Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Location Location Location

After most of the day spent in a prone or at least sitting position, we walked up the road to Tulum Ruins, the site of a Mayan settlement perched on a low cliff-edge looking out to the Caribbean. Normally, the remains of Mexico’s pre-Columbian cities are buried in jungle or on arid plains, but the location of Tulum is gorgeous: facing a deep blue watery horizon, with dense green jungle for a back garden.

It was abandoned after the Spaniards came and there’s not a lot left of it now, aside from a modest Castillo and a few other crumbling buildings, but it still impresses. As do the iguanas which are everywhere, doing very little, just sitting, looking suitably ancient. They’ve seen it all before.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Ferns


From Bob Stanley’s brick of a book on pop to Oliver Sacks’ sliver of a diary on, of all things, ferns. Neurologist Sacks is well(ish)-known for his book of 30 years ago, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (later turned into a mini-opera by Michael Nyman). I also have his 2007 tome, the fearsomely daunting Musicophilia, about music and the brain, but have never got around to reading it. 
Oaxaca Journal, however, written over ten days while on a study trip with friends to southern Mexico in 2001, is over in a flash. I can’t say I’m that interested in Lepto Sporangiates, but hoped to learn a little about Oaxaca along the way. True, chocolate and mescal get a look-in, but mostly, if it’s not ferns, it’s plants related to ferns, cacti and birds.  A man who clearly loves to write about anything and everything.    

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Yeah Yeah Yeah

With his deep knowledge and love of pop, who better to write a history of it than Bob Stanley, the only person I know who can boast equally successful careers as both pop musician (with Saint Etienne) and journalist (NME, Guardian, Mojo). [There are others who have tried, me included, but none who have made a decent fist of both – and in my case neither!].
It’s surprising that no-one has really tackled the story of modern pop from its beginnings in the fifties (Stanley chooses 1952, when New Musical Express was first published, when seven-inch singles were first released and when singles charts first appeared) to now. Actually, he ends it in the late 90s when vinyl had finally succumbed to the compact disc, which in turn would soon be usurped by the MP3, which in turn will probably give way to not ‘owning’ any format at all (spotify etc).
And what a story it’s been: skiffle, rock & roll, soul, R&B, folk, psychedelia, glam, disco, punk, indie, hip hop, rap, techno, jungle, trip hop, grunge… an ever-changing and cross-pollination of genres which has kept pop music interesting and central to popular culture. They say that age 10-20 are the most influential in terms of forming musical tastes. In which case I feel lucky to have had the seventies as my tutor: Bowie, glam, punk, new wave, krautrock, nascent synthpop… even prog and disco.                 
Bob Stanley
The early eighties were great too, but pop – as an all-embracing, all-consuming thing, somehow ended for me in 1984. Of course there was great pop after that, new genres (mostly revolving around dance), mega-stars like Madonna and (for a while) Prince, alt-stars like Radiohead and Bjork; every now and again you can still hear a song or a sound that makes you sit up and take notice. But music is no longer the driving force in popular culture. It’s computer games, fashion, sport, celebrity or (amazingly still) television, all driven by an all-pervasive social media.
Stanley tells the story brilliantly with very little repetition and not a word wasted – quite a feat given there is a limit to the number of ways one can describe a three-minute pop song and the book is 750 pages long. He manages to be both authoritative and very funny. The section on Glam is laugh out loud. This is Slade in a nutshell: “Dickensian singer Noddy Holder had a voice like John Lennon screaming down the chimney of the QE2; rosy-cheeked Jim Lea looked as if he lived with his mum and bred homing pigeons; Dave Hill on guitar had the most rabbit face in the world; while drummer Don Powell chewed gum and started into space – even after he’d been in a horrific car crash and lost most of his memory, he looked exactly the same. With no hint or possibility of pin-up potential, they saw the Titus Groans and the Amazing Blondels, the prog noodlers, the folk archaeologists and the questing space rockers and thought, sod this, let’s get pissed and have a really, really good time”. It could have applied to a dozen other bands of their ilk.

Interestingly, the only reference to his own (excellent) group is a blink and you missed it mention, and they don’t even make it into the index. Modesty forbids… Are there any weak points? Not really. It's very Anglo-American centric; nothing much about Australia, New Zealand or Canada, let alone non-Anglophone Continental Europe, which is deserving of analysis, but that's another book. It slows right down after the dire Britpop (who can blame him?), splutters after Gangsta Rap and the Spice Girls and gives up as the New Millennium and boy bands take over. A great, great book.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tulum


To Yucatan – the horn bit of southern Mexico which juts out into the Caribbean Sea – for a six-day break this side of Easter. Many stay in Cancun which is a bit like Miami Beach, but we have chosen to pick up a car and drive south to Tulum. Basically anywhere along the coast boasts gorgeous white beaches and turquoise sea. Tulum will do nicely, though, thank you very much.

Friday, March 27, 2015

City Lights Aborted

This evening I took the girls to see a Chaplin film, City Lights (1931), but with a difference: it was screened in a public square with live music conducted by Timothy Brock. 
It was all going so well. The traffic was bad but we got there in time, Plaza Santa Domingo provided a beautiful setting, there were front row seats reserved for us. The film/music began, A&N were really liking it, it got to the bit where he meets the blind flower-seller and... then it started to rain.
Now in Britain there'd be a contingency plan. End of March: high chance of rain. But in Mexico it hardly ever rains at this time of year. So no cover, no alternative venue, concert aborted. We returned home and watched it on YouTube. Not the same.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Landscapes of the Mind

The Tate's Landscapes of the Mind exhibition opened this evening at MUNAL (National Museum of Art). It covers 300 years of British landscape painting, everyone from Constable and Turner to Whistler and Long. Two years in the making but finally it's here, and it's been worth the wait. A really great survey from 1690-2007, curated by Richard Humphreys, beautifully installed and sequenced.
It was quite a scrum. Hundreds and hundreds of people pouring into the lobby trying to get in, a real 'event'.
There are lots of great works but probably the highlight is David Hockney's monumental Bigger Trees Near Warter (2007) - 4.6m x 12m, which takes up the whole of a gallery. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Competing with Wagner

Today, I took part in a press conference for the Festival Cultural de Mayo which will take place 8-31 May. The UK will be 'country of honour', featuring Akram Khan, Aakash Odedra, Gecko, Michael Nyman Band, City of London Sinfonia, Lyr Williams, The Classic Buskers and - an odd one -William Walton's music to Laurence Olivier's Henry V film with added Shakespeare narration on top. So, old and new, traditional and experimental.
The announcement took place in the Teatro Degollado, a gorgeous 19th Century theatre in the centre of Guadalajara. All the events will take place there too. In fact, while we were doing the press conference, the Jalisco Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing inside and it was a struggle to make ourselves heard. "I'd like to tell you about the UK programme in May, but I fear we cannot compete with Wagner", I quipped.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Space Age Arts Centre

Amongst other things today, I went to check out a new, as yet incomplete, arts centre, PALCCO, being built in Zapopan in the the north-west of the city. It's designed by Arnoldo Rabago who studied at the AA in London, then worked for Zaha Hadid before returning to Guadalajara. He probably wouldn't thank me for this, but you can tell the ZH influence. Anyway, It's an amazing building with a 2,500-seat theatre/concert hall, a large semi-outdoor amphitheatre, smaller performance spaces, a Museum of Communication, restaurants etc. We're hoping to provide them with its opening show in July of which more anon. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

El Mysterio de Vozes Jaliscos

A day of if not idleness then at least of leisure in Guadalajara's centro historico. In the morning wandered in and out of the Regional Museum, complete with 13,000 year old mammoth skeleton and a surreal 17th Century anonymous painting of 21 identikit Carmelite nuns (I don't know which was funnier); cathedral, also 17th Century; Governor's Palace with amazing Orozco murals (although I wish he'd lighten up a bit); and then ended up in a cafe on the Plaza de la Liberacion where I spent four hours catching up on emails and the like.
Opposite was a little girl of about seven years old with (I assume) her dad. He played guitar and she sang. And what a voice: rich, achingly plaintive, mature beyond her years and bellowed out as if her life depended on it, which it probably did. It reminded me of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. Someone told me she was actually singing in Catalan. It was amazing - and attracted quite a crowd. I hope she made some money out of it. I think so. They were back there the following day.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mute in Tlaquepaque

Life is full of surprises. Today I spent twelve hours in the company of Mute musicians. Of all the great labels in the world, Mute would have to be in my top 5. My respect for Daniel Miller knows no bounds. Even if he did nothing after his self-released Warm Leatherette (as The Normal) in 1978, his place in the cannon of late 20th Century electronic music would be secure. But the way he then developed Mute into the label that it is now (temporary sell-out to EMI during the difficult noughties to be forgiven) is a model for all record labels. The roster of artists says it all: Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure, Goldfrapp, Wire, Nick Cave, Fad Gadget, DAF, Simon Fisher Turner, Moby, Diamanda Galas and scores of others... to say nothing of the sub-labels and essential reissues (Can, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire etc). But what really says it all is that they have all stayed with him.
Land Observations
The story behind how Mute ended up in a small outdoor stadium in Tlaquepaque, a suburb of Guadalajara, is too long and complicated to explain here; suffice to say that it was all down to Carlos Becerra and Arturo Saucedo - who are worth a post of their own, and that will surely come later.
So on a seriously hot Saturday afternoon, first up was Land Observations aka James Brooks. I met him last June in Shanghai at an event with Simon Fisher Turner and we've been in touch ever since. His Grand Tour album is one of my faves of 2014. He nearly didn't perform thanks to being separated from his equipment on the flight over. But the latter arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, he plugged in and played half a dozen pieces from said album. Beautiful, rhythmic, motorik guitar loops, reminiscent of Michael Rother at his best.
Irmin Schmidt then kind-of repeated what he did a couple of nights ago. His choice of opener, Mother Sky, was worth the long journey alone. A piece recorded over 45 years ago but still sounding utterly modern. 
OMD
Melbourne-born, Reykjavik-based Ben Frost was next. An intense set which tested the afternoon audience (and the back-line) but good and reminds me to check out his recent Aurora album. 
A live set from LA band Liars and a DJ set from Berlin-based Apparat were less to my tastes but they got the crowd going.
Backstage I chatted with James, Irmin & Hildergard, Vince Clarke, and Andy McCluskey & Paul Humphreys of OMD. A really convivial, non-starry atmosphere. 
Vince Clarke
OMD played as a duo, just like the very early days, and put in a great set. "We´re not going to play an arty set, just the hits, OK?" said Andy, possibly a tongue-in-cheek response to the previous acts, and 16 hits duly followed, almost exclusively from the 80s, but still sounding really great. The fact that OMD aren't on Mute but were part of the festival raises interesting questions, not least as New Order recently signed to the label...
Having Vince Clarke close the evening was a smart move. It wasn't so much headlining as finish on a more clubby note, with 'banging' remixes of Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure etc pumping out to a crowd now a few thousand strong... who knew all the words and were bedecked in T-shirts ranging from Violator and English Electric to The Cure and Dead Can Dance. 
An amazing day which somehow managed to be both intensely nostalgic and very much of the moment.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Tremor

While much of the world was gazing at a lunar eclipse, I was experiencing my first Mexican earthquake. It was mid-afternoon and things shook in the office for a few seconds. We took it seriously and lined up (comically) along a wall before convening in the park outside. It was only 5.4 - I experienced worse, and more frequently, in Tokyo - but it was nonetheless a reminder that we're in a volatile area. This autumn will be the 30th anniversary of Mexico City's big one which killed over 10,000 people.   

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Can Legacy

This evening, I attended a talk & DJ set by Irmin Schmidt of Can, at the Fonoteca Nacional in Coyoacan. The talk was inside but so many people turned up that they also transmitted it onto a screen in the centre's lovely courtyard too. Afterwards, Irmin joined the throng and played tracks from The Lost Tapes. Can never played in Mexico so there was a lot of interest from a very diverse audience, young & old, including a guy wearing a Future Days T-shirt. 
I met Irmin and his manager-wife Hildegard over 30 years ago in France (see this post) so it was funny to see them again after so long. They're here for a Mute Records festival in Guadalajara this weekend (see forthcoming post) but squeezed this event in beforehand. The Can legacy lives on.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Silver

After a fruitless search for a silversmith and studio in Beijing, Liz has found one in Mexico City. So for three hours on Wednesdays she is back into designing and making jewellery.    Necklaces, rings, earrings... and cufflinks for me. They're lovely, unique things, beautifully designed and fashioned. 
Mexico is, interestingly, the world's largest silver producer (17% in 2010). Its mines have attracted prospectors and desperadoes since the Spanish conquest, including Cornishmen in the 19th Century. Nice too see someone else from Cornwall carrying on the tradition. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Benito Juarez

Today is a public holiday, commemorating the birth in 1806 of Benito Juarez, President of Mexico from 1858 until his death in 1872. Trained as a lawyer, he led the government during historically significant events including the Reform War, the French Intervention, the Second Empire and the republic’s restoration. At 4ft 6ins he was also one of the shortest presidents in world history. Abe Lincoln was the tallest US president at 6ft 4ins (taller than Obama at 6ft 1in). But they're both left behind by the world's current tallest head of state, Montenegro's Filip Vijanovic at 6ft 5in, who doesn't need a bodyguard.