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LA La Land: Where the Music Starts in Mexico

I went to three gigs this week in Ajijic, Mexico: a rock band at El Barco, a jazz combo at Casa Domenech, and the street at night.  I saw where the music starts.  

First, Casa Domenech, a small upscale café on the west side of town with great food and very cool music.  A semi-pickup jazz combo (they all play together in various formats) led by Gilberto Rios on the standup electric bass entertained the dinner audience. The band pegged the intensity just right, keeping the energy up without intruding on conversations, but every now and then going into a solo or breakdown that quieted the house and drew applause. Gilberto is a superb musician, playing with Triálogo and opening for Gerry Lopez in his upcoming concert in Ajijic. The saxman blew us away with his solos, and the drummer was just right, not too loud and always keeping the band on the beat. I am not a fierce jazz fan, but Gilberto and the group may have converted me.

The second gig was rock and I needed no converting.  I went to the El Barco bar/restaurant/venue to see my friend Thomas Banks and his No Borders Band which plays both covers and original music. I love El Barco — you just feel at home walking into it, one reason it has been open for 25 years. It is a big, laid back place with lots of seating around the stage, outside tables, and upper level rooms for rowdy parties or just plain celebrations.  Plus, a good dance floor, a constant flow of good bands well-tuned to the audience, and dogs are welcome. What more can you ask for?

Unfortunately, I was asking for Thomas Banks but he got called away at the last minute and the Thomas Banks and the No Borders Band wasn’t there. In their place was 4-piece rock band anchored by No Borders Band bassist/guitarist Sergio Casas that regaled us with 60’s and 70’s cover rock songs. 

The band was very good, especially the lead guitar player who could shred with abandon. Lead singer Carlo, a young, bilingual vocalist/drummer from northern California now living in China, had not met the other band members before or rehearsed with them, so he had to rely on sheet music. But he and the band got people dancing, which was what we were there for.   

When I left El Barco, I decided to walk home. In the past, when I left a club or venue in LA or Hollywood for the night, I would wait in line for the valet or walk to a parking lot and get my car or, on rare occasions, take a Lyft.  In any case, I drove; walking home – are you kidding? But here in Ajijic and Chapala most things are close – walking distance, a strange concept to an Angeleno. El Barco is just off the carretera, the main road through town.  The carretera is paved; everything else is cobblestone or dirt.  Shops and restaurants and food stands are either on the carretera or on a cobblestone and dirt frontage road next to it or on the tiny side streets.  

My wife had already left in our car and would have picked me up, but I decided to walk even with my cameras. Most shops and food stands and restaurants are open late at night and extend into the sidewalk, if not the street.  People put out tables and plastic chairs and string lights or set up lanterns and sit out on the street/sidewalk/verge and sell, eat, drink and talk while children play. The abuelas (grandmothers) trade news, the husbands and wives show each other things on their cell phones, teens smooch and show each other things on their cell phones, and the kids and dogs run around laughing and squealing.  The local traffic is cars, pickup trucks, ATV’s, golf carts and horses, all of which often stop in the narrow cobblestone streets to pick up tacos from street vendors or say hi to friends.

And there is music everywhere.

Mexicans love large portable speakers and they are in almost every tienda (little shop), food stall, family gathering, and passing vehicle.  Music rolls out in Spanish and English. You hear banda and son de amor (love songs), son jarocho (music of Veracruz), cumbia, tropical, and rap and rock and pop. As I walked up the cobblestone street to my house, saying buenas noches to my neighbors and sampling salsas, I was treated to a feast of music, flavors and community. Definitely worth the walk and a great nightcap for the rock at El Barco.

There is great music coming out of Mexico and I am looking forward to learning more of it and following the Mexico-LA music connection, which is substantial.  And it all starts here, on the street and in the clubs, and in the community.

Patrick O’Heffernan

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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