Temple University Press publicist Gary Kramer describes his experiences at a cumbia sonidero event he attended with Música Norteña author Cathy Ragland in Mexico City.
Last week I attended the Society for Ethnomusicology conference in Mexico City on behalf of Temple University Press. The conference exhibition helped Temple University Press promote the recent Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant (awarded to Indiana University Press and Kent State University Press as well) to develop and publish ethnomusicology multimedia.
There was considerable scholarly interest in our books and ethnomusicology multimedia at the conference. However, my ethnomusicological education came from an experience I shared with Temple University Press author Cathy Ragland (Música Norteña). Cathy invited me to a cumbia sonidero DJ event, held in a big warehouse-sized space in a neighborhood far from the conference hotel.
Even the cab ride to the site was exciting. A driver pulled up in an old, beat-up VW bug with the front passenger seat missing. We got in and Cathy tried to explain where we were going. I admired the Day of the Dead skeleton that hung from his windshield. (The skeleton “chattered” when the driver pulled its string, which he did for our amusement at every opportunity.) As we crawled through traffic, the cab driver would stop to spit or buy loose cigarettes from men in the street.
The event was held in this huge space—a warehouse for cabs, I understand. When we arrived, the ticket takers patted us down twice(!)—for weapons, I suspect. They didn’t charge us—perhaps because we were two of the three gringos at the event. Cathy later explained that the organizer was told to keep an eye out for us.
The space had a row of bright rod-like lights against one wall that flashed while the first DJ spun the music—which featured conga (drums), keyboards, guitar, and other instruments. Another wall had a huge sign where many folks (including us) took photos. We heard four DJs spin during the two hours we were there, and peering into their CD racks, I spied everything from Mexican musicians to Depeche Mode.
Many of the attendees wrote dedications on sheets of paper that they hoped the DJs would read as the music played. The facial expressions of some of the guys trying to get their messages read showed how meaningful these events were to them. It was often quite difficult to hear the actual music over the constant announcements, and the volume was extremely loud. (Cathy regretted she’d not brought earplugs, as I did the next day, when the hearing in my left ear wasn’t so good.)
As we got our bearings amid the lights, the noise, and the smoke—cigarettes were plentiful, infusing the air and our clothes with a pungent odor—men and women started salsa dancing all around us. At times, many dancers were encircled by a modest crowd, and they were the best performers to watch; they moved gracefully and fluidly to the music—it was simply hypnotizing. I wanted to dance, and although Cathy egged me on to ask a peroxide blonde in skin-tight pants to salsa, she was a bit intimidating for a non-pro like me. I did eventually line dance with two guys because I felt I could actually follow the moves. (I didn’t do so well, but at least I can say I dance, or tried to salsa).
Part of the allure was seeing the people—a diverse mix of working-class Mexicans in all their fabulousness. Guys dressed to the nines in suits and sport jackets, or sported only T-shirts and ripped jeans. Some women were heavily made-up and bejeweled while others sported bad dye jobs, overly tight clothes, or “chic” body-hugging sweat suits. The coolness of these individuals, all of whom glistened with perspiration was palpable.
What I most admired from what I observed was how everyone got along and, like us, was there to have fun. Men danced with women and then switched partners; men danced with men and women with women. The attendees ranged from teenagers to middle aged couples. One older gentleman, who was quite drunk, asked Cathy and me what we thought of the event, and if it was like anything we’d ever attended before. It wasn’t, I replied. When he put his hand on my shoulder to talk, the pure heat from it burned under my shirt.
At one point, we went over to one of the refreshment stands to get a drink. I ordered a Coke, and the server wiped it down with a dirty rag that prompted me to pour the contents of the can into a huge paper cup. The power from all of the music/sound made my cup vibrate in my hand. My throat soon vibrated too. But I found this exciting. The sensation mirrored my excitement.
As the event continued, I wandered around and found some promotional materials—the publicist in me never rests. I took some promotional flyers and a huge colorful poster for the next event. The poster is now hanging in my office, a souvenir from a memorable, musical night in Mexico.