer Juan Javier Perez Perez said.

The band’s decision to sing in Tzotzil was an “existential” one, he said. “We want to live in this world. And we want to share this world with other people.”


The 15 bands arrived in this fog-shrouded Maya village from 11 states. For three days, the musicians attended “creative clinics” in a civic building, overseen by seasoned Mexican pop and rock musicians who coached them on the finer points of voice, instrumentation and stagecraft.


Yibel Jme’tik Banamil performed its song about language and roots for the pros. It was a moody, minor-key, mid-tempo number, and the band delivered it with both polish and restraint. The experts, led by a silver-haired piano player named Guillermo Briseño, praised the group, then got down to a tough-love critique, much like judges on an “Idol”-esque show: The two guitars were playing the same rhythm. The second guitarist needed more nuance. The singing lacked passion.


“Convince us of what you’re saying,” one said. “To sing and speak aren’t the same thing.”


It was a few hours before the show now. Zinacantan was bathed in the quiet of a small-town Saturday afternoon. Except for the rappers in a group called Mayan Poetry, who were rehearsing on the town’s open-air basketball court. They were flawlessly running through their song “I Am Not Afraid” to a bright and poppy backing track, their voices rolling out verses in Yucatec Mayan, full of thick, percussive glottal consonants:


Ma ch’a’ik saajkili


Wu loj ik laak’ilo’or, tsu’uyta lik beetik …


Roughly: “Don’t be afraid, we are all brothers, we make ourselves stronger.”


They were Carlos Javier Caamal Tun, 23, and Joel Tuz Kauil, 26, both from Felipe Carrillo Puerto, in the state of Quintana Roo. In their ball caps and baggy hip-hop gear, they could have been space aliens among the Chiapan highlanders.

The pair grew up listening to Tupac Shakur, Eminem and Control Machete, Spanish-language rappers from northern Mexico. But they dream in the language they learned from their parents.

Tuz said the vast majority of people in his city still speak the indigenous language. But he wonders how long it will last.

“The Maya go to work in the hotels, and they begin to lose the Mayan language,” he said. “They lose their connection to the earth, the culture, the mystic element.”

Caamal said that for the indigenous, there is often self-censoring rooted in self-preservation. “They think, ‘Maybe if I speak my native language, they’re going to discriminate against me, and I don’t want that to happen.’ So there’s a fear of even wanting to speak.”

Now this cultural import — this music born in the South Bronx — was their tool to save a culture from being cast adrift in a globalizing tide. They found it neither strange nor ironic. Hip-hop, they said, was now theirs as much as it was anyone’s.

This, Tuz said, “is the living Maya culture. It’s what the Maya people are doing now.”


The sun went down and the concert began. The streets in the center of town were abandoned to stray dogs as the venue filled with hundreds of locals and curious music fans from San Cristobal.

El Rapero de Tlapa, from Guerrero state, delivered his verses in a language called Tu’un Savi. La Sexta Vocal played ska and reggae in a southern Mexican language called Zoque.

Yibel Jme’tik Banamil opened its set flanked by traditional masked dancers in conical hats who leaped around to the loud guitars like surrealist jesters, trailing colorful ribbons, delighting the crowd. The group’s number, so restrained in the morning, roared now with raw power.

The rappers in Mayan Poetry were just as confident as they had been on the basketball court a few hours earlier. They leaped and rhymed in a language that no one really understands on this side of Mexico — though for a few moments, it was hard to tell.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times 


 Photo: The members of Yibel Jme’tik Banamil, from left: Delfino Diaz Lopez, Valeriano Gomez, Juan Javier Perez Perez, Mateo Heredia and Pascual Patishtan. They perform in Tzotzil, a language spoken by about 300,000 indigenous Maya in the central highlands of Mexico’s Chiapas state. [RF]



I was on Southern Cailfornia NPR affiliate KPCC FM 89.3 yesterday talking about recent threats and violence directed at Roman Catholic priests in Mexico. Here’s the audio:


Photo: The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City (Wikimedia commons).


I was on NPR’s “All Things Considered” Friday, discussing the case of the teenage killer for the Mexican drug cartels who has served his time in the Mexican penal system, and is now free in the US. Click here to listen.



Cult rock and roll songwriter Jaime Lopez played a solo show at Mexico City’s tiny  Foro del Tejedor, in La Roma, last night. It was my first exposure to Lopez, who is best known for his song “Chilanga Banda,” a super-slangy, vaguely hip-hopish, carefully constructed word salad of Mexico City patois that was covered by the famous Cafe Tacuba a few years back. (A couple of attempts to translate the lyrics can be found here.) There are many ways for a non-local to get lost in the Mexican capital. It can happen when you’re listening to what should be the simplest of spoken sentences — a testament to five centuries of Mexicans’ gleeful chopping and screwing of the European tongue they got stuck with.  If you aren’t lost trying to follow “Chilanga Banda,” you must be a chilango.

Jaime Lopez is about 60 years old. He’s a grizzled character, with a face that looks like it’s survived a few bar fights and a voice like a cheap lawnmower engine. He wore black cowboy boots and a tight black T-shirt, and played a black guitar adorned with a sticker of a cowboy silhouette. I got the sense last night that he can do almost anything. After acknowledging that he was playing on the anniversary of the death of the famous Southern gringo he called “Santo Elvis,” he ran through a seemingly endless repertoire of rock and roll, trova-style folk songs, cumbias, rancheras, sensitive ballads and angry breakup songs, all the time accompanied only by his guitar.

For all I know, it may have indeed been endless. After four straight hours of playing, Lopez took a gulp of wine and asked the crowd if they wanted five hours more. They roared their assent. I couldn’t stick it out. Wish I could have.

Above, Lopez and the late Mexican actor Eulalio Gonzalez duet on a beautiful Lopez-penned number about the power of boredom and the limits of wanderlust.



Browsing MetaFilter this week, I stumbled on this episode of the public radio show Sound Opinions, in which journalists Josh Norek and Alejandro Franco offer a brief, English-language history of Mexican rock and roll.

Their tour brings us up to about the late 1990s, when Monterrey was at peace, and its middle-class kids were responsible for a varied and fascinating explosion of rock en español .

Where is Mexican music headed these days? Our hosts point to DJ outfits like Nortec Collective and the Mexican Institute of Sound, which mix traditional, regional styles with modern dance music. But under the stultifying gloss of Mexican pop-rock, there are other strange new hybrids hatching.

The show:

YouTube clip: Monterrey’s El Gran Silencio plays their “Cumbia Lunera,” from the classic 2000 CD Chuntaros Radio Poder.


This is the Mexican punk musician Juan Cirerol. He calls his songs “anarco-corridos,” and this one, “Eso Es Correcto Señor (Yo Vengo de Mexicali)” is a pure rush of adrenalin, stealing heavily from the first Bob Dylan record (the thieving Bob would surely approve), and borrowing a few bars of Jimmie Rodgers-style yodeling–but with a boozy, ragged sensibility that is pure norteño.

The lyrics are pretty straightforward: “That’s right, sir, I come from Mexicali,” he wails, which explains why he wears cowboy boots and denim, and why he drinks Tecate (the local brew). Life, he tells us, exists for us to enjoy it. So, slurp on that Tecate, and have “un toque push” while you’re at it (the slang is unknown to me, but I’m assuming that “push” isn’t Earl Grey).

Cirerol tells us he is a “Cachanilla,” which is the demonym for the people who live in Mexicali. It is a tip of the hat to the classic regional anthem “Puro Cachanilla” (which you can hear the great Vicente Fernandez do here), and part of a long tradition of geographic hyper-specificity in Mexican pop: Whether in name or in song, musicians here are inclined to tell you exactly where they’re from.

Cirerol’s new album is available for download in its entirety here.


We had been driving around the back roads of Chiapas long enough to consider ourselves friends. At one point he parked the taxi in front of his little house in Tuxtla Chico and introduced me to his wife, who gave me God’s blessing. But now we were winding up into the mountains toward a place called Union Juarez, in search of a thing we would end up not finding.

He was happy. Happy that a gabacho was in his cab, one who was paying him well for his time, happy to be heading up to the mountains, closer to the cool, deep gray of the sky, away from the sick jungle heat of the flats.

We came to a lull in the conversation. Wires were hanging out of the cavity where his tape deck should have been. So he sang Jose Alfredo Jimenez:


Por tu amor, 
que tanto quiero, 
y tanto extraño 

Que me sirvan 
otra copa y muchas más 
que me sirvan 
de una vez 
pá todo el año 
que me pienso 
seriamente, emborrachar 

Si te cuentan 
que me vieron 
muy borracho, 
diles que es por ti, 
porque yo tendré 
el valor de no negarlo 
gritaré que por tu amor 
me estoy matando 
y sabrás 
que por tus besos 
me perdí 

Para de hoy en adelante 
ya el amor no me interesa 
cantare por todo el mundo, 
mi dolor 
y mi tristeza 

Porque se 
que de este 
ya no voy a levantarme 
que yo no lo quisiera 
voy a morirme de amor