How could each Lila Downs Concert be better then those that came before? The Best Ever is what I heard people say who have gone to many in the past. I don’t know, but Lila Downs knows how to dazzle a crowd.
The Guelaguetza Stadium on the Cerro Fortin in Oaxaca city was full on Friday night, July 27. We got there early to be sure to beat the crowds and that gave us a chance to settle into our seats and audience oggle.
I was lucky enough to be invited to join a group of friends at the last moment. They had an extra ticket and offered it to me. Thank you, Patrice and Neal! Seems that to snag a primo seat means standing in line all night and someone they know did that for them. I was happy to pay the premium.
I had some serious doubts about whether my shout out for tickets would yield results. I was not successful finding online tickets via Ticketmaster. Nothing materialized and I gave up … until a few days before!
We were in the third row, far left of center, behind the mixing station staff. Not great for photos, but a fabulous spot for listening and watching Lila’s husband Paul Cohen on his badass sax. Even Lila made her way over on occasion. I did my best to get photos, but the strobes and movement of dancers made the conditions very challenging.
I think what was fantastic about this concert is that Lila brought us her incredible traditional play list, the oldies but goodies. Everyone around us sang along. AND, the performance was built around the dancing and costuming of the annual Guelaguetza event held on the last two Mondays in July at the same venue.
With Lila’s singing mastery, great musicians and representative delegations invited from Tlacolula de Matamoros from the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca, Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec from the Sierra Mixe, Juchitan women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, girls from the Papaloapan region of Oaxaca near Veracruz giving us the Pineapple Dance, and groups that are masked, twirling and whirling, the show couldn’t have been better.
Lila Downs and Paul Cohen have a strong commitment to social justice issues in Oaxaca and Mexico. Her songs tell the struggle of poverty, lack of education and health care, discrimination, disenfranchisement, pain and tears, hopes and dreams. Together, they have been a powerful voice for human rights.
The dynamic visual backdrop to the stage were photos and video of migrant farm workers, artist woodcuts of peasant life, the work of artisans and craftspeople, marching soldiers with bayonet rifles, heroic President of Independence Benito Juarez, a Zapotec from Oaxaca.
The fun was mixed with the message that we cannot be complacent about politics and world events. Half the seats in the audience were available to adoring fans for free.
The Other Guelaguetza in Santa Maria del Tule: Affordable and Accessible
Access to the BIG Guelaguetza under the big top on the Cerro del Fortin of Oaxaca, Mexico, is limited to those who can a) afford to buy a ticket at 1,121 pesos and 908 pesos each plus Ticketmaster fees, and b) those who can stand in line overnight for the limited number of upper deck seats offered for free. It’s a sell-out crowd to 11,000 people every year.
Delegation from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec give tepache drink gift to crowd
For the past several years, villages around Oaxaca have been offering what I call mini-Guelaguetzas, alternative, smaller versions of the extravaganza that are playing to local audiences who can afford a more modest ticket price. The venues are small, intimate and you can see everything. This makes the experience affordable and accessible.
Las Chinas Oaxaqueñas alway delight the audience
This year, friends and I decided to go to Santa Maria del Tule, famous for the giant 3,000-year old cedar tree. They were hosting their first year Guelaguetza with one performance on the Mondays that the big event took place on the Cerro del Fortin. We went on July 30, the second Monday, and it was just perfect. We even got a parking space on-site next to the stadium.
Cat and mouse courting game played out in dance by Ejutla de Crespo troupe
I bought tickets for 200 pesos each in advance at the municipal building in Santa Maria del Tule. One could also buy them online for a small service fee.
Group from Oaxaca Central Valleys danced with live turkeys
Every seat in the Monumental del Tule, the town’s 3,500 seat outdoor stadium, offered a great view of the circular stage. This is an open-air amphi-theatre, so there is no protection from the weather.
Gifts, usually fresh fruit, were tossed from the stage. We snagged a pomegranate.
Ojala! The 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. performance was held between thunderstorms but there was no escaping the rain which came in droplets and downpours. No one seemed to mind because it’s been so dry here. It hasn’t rained in a month. We knew the farmers needed this for their crops.
La Danza de la Piña Papoalapan and Tlahui women huddled under rain clouds
So, we either covered ourselves in plastic sheeting or pulled out parkas and umbrellas. The show must go on. And it did!
Gosh, that rain really poured but we didn’t budge
So many visitors to and many foreign residents of Oaxaca think that the meaning of Guelaguetza is this performance event, plus all the activities that are held concurrently: the Mole Festival, the Feria de Mezcal, the promenade of artisan vendors on the walking street Macedonio Alcala, and the spectacular calendas or parades.
Masked hombre from the Costa Chica reveals himself
Meaning of Guelaguetza
Guelaguetza is an ancient Zapotec community practice that ensures continuity through mutual support. The giving and receiving of gifts and service is a way to equalize relationships and make sure that everyone is cared for via intertwining relationships. Everyone takes their turn to give and receive. It is part of creating mutual respect. As such, no one goes hungry. There is always corn, bread, chocolate and mezcal to share. There is always help when needed. Sharing is embedded in community as a way of life.
Ferocious with mask, horns and horsehair, African roots in Mexico
Most of the dances are choreographed to depict village life, courting practices and the wedding ceremony. In pre-Hispanic times, these dances were employed to signal commitment and betrothal in the community before there were churches and Catholic priests to do European rituals.
Man carries the baule, wedding chest, while others bring wedding gifts
Each region has different customs. There are 16 different language groups in Oaxaca and many dialect variations. People marry who can understand each other linguistically.
Tehuanas from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec display heavily embroidered traje
In the Mixtec region, the language is Mixteco. In the Mixe region, that’s what they speak. In the mountains between Oaxaca and the coast, some speak Chatino. The Zapotecs of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec have very few words in common with the Zapotecs of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca.
Tehuanas weather the storm. By this time, they are soaking wet, as are we.
True Confession: We couldn’t tough it out to stay for the Danza de la Piña. The show producers removed the pineapples from the stage. It was 7:30 p.m. and we had arrived at 3:30 p.m. Time to eat. Off we went to Restaurant La Superior where we had a fine supper of tasajo (grilled beef) and barbacoa (goat).
Tomorrow, I’ll post videos.
Posted in Cultural Commentary
Tagged customs, guelaguetza, guelaguetza meaning, languages, Mexico, Oaxaca, photographs, santa maria del tule, traditions