Read this blog post and you will get:
- A video-packed report of our attendance at a Julión Álvarez concert
- A better understanding of what “palenque” means
- Insight into buchones and other things Culiacán
Well, it finally happened. I got to see Julión Álvarez perform live. What a road it’s been for him and for us. Adopted by Mazatlán, Julión sang for Banda MS (MS standing for Mazatlan, Sinaloa) for three years before going solo as Julión Alvarez y su Norteño Banda. His first album was released in 2007, and sometime after that and before we moved to Mazatlan in 2008, I was introduced to and hooked by his music.
So, it was a huge opportunity when Julión Álvarez was scheduled to play outside at Sumbawa in April, 2009. How nice to be able to walk down the street and see someone who I knew was going to be huge one day, live in a small venue! What could go wrong — how hard could this be? Well, some pigs in Asia ruined it all. In March of 2009, the H1N1 swine flu “pandemic” took off in Mexico and part of the official government reaction was to cancel all large gatherings of the general public. Click here to read our blog post from that time. Ignorantly, I assumed Julión would simply reschedule. Ha!
Fast forward 42 months. I’m reading the paper one day and see an article listing the music schedule for the Feria Ganadera in Culiacán, Sinaloa. There he is closing night — three albums, countless videos and hit singles later, Julión Alvarez y su Norteño Banda! Two hours away in the capital of Sinaloa in a city many people warn us not to travel to; Julion is going to be the closing night performer at what amounts to the State Fair. He is to play on December 1. I don’t care what else is going on (and there was a lot) —we’re going! Somehow by going we earned some “street cred” with the locals. Looking back, part of me gets it, but not completely. Read on and see for yourself.
Buying tickets in Mazatlán for an event in Culiacán was surprisingly difficult. Searching the Internet, I could not find a Culiacán website that sold them, and Ticketmaster didn’t have them. Danny reached out to a friend there and he couldn’t help us. A local friend reached out to her friend there and she said they were not on sale yet. Not atypical. As the date got closer, she reached out again and I reached out to a friend in the state government. Both reported back that they had friends who could get tickets for us. So, our friend’s friend got us two tickets and delivered them to Mazatlan the following week.
The annual International Marathon of the Pacific was held the same weekend. This meant we would miss the annual Festival of Lights fireworks ceremony for the first time since living here, as well as have to deal with stashing our car around the block to get around because our street would be closed for two days.
These issues amounted to little more than minor speed bumps on the way to a great night.
Our tickets were 750 pesos each — or about $60 USD — very expensive by local standards.
About 22 people were on stage the entire time. Julión was performing in a cock fighting ring at the State Fair; this was not Carnegie Hall. The newspaper said there were over 5,000 in attendance. Julión was surrounded by his band and performed “in the round,” making sure to turn and see all of his fans.
Gringos in the audience: 2
When we entered the venue, we presented our tickets (after our third security check and frisking of the night) and were escorted to our seats. A young man with a rag wiped down our seats and then asked if we wanted to give a tip. Whatever, ten pesos.
Following behind us as we found our seats was mesera (waitress) number 12. She presented us a typed laminated menu and asked if we wanted anything. Bottle of water, check. One beer, check (only Tecate Light, but don’t get me started on that). The rest of the menu was for other people: bottles of whiskey, tequila or rum priced at 1,000 pesos and up. Coke was 100 pesos and served in a two liter bottle. So, we sipped and we watched. An average group would arrive of four or five people. They would order a bottle of whiskey, 12 beers packed in ice, a few Red Bulls and maybe a snack. This scene would be repeated again and again all night long with groups placing reorders constantly. Bottom-line, these folks got drunk. And, thanks to the Red Bull, they were drunk and wide awake! With each order of a bottle of whiskey, they would receive a stack of cups with napkins, two buckets of ice and their 2-liter bottle of mixer (usually mineral water). Don’t forget that amidst all of this, the bag o’ beers had to fit on or around them. You can only imagine what it was like to get up and try to reach an aisle! The meseras were not the tiniest thing on the block either, in fact most of them were old battleaxes who didn’t give a hoot if they stood in front of you for 5 seconds or 5 minutes — they were just working the tips. Drunk young people trying to impress tip well. This, of course, is not hard to do, when one round is anywhere from 3,000 pesos on up. Ouch! But, these young people of Culiacán seemed to just print money. They all, men and women, had fat rolls of cash and were not hesitant to spend it.
There are always distractions at public events — that’s what makes people watching so much fun. This night was no exception. The only problem is where to begin.
First of all, I need to try and explain palenque to you. Essentially, it is a legal, sanctioned cock fight and “raffle” popular at ferias (fairs). In this case in Culiacán, the palenque entrance and the concert venue are one and the same, so the ticket is as well. The whole State Fair is colloquially called the “Palenque.” Want to go watch and bet on the cock fights? Then you are going to see Julión Álvarez as well. Want to see Julión Álvarez? Then you are going to watch cock fighting (or go late). Our tickets said the cock fighting starts at 7:30 and the artist will be on at 11:30. We got in around 10:00 and said goodbye to the cock fighting MC just after midnight. Anyhow, as I was saying, the stage for the performance is a cock fighting ring. Watch the change happen here, or just look at the before and after pictures, same stage:
The fashion was really interesting. Most men had nice jeans and a nice shirt. Some men wore sport coats or slacks. There were lots of nice cowboy boots and a sea of white Stetsons. The women were the real story. Sequined shorts were all the rage and when I say shorts, I mean short. Leather pants in a variety of colors, leopard prints and tiger prints, were a common sight as well. I believe that Sinaloa women have a natural beauty, but the women of Culiacán are just not sufficed with that. They add. Push-up bras and obviously augmented breasts were a constant distraction to this writer, as were fake butt cheeks (sorry, I honestly don’t know what these things are other than unnatural and unflattering). Dianne was particularly fascinated with the “hair lifts.” The women wore their hair back and in doing so concealed a plastic foundation of some sort that raises the hair off the head, forming a ridge. Sorry, we could not get any decent pictures for fear of retribution. People did NOT want their photos taken!
There was a guy two rows ahead of that I was able, or almost forced, to watch all night. He did some really strange stuff. First of all, he was dressed nice (for a cock fight) and had no trouble spending lots of money. Had he not been mixing the Red Bull with his whiskeys, he would have passed out. As the night progressed, it got crazy. There were a lot of drunken people and multiple waitresses squeezing past our knees chasing sales and tips. As a waitress would squeak by this guy with a tray full of beer, ice buckets, etc., he would occasionally lighten the tray of a beer or two. It was like a game. All I kept thinking is that the poor waitress has to pay for them. He really pushed things at around 3:30 in the morning. There was a photographer working the crowd. He takes your picture with a fancy Polaroid, puts it into a cardboard frame, gets your money, and he’s gone. Business was a little slow, but he worked hard in his attempt to cover between 5,000 and 6,000 people. This guy carried a satchel across his body on a strap that he would turn toward his backside to get by some tight spots in the crowd. So as he is attempting to get by my friend, there is a waitress coming from the other end and he is forced to stop for a few seconds. When he does, this guy two rows up deftly reaches into the photographer’s satchel and removes a package of the frames — maybe around 50 or so. This is the kind of item no average person has the use for, agree? As the photographer walks on, clueless as to what happens, my friend starts to proudly show his buddies what he has done. One of his friends appeared to have a moral compass. His body language indicated that he was not happy and he began to see if he could locate the photographer. After extended minutes of arguing, the thief grabbed the frames back from his friend. A waitress working in the row above witnessed the whole thing, and even she had the guts to come over. She tried calling out for the photographer, but with the music it was next to impossible. Finally, after the photographer had cleared the row and exited to the promenade, the thief gave the frames to the waitress, who set out in the direction of the photographer, apparently intent on returning them. My take was this guy was a skilled thief. Every move he made was made with confidence and no fear of recrimination. He did it for pure delight. I knew enough about Culiacan to mind my own business and say nothing (until now).
There was a small opening act of sorts that played for about twenty minutes. Julión and his band came on just before one in the morning and when we left at 4:20, he was still going strong. We understand the concert ended just after 4:30. He played non-stop. His only break from singing came when his tuba player, Cheque, sang a couple of songs. Even during those times, Julión kept busy signing autographs, posing for pictures, dancing with a seemingly never-ending line of women, and being a great host.
In the first hour, Julión went through most of his biggest wide-reaching hits: La Maria, Las Mulas de Moreno, (click to view) La Niña, Olvídame… Next, he played a series of his smaller hits and popular songs, and then switched to classic corridos, cumbias and banda songs — the same songs played by every banda group around, but with his amazing voice and incredible backing band. The crowd loved it. In fact, it was often hard to hear Julión’s voice for the sheer volume of the crowd, as they knew every word to every song and were not afraid to help out. Just watch! A few other videos for you:
For the Mazatlecos in the crowd, he sang our song!
See how into things the crowd was at 3:45 (great ad for Red Bull)
A quick shot of the crowd with some house lights on.
A few things made the night special. Julión was the consummate host. He welcomed people on stage to take pictures, dance a few turns or just high five him; it was as though he was returning to his home neighborhood to share in his good fortune. In the clips above, you will see some Down’s syndrome fans that Julión welcomed on stage to dance a few songs for the crowd and share their excitement with the world. When three kids ran on stage to dance, Julión gave clear instructions to his handlers to let them stay. It definitely made for a night that three families will never forget! For about 30 minutes straight, Julión invited all the women to line up and dance with him one at a time. Each gal got a quick spin, a smile, a kiss and if asked, a quick pose for a picture. Watch here. He never stopped making good eye contact with the audience, waving, smiling and making everyone feel welcome. He even gave a special wave to Dianne.
Culiacán — We have spent a little time in Culiacán and know the people there are different, but wow, was this an eye-opening night. Rare is it when we travel anywhere in Mexico that someone doesn’t talk to us about where we are from, were we live, how well we (Dianne) speak Spanish, etc. On this night not one person spoke one word to us. Mind you, we sat next to, in front of and behind people in very close quarters for hours, but nada!
Did we feel safe? Yes. Did we avoid trouble? Yes. Would we do it again? Yes, in a heartbeat. It was a fabulous night with great music in an awesome venue. The late night is no problem if you plan for it. We had a nearby hotel and planned on being out late. Our plans worked out well. I just need a white Stetson hat and a wad of a cash to blend in J (or not).
I was a Julión Álvarez fan before we went and I’m a bigger fan now. That’s the way it should be.
Here is a link to a YouTube playlist of all of the videos.