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LA La Land: The Mexican National Chili Cook-Off: 3 days of bands, margaritas, and chili

The 42nd Annual Mexican National Cook-Off closed last Sunday afternoon after three days of rock bands, jazz groups, dancing, food, margaritas, awards and of course, chili. The three-day event held at the Tobolandia Water Park in Ajijic to raise money for charities is not only one of the biggest fundraisers in the state of Jalisco, but a music lover’s dream.  

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Over 45 entertainers – bands and dance groups – kept the stage going from 11 in the morning until each day’s close at 5 pm.  The music ranged from heavy-duty blues to 60’s rock, to stratospheric guitar playing to Mexican folk songs. The music and dancing kept the main stage hopping while more than 2,000 people poured into the waterpark’s meadow each day (more on Saturday)  perusing over a hundred vendors selling everything from fine art to leatherwork to solar panels to etched glass, premium tequila, clothes, and jewelry. The event raised at least $540,000 pesos for charity and the organizers estimate that the direct economic impact of the event on the local area to be approximately $1 million pesos.

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The Chili Cook-Off was organized by a local Ex-pat couple Jacque and Carol Bouchard, who has been running the event for 13 years. There is no paid staff; everything is done by hundreds of volunteers and non-profit organizations who spend all day at the Tobolandia meadow doing everything from cooking chili to parking cars and cleaning bathrooms to selling raffle tickets.

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I must confess I never made it to the Chili Tasting Tent, (although I did get to the Margarita Tables).  I was there for the music. The Groobeans Funk Trio kicked off the event Friday morning followed by the Ballet Folklorico del Ayuntamiento de Chapala.  Next, while salsa and margarita tasting was underway, the La Pura Band, the Crooners, and the Black Sapphire Jazz Sounds kept the growing crowd entertained. The day wrapped up with the unique Rock, Reggae, Ska, Pop, Latino, Cumbia, Salsa, and Baladas songs of  Sopa de Piedra, a trumpet-led rock band with a very Latino touch.

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Saturday was the Grand Opening, celebrated by the arrival of the Chili Cook-Off parade, the Queen and Princesses of Ajijic in their long gowns and sparkling crowns, accompanied by children from Niños Incapacitados de Lago and the School for Special Needs Children in Jocotepec.  While the audience was waiting for the parade’s arrival, they were treated to singing and dancing by Coro Reds y Cantos de Chapala, a renewed all-female Mexican folklorico chorus, resplendent in their Charro uniforms and sombreros.

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Music on Saturday included rocker Tommy Banks and the No Frontiers Band, the Jam Band with Jonathon Guzman and master guitarist  Juan Casteñon, and the Las Ventanas Band which closed the day with an energetic crowd rocking out on the dance area in front of the stage. All the bands were local, but since Ajijic has a very potent music community, including many retired top-level musicians, the local sound is formidable, if slanted toward the ’60s and ’70s.

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Sunday was the big day when the Grand Prizes were awarded.  Chili tasting began around noon while the stage was graced again by Coro Redes y Cantos de Chapala, followed by the Aloha Rock Band and the Latinitos Lounge band. A highlight of the day was the appearance of Aztec dancers in full feathered regalia followed by the world-class blues band, Blue Jay Slim and the Blues Machine.  The day closed with the local cover band The Whippersnappers, who kept the audience dancing until the very end.

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This was my first time at the CCO, as it is called locally, so I did not know what to expect beyond chili, which I never made it too.  I certainly did not expect to be treated to 45 bands and dance groups not to mention tasting margaritas from the region’s top bartenders while browsing the art and sculpture and jewelry of some of Mexico’s top artists.  I had a great time, but next year I will get to the chili.

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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