High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Jesus Grandpa, What Did You Read Me This Thing For? Dia de los Muertos at the OTSFM

Volunteering at Old Town works like this: There is a single, superhuman coordinator who sends out a list of events for the next two months or so. Roughly 12 billion people respond to her e-mail, probably many of them in ALL CAPS, others peppering their responses with LOL! and Smileys, and still others who shout JANE! STOP THIS CRAZY THING! Oh, and 11.999 billion of those want to be Iris DeMent's personal friend as their only assignment. She then sorts out the legitimate responses and e-mails you back with your assignments. She also sends friendly reminders shortly before them, keeps track of your volunteer points, and registers those who want to use their points for classes. I'm willing to bet she also makes a mean souffle.

So, against all odds, the course of volunteering runs smooth. But, of course, I have some kind of powerful fuck-up field around me, so almost everything I've volunteered for has had something deeply weird about it: The first La Peña of the season was a joint effort with the Jazz Institute that featured two sets of very confused volunteers and no drummer for the opening trio; the First Teen Open Mic was staffed entirely by virgin volunteers; and the administrative shift I signed up for turned out to have almost no work to do.

Getting to the Point was relatively straightforward, so I thought the streak might have ended. However, my volunteer shift for the Día de los Muertos field trip was weird, and, my acting/voice class didn't carry, and my John Prine class didn't carry either (even though it seemed as though it had; then again, I'd actually been practicing fingerpicking in preparation for it, which was surely the death knell). Apparently, my fuck-up field really wants to direct.

So the volunteer gig was partly weird because the woman who coordinates these trips with local schools and other groups has just left for another job. The person who was supposed to be in charge wasn't able to make it, so the Speaker of the House ended up running things. Fortunately, the other three volunteers had things pretty much nailed down. There were no fire code violations, and not a single child or adolescent hurled him- or herself off the balcony, thanks to yours truly.

There were just under 400 kids from five different schools in attendance. They ranged from third grade up through Freshman year of high school. One of the interesting things about all the schools included is that they all seem to have bilingual English/Spanish instruction as a matter of course. (At least I have inferred this to be the case based on today and my administrative stint, which involved entering student comments on outreach visits. There is nothing not fun about seeing the drawings and comments of 7 year olds on the history of breakdancing.)

We were also supposed to have a senior citizens' group (we think), but they seem not to have shown. I'm hoping their bus didn't take a wrong turn toward Branson or something. But even without the added challenge of the AARP crowd, it's not a demographic I'd want to have to entertain.

Tarima Son, the group that was performing, seemed more than up to the challenge. It's a 5-person ensemble: three men and two women. They don't seem to have a website, alas, but references to them from performances elsewhere indicate that their musical style is Son Jarocho, a form of Mexican folk music originating in Veracruz that has heavy African influences. Son refers to the characteristics of the music (syncopated 6/8 time, a rhythmic refrain, often improvised repeated throughout the song), and tarima is the carved wooden platforms on which the percussive dances are performed.

I was up in the balcony for most of the performance, so I couldn't really see the instruments being swapped in and out. One of the guys was always on cajon, but the other men and the women switched off on the various 4-, 8-, and standard 6-string guitars, and fiddle and castanets made intermittent appearances.

They started by talking about the meaning of the Day of the Dead, soliciting whys and wherefores from the audience. Predictably, the little kids were eager to shout out things they knew, whereas the teens were mainly concerned with looking board an offended at being stuck in a room with youngsters.

Their first number was "La Llorona" ("The Weeping Woman"). Four of the musicians played, and two of them sang. In addition, the second female member of the group came out in a floral-print, full-skirted dress, mantilla, and skull mask. She danced across the stage, holding a candle aloft, and made her way down to the main floor to dance directly in front of the seats. There was at least one wailing youngster in the crowd after that (although I think it was a much younger sibling who had accompanied a chaperone).

I have to say, the news that they were about to launch into this song had me doing Homer's "Let's see where they're going with this . . ." Don't get me wrong: It's a lovely song. And if one thinks of traditional folk music in English as the original sing-along, appropriate-for-kids repertoire, then all's well. For example, listening to B and A's eldest sing ALLLL the verses of "You Are my Sunshine" really brought home the fact that whoever got to the Brothers Grimm surely must have folk music on the to-be-sanitized list.

My Spanish, of course, is pretty pathetic at this point, but I think the lyrics were in line with the fairly traditional version by Lila Downs. That makes it one of the following: (a) a rather seductive song, full of highly suggestive metaphor; (b) a cheerful tale of domestic violence with the woman's husband begging her for death; (c) a reference to the Mexican legend of the woman who drowns her children, is filled with remorse, and cries eternally for them.

So, having been ruminating on this, I cracked the hell up when on of the women got on the mic to fill the dead air before their next song, and started telling the last of these stories. Apparently concerned about the potential psychic damage of a beautiful woman telling an evocative version of a bogeyman story to 400 kids, one of the men rushed to assure everyone that it was a LOVE SONG a PURELY PEACEFUL DEATHRAY OF A LOVE SONG.

The same woman would later tell the story of "El Coco" coming to get bad children. But she was also responsible for gems such as: "When you live in the country, there isn't much to do. So you sing songs about the simple joy of eating a chicken." I can never hope to convey how deadpan funny, yet totally earnest she was.)

"Jesus, Grandpa . . . " moments aside, the between-song patter explored both the history of the holiday, the history of the art, and the history of Mexico since European contact in a matter-of-fact way. There was no soft-peddling of unpleasant realities. The reasons that Son Jarocho has such heavy African influences is the legacy of passive and active genocide, slavery, and Big-O Oppression, and they talked about how this history is reflected in music, lyrics, and dance. But even in discussing that, they always emphasized the celebratory nature of the holiday, stressing that the depictions of the dead are not about frightening the living into good behavior.

During the penultimate number, one of the female dancers got served by one of the guys. She had the tarima downstage and he wandered up and began doing a clumsy imitation. I assume, of course, that this is all scripted and meant to lead naturally into getting some kids up on stage dancing and others down in front doing the same. But you know me, I've been permanently scarred by Robot Chicken so hint of anyone serving anyone else has me thinking tender thoughts of Voltron.

Although the guy was downstage right (nearest the oldest attendees) at the outset, he and the woman criss-crossed when going down to the floor for "volunteers." The woman wickedly chose the most disaffected, faux-thug in the bunch and pulled him up on stage, where he turned 1000 shades of red and tried not to look as though he was on the brink of shedding the image in favor of playing nice with the hot woman. This dance went on for quite a while and it whipped the kids into quite the frenzy. All the little ones were dying to be chosen to come up and dance, and even some of the teenagers were up there by the end, enjoying themselves, I'm sure, with proper ironic distance.

So anyway, good fun, which is unbelievable, considering that all this was occurring at 9:30 AM and under the influence of my fuck-up field.

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