Un Domingo Típico Mazatleco/Sunday Afternoon in Mazatlán

Mazatlán has so very many terrific aspects, but one of our absolute favorites is the music. Live music. Whether it be a single bohemio with guitar strolling past, a world-class symphony or opera in the Angela Peralta, a norteña on the beach, or a complete live band, we trust this enjoyable aspect of life here in our port will never fade!!

We are fortunate to have compadres y comadres we’ve known for over 30 years, and we love to enjoy a “quiet” Sunday afternoon of fresh fish, seafood and, of course, beers for the adults, together with them.  One recent Sunday the “boys” started outdoing each other (God bless machismo, a veces), and before the afternoon was over they had hired three separate bands to play for us for hours. Here is a taste.

This first clip above is an instrumental, by the house band that played first for us that Sunday. The name of the song is “Tecateando,” but as we live in the home of Grupo Modelo, we prefer to call it “Pacifiqueando.” Enjoy! You’ll see the signs around for zarandeado, fresh oysters… We have terrific seafood here. You’ll also get a taste of the gorgeous weather we enjoy.

The second clip, above, I post as a tribute to the lead singer. In this one he’s singing Chuy Lizárraga’s popular song, “La Peinada.”

This third clip is of our second band of the day, a smaller norteña group. You can see how difficult it is to relax here, lol…

And, as always, the best for last: El Tololoche Chicoteado! By now things have warmed up, food has been eaten, and beer has been imbibed. This third group had a drummer who took the bass player’s place to dance with the bass, as you’ll see. Once he finished, the bass player decided he wasn’t so elderly after all, and he could dance and jump with his bass as well as the drummer could. It made for a terrific culmination to the day.

When you come to Mazatlán to visit, we know you’ll LOVE our músicos. If you live here, please, please help support our local live music scene! I’ll finish this post with a photo of a cubeta from a typical Sunday afternoon here:

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 4: Machinez

Machinez is a small town, or pueblo about 15 minutes by car outside of Zacatecas. The residents we know there call it their “rancho”. The rancho has no governance, no police department, no real services. This somewhat organized series of houses, farms, lots and makeshift streets is home to about 250 families. There is a school and a couple of tiendas selling the basics of beer, refrescos and food staples. Most residents raise some portion of their own food, be it meat, produce or both. There is a soccer field and a park of sorts with a few old children’s slides and swings. There is a river crossing through town. The river was fairly dry on the day of our visit, but in rainy season is a force to be reckoned with. The river is a major source of water as we saw tinacos and water trucks being filled from the river. Most homes have electricity and some plumbing (but not much).

So, from this brief description, you may be asking why I have decided to dedicate an entire blog post to the subject. Well, the point of this post has nothing to do with Machinez per se, but about how we came to visit there this day.
The story that unfolds in Machinez occurs throughout Mexico time and time again. It is a story of hard work and resolve to improve one’s life and one’s family’s life. It is a story of the proverbial analysis of risk/reward. And yes, for us, it is a story or reconnecting with friends we have not seen in years.

The friends we came to visit are like many other Mexicans. They are recent returnees from the United States having braved the perilous border crossing to get to a city where a friend or a cousin says they can get work. The hope of that work is promise to the families of the ranchos. You see, it is with the money earned in the States that the ranchos are able to survive. We spent considerable time at two houses on this day – the house of Alvaro and the house of Eduardo. Both of these young men started as dishwashers in Kansas City. Both showed great potential, the willingness to learn English and the desire to get ahead. Eventually they both became cooks during the busy lunch rush. They routinely put out between 100 and 200 lunches of extremely high standard meals under the guidance of a C.I.A. trained chef. They became leaders in the kitchen as they continued to absorb the culture of the workplace and of the States.

The plight of the illegal immigrant is widely publicized and debated. This blog is not about that debate. Is grounded in the facts – like them or not, these are the facts.

As Alvaro and Eduardo continued to work hard and grow as cooks, they hit a ceiling of sorts. They were illegal. They were forever limited in their employment opportunities. And, they were lonely. Eduardo and Alvaro were both single and aside from a few cousins in town, void of social opportunities. Living in the shadows of Kansas City, they hesitated to venture out. A broken turn signal can domino into a bus ride to Tijuana and the loss of everything. Also, going out cost money and was seen as frivolous spending. Like many others, to relieve the loneliness and boredom they took a second job. A second job fills the time, provides additional social interaction and keeps the money coming in. This after all is the goal. We can fall in love with these guys all we want, but our love is not going to keep them around. They are on a mission. Years ago, the goal was to make a life and then bring everyone else up to share in the new life. This has changed dramatically due to the legal/political climate. Now, the goal is to make enough money to build the house back home, buy the car, put the sister through college, pay for dad’s eye surgery, whatever. Rare is the visitor who finds a way to stay permanently (marriage, sponsorship, etc.).

And so it goes in Machinez. The houses that Alvaro and Eduardo have built are some of the finest in town. Big and strong, nicely appointed, two levels high with incredible vistas, they are symbols of a success found by taking off for five to ten years and working really really hard towards a goal. Each has surrounding land with crops and a few livestock. Each is connected to or very close to family homes, also very nice. Their efforts provided economic stimulus for the rancho. The jobs provided were local jobs. The supplies were purchased from locals and money went back into the community. Alvaro has since married. He has a beautiful baby girl and another on the way. Eduardo is still single—but working on it. As they tour us through their homes, they proudly show pictures of their family and point out which cousin or in-law is still in the States. These family members, they tell me, are making the same sacrifice they did in the name of getting ahead. They are missed by many, especially the older family members who realize that they may not live long enough to see their son or daughter’s return. Yet, they understand the reality of the situation.

Alvaro and Eduardo’s lives are quite simple. They work, they celebrate life. They enjoy beautiful weather and scenery. They listen to music everyday (often played by the family band). They share everything with their friends and family in town. This includes their homes and their SUV’s (brought down from the States). They don’t have cell phones, Internet or cable TV. They drink some beer, dance to banda music and retire for the evening. They have little or no crime in their clean community. They don’t have a mortgage or credit cards. They can and do live on very little. If they weren’t under 40, they would sound like they are living the life pursued by retiring gringos.

But they are not retiring gringos. These young men are starting families; they have financial responsibilities and need to work. No problem, right? They are well trained in the kitchen. They cook better than many chefs and restaurateurs that I know. They are certified in serv-safe, understand cross utilization, understand wine basics, can lead a team, can work with vendors, and speak two languages. But you see a great cook in the States, even one that has worked for ten years at an exclusive upper-end dining establishment is nobody in Mexico. To get the attention of a kitchen manager they need to have a degree from a vocational school specializing in culinary arts. They need to have diplomas from Mexico and they have none. There is an outside chance that they can find a friend of a friend in the food industry to introduce them to someone, but it a chance not worth waiting for. Instead, my two friends are gas station attendants. They receive a minor minimum salary and cash tips. They work various shifts, but all are long –both days and nights. Their jobs are dead end to say the least. They work along a busy highway and risk getting robbed or worse. They spell of gasoline and other chemicals when they return home. Like many workplaces in Mexico there are poor sanitary and safety conditions.

What does the future hold for my two friends? I really don’t know. They will not return to the States unless there is a major shift in politics that offers some sort of path to legalization. They would love to cook again and have a job with some potential. Being technically uneducated and from a “rancho”, their options are very limited. There houses will survive almost anything thrown at them and they will always be able to work enough to keep food on the table and the lights on. With any luck they will have children who are able to go one step further, finish school and get a job with some promise. Until then, the beautiful sunset on the western horizon of Machinez will usher in another session with the local band. The moms and daughters will dance with each other and the few men not in the band. As night falls, they will turn in with the adventures in the States a distant memory until the next time a certain gringo comes to town for a visit. And don’t worry, he will.

Banda is not Spanish for Band!

I have heard Banda and Norteño music described as “an acquired taste,” “a God-awful racket,” and “the best music on the planet.” Realistically speaking, I agree with all three.
First off, what is Banda? Banda is a style of music popular in Mazatlán and the rest of Sinaloa, the state in Mexico from which it hales. It is growing in popularity elsewhere, but especially in the United States.
Banda style music dates back to the late 1800’s. It was imported from Germany when the Germans came over to invent Pacifico beer. You won’t find this fact validated by any reference checking, but I can assure you that the German’s greatest contributions were Banda and Pacifico. In fact, I’m drinking one now.
A Banda band is a band ranging size from around 8 to around 24 – give or take a few. A band consists of mainly brass or wind instruments like clarinets, trumpets, trombones and tubas. There are always drums – many of them. One drummer will usually play a snare drum and some cymbals (or cowbell, etc.), another will play tom-toms and still a third might play a bass drum with a cymbal on top. Because of these drum types, you will often see drummers standing when playing. String instruments are rare; as are keyboards. Normally there won’t be an accordion. Most often a Banda-like band with an accordion is actually a Norteño band. While some Norteño does come from Sinaloa, most comes from the more northern states of Mexico. Norteño can also thank the Germans (and the Czechs) for its beginnings. It is more of a rural sound, and I really like it too. You will hear Norteño music on Banda radio stations and see the videos on Banda video channels.
When it comes to the Banda “sound,” there are many. The most common are cumbias, rancheras and corridos. At the end of this post I will put links to a variety of videos so you can hear for yourself. If you think this is confusing, it is. These three types of music are not limited to Banda, but also played by Norteño bands. Why is this a problem? Well, people will say, what kind of music do you like? Do you like Banda? What kind? Norteño? How about Mariachi? Are you wondering why Pacifico is needed to get this all straightened out?
For purposes of clarity (and ease for the author), I will use Banda from this point on to mean Banda and Norteño.
Often Bandas will have more than one singer, making it difficult to hear a song on the radio or in a restaurant and know who you’re listening to. So, apparently to solve this problem, Bandas are known for singing out the name of their band (and home city or state) sometime during the song (usually at the beginning). I find this system very efficient and would highly recommend it to bands elsewhere in this world. Not only are there concurrent multiple singers, but as bands age, singers are replaced. Some Bandas have been around for many years. The most famous and best example is Banda El Recodo. The full name of the band is Banda Sinaloense el Recodo de Don Cruz Lizárraga. The band has been under the control and guidance of the Lizárraga family for over 70 years. Their current lead singer sounds very different than the last singer, but he is great and is very young and hopefully will be the primary voice of Banda El Recodo for years to come. Note the full name tells you who founded the band and where it is from, very efficient. You will often see Banda names with a founders name included or a city or state of origin. This helps designate a band if someone else in the country has a similar name and shows hometown pride. I like it!
Banda is not exclusively a male-dominated genre. There are some female Banda bands, but they have not had the successes associated with today’s well-known Banda bands.
Sometimes Banda sounds over-amplified and distorted. This is usually due to the tuba being played and used in a way that is uncommon to most music listeners. Other times it is due to the fact that the band will amplify one or more of the singers and put the tuba too near the microphone at which point it is over-amplified and distorted.
The more popular or more successful a Banda becomes, the better they become. They get better instruments, better musicians and uniforms. A good-looking Banda is quite a sight. Think about 18 guys in matching cowboy hats, brightly colored jackets, western shirts, matching pants and boots, all swaying to the beat of a song. Along with this, musicians swirl or pump their instruments in between stanzas. It is quite a sight to behold. You’ll get the picture in the videos.
Speaking of videos, Banda videos are fun! Often they tell a story, either about the song, or just about life in Sinaloa. Many are filmed in my wonderful city of Mazatlán. If you are ever in Mexico and have the opportunity to watch TV, check out a channel called BandaMax (Mazatlán cable, channel 11).
A Banda concert may at first glance look like controlled chaos, but it is very enjoyable and festive. But, there are a few things you should know. First, gentlemen need to wear their best jeans with stitching, a “western shirt” with glitzy design on back and/or front, your best cowboy hat and boots made from a dead animal. Ladies, anything tight that highlights cleavage will do great and really high heels. Banda concerts start late and go later. It is not uncommon to be going home at 3 or 4 in the morning. Beer is usually no more than 100 feet away at any given time. The event is very loud. I have been to a lot of rock concerts in the states, a Banda concert is louder.
Outside of a concert, how do you get to see a Banda? Acts just starting out will walk the beach or between restaurants looking for work on busy days. There are some restaurants and cantinas in town that are known for having Banda music. Some have a house band and others have different bands playing. Often, two will show up and it becomes a “Battle of the Bandas”. Bandas play little dance halls and cantinas. If they have a name or following, there will be signs advertising the Banda. For larger touring acts, concert venues are used. If you want to hire a Banda for a party, you can ask for cards of any Banda you see, or just go down to the area of town where they “hang out” and find one. If you’re in Mazatlán, just go east at the Fisherman’s Monument to the corner of Gutierrez Najera and Juan Carasco. You will find Banda bands looking for work hanging out there.
If you read this far, I’m impressed. What’s the bottom line on Banda? What you think of it when you first hear it will depend on how you hear it. If you hear a professionally recorded song by a mainstream Banda band, it will probably sound like Latin pop with horns. If, however, you are sitting in a cantina with your compadres and drinking a bucket of Pacificos, then you will think it is too loud, unorganized chaos. Remember in elementary school when Miss Carlson, the music teacher, arrived? She would open a big box of musical instruments, some shinier than others, but all capable of pleasing a child’s senses and wonderment and making a noise that, to a child under ten, passes for music. Remember Susie and Vicki would always fight over who got to play the triangle and whip it like mom’s mashed potatoes. Remember how Bobby always got the tambourine and ran around shaking it like a Hari Krishna? And remember how we would all just bang and tap and strum and hit and run to our own little personal beat? Remember that sound and how good it felt? Well, to many people, that’s what Banda sounds like the first time. The real problem with Banda is it needs room to breathe. Like good wine, the more it breathes, the better it gets. Keep listening and after a while, you will start to recognize the songs. They actually have a beat (and yes Dick Clark, you can dance to it) and the band is organized. In fact, the better the band, the better the organization.
If you decide you like a Banda song or a group and you want to buy the music, good luck. A mainstream act like Banda El Recodo can be found on line (iTunes, etc.) as well as some music by Julion Alvarez, Banda El Limon, and others who have had some success outside of Mexico. Beyond that, you are stuck. If a band gets lucky enough to get a record deal, they may have very limited, if not regional, distribution. I have spent weeks trying to find some CD’s and went so far as emailing the bands through their websites, Facebook pages and My Space pages. I still don’t have anything. I got some vague instructions on how one store might have something (not), I got a guy at a music store who was going to order them and call me (not). So, I have learned how to extract the audio from a YouTube video into MP3 format–problem solved–sort of. If you want to catch a Banda when they come to town, just check their websites and pages for a concert schedule, or watch for signs around town and their tour busses. How to get a ticket? I’ll save that for another time.
I created a playlist in my YouTube account with a whole bunch of videos. If you have about 45 minutes, you will see some of my favorite videos, many filmed in or about Mazatlán. You will:
·Learn a lot about typical Mexican life
·Enjoy a Banda remake of a 1970’s US pop classic.
·See Banda El Recodo live at a concert I attended
·See Grammy and Latin Grammy award winners
·Experience life on a Mazatlán beach during carnaval
·Learn about pigs, cheese, peanuts, cars, girls, beer…
·See that I snuck in one Mariachi song because it’s all about Mazatlán!

Our 1st Carnaval Event

Greg and I were two of over 20,000 lucky people who showed up to the vacant lot in front of the aquarium to watch Verónica Castro crown my favorite banda, El Recodo, the “Kings of Joy” for Carnaval 2009. It was DEFINITELY a night to remember!

El Recodo played for over an hour, as did 11 other bands including Pedro Fernández, Banda El Limón, Huichol Musical, Banda Estrellas de Mazatlán, and the comedian Carlos Bardelli. The lighting on the stages was truly amazing, very high-tech and exciting, and the fireworks were remarkable.
The band is celebrating their 70th anniversary this year. The leader’s mother, Chuyita, who is the widow of the band’s founder (Cruz), and Cruz’s brother German, were both present at the ceremony.
One of the incredible things about this event is that it took place in what, up to that morning, had been a vacant dirt-covered lot. The city came in and plowed out a hill on the lot during the prior week, took out a small old amphitheatre, and the day before the event they installed a HUGE stage and one smaller one, along with 3-story high light mounts.
The lot was fenced off and you had to go through a long line of Federal Police, most people being frisked (we weren’t) before you could enter the party zone (huge lot, now transformed). The party zone was lined with snack booths of all sorts, from tacos to flan to carne asada. Strolling vendors sold hats, masks, noisemakers and toys. There were of course several Pacífico booths.
One of the interesting “side shows” was electric shock treatment. A man walks around with two hand-held diodes and a small generator. He gets a group of people together and asks you to hold hands. He gives a couple of people a diode, and he backs away. You get shocked, it hurts quite a bit, and the first person to let go pays 100 pesos for the privilege. Hmm… Greg lost 😦

Another interesting sideshow was the “eyelashes and beard” man, as you can see below.

Everyone talked to everyone as instant friends and shared the beer. It was an ideal start to our first Carnaval in Mazatlán.


This year is the 135th anniversary of the Carnaval here in Mazatlán. With our history as a port city (read pirates, drug runners and all sorts of shady operators), since the early 1800s my beloved home has been the site for a pre-Lenten Mardi Gras. They say we are the third largest in the world, after Rio and New Orleans. But who’s to say?

The main events run from the 19-24 of February this year, but for over a month now the fervor has been building. We’ve had parades, campaigns and parties for all the candidates for Queen and King. We’ve had the unveiling of the decorations, and the light display is fantastic. Strings of multi-colored lights are hung along the malecón from the Pedro Enfante statue to the Golden Zone (5 miles maybe?). It is a sight to behold! They include 90 different designs of very large, lighted masks on either end of each block. The lights are strung all through the winding streets of the Centro Histórico, too, and there are ticket booths, temporary restrooms, chain link fencing, and loads of background scenery everywhere.

A few nights ago we had the final vote counting to choose the Queens (Queen of the Carnaval, Queen of the Juegos Florales, and La Reina Infantil) and King of the Alegría (my favorite local Banda El Recodo–see photo below of me honoring them with my presence 🙂  ). They gave Greg a CD of their current hit, “Te Presumo.

Rigoberto Lewis has made the carrozas, those incredibly gorgeous, ornate, over-the-top Carnaval floats, since 1960. He seems to live the whole year for Carnaval, eating, sleeping, dreaming and breathing the floats.

So what actually happens during Carnaval? Well, this will be our first, so I look forward to letting you know. Some of what I know will happen is this:
  • The Mazatlán Prize for Literature is announced.
  • The Antonio Lopez Saenz Prize for Painting is announced.
  • The reenactment of Angela Peralta’s arrival to Mazatlán in 1883.
  • The coronation of the King of Joy (my favorite banda).
  • The coronation of the Queens of the Flower Games. That evening includes the Clemencia Isaura Prize for Poetry.
  • Coronation of the Queen of Carnaval, in the baseball stadium right behind our house.
  • The Burning of Bad Humor. If you have some you want me to burn for you, get it to me before the 21st!
  • The Combate Naval, a huge fireworks battle in the bay.
  • The first Carnaval parade, which will go right past our house on Avenida del Mar.
  • Coronation of the Child Queen, and a big kid party to go with it. Mazatlán’s Carnaval is for the whole family. Schools city-wide even give kids two days off school to join in the celebrations.
  • International Queen of the Pacific contest and dance.
  • Festival of Lights and Fireworks, the second big fireworks display, again in front of our house.
  • The second Carnaval Parade, this one heading south instead of north.
  • And, for the duration of Carnaval, there is a HUGE street party with over a dozen stagesfor live bands, dancing, and countless shops.
This year’s theme is Fantasía Universal, so we are expecting to travel the world from our own local celebration. We can’t wait, and we hope to see you here for Carnaval soon! Don’t plan on sleeping though.