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The Rich Sounds of Oaxaca: A Primer
Remember your sense of hearing:
They say that in Oaxaca, if you don’t look up while exploring the city, you’ll miss a lot (i.e. centuries-old detailed carvings, moldings and frescoes, trees growing vertically out of the walls, and elaborate roofs). Likewise, if you don’t keep your ear to the ground, your stay in the city won’t be as culturally complete and informative as it could be. Here’s an example of the range of sounds you can hear from car speakers, truck and scooter horns, steam whistles, stereo systems and live bands, and an explanation of what each one means and how to tell them apart.
You don’t have to go to the pueblo to experience the plethora of varied and colorful sounds that in themselves give you a better understanding of life in Oaxaca. Head out of the Centro Histórico by bus or taxi, or just take a long walk, even a kilometer or two past the Periférico and N. Heroes de Chapultepec. I do not mean the constant din of donkeys and dogs, toads, turkeys, roosters and more exotic birds and cattle, but rather man-made articulations. Such sounds inform the townspeople of the proximity of sellers of various goods and services, in terms of religious and secular events, or that a neighbor’s rite of passage is in progress.
Commercial vendors create most of the daily discord on the streets, letting us know what fruits are seasonally cheap, the delicacies that tempt the locals’ palates, and how important it is for Oaxacan people to have their fresh tortillas and other baked goods. The most unusual sound comes from a metal cart driving through the streets, the operator of which sells hot fried plantains with sweet cream and other condiments sprinkled on request…simply delicious and generally “safe” food to eat on the street. Usually during the evenings, the pitch of his steam pipe can be heard, starting with a low tenor and reaching a high screech…unmistakable. At the other end of the spectrum are the tortilla vendors, who often drive through the same neighborhood streets 2-3 times a day, usually in a VW Beetle or on a scooter, announcing their presence to residents by beeping their horns briefly. You can also hear a bread and pastry truck zipping through the streets, with a loudspeaker on top, as the driver listens to the virtues of his bolillos and various pans of dulce. When he’s not so hyped, he has the music blaring, the same songs day after day, so neighbors can identify specific songs with the bake sale. The same pattern of sharing messages between the shouted word and the reproduced music is found with fruit trucks, pickup trucks that sometimes sell simply oranges by the bag of 25, 50, or 100, or in conjunction with other types of citrus, melons, and piñas. a piece or a kilo, a scale loaded in the back of a vehicle, a young associate bagging, weighing and receiving cash. When the voice becomes hoarse, The Beatles, Revolver comes on. We learn a little about culture and economics…the price of gas and labor in relation to selling such perishable goods and the profit margins required; the importance of residents having fresh food; lack of proximity to more traditional retail stores with such offerings; and finally the availability of at least one person in the household throughout the day to make such purchases. Think about what percentage of your neighbors are home all day to welcome such suppliers. In Oaxaca, with the tradition of the extended family and the responsibility of shopping given to quite young children, it is possible for this type of marketing to continue.
Distinctly different sounds are made to announce the arrival of necessities. It is trivial to note the importance of drinking water. Water trucks loaded with 19 liter blue plastic or clear glass bottles patrol every street in every colony several times a day, although sometimes economics may dictate the use of a large tricycle instead of a motor vehicle. The sound one hears is always the same and unmistakable…agua (¡aah-gwaaah!). Almost as often, one can’t help but notice trucks selling propane by the tank, usually in your choice of three sizes…swap empty for full. No human voice is used here, but rather one or more of three familiar signals… the sound of a deep fog horn, the rattle of a chain being dragged down the street, and/or the recorded sound of a cow mooing followed by a tinkling sound. Propane is mainly used in homes for stoves and hot water tanks…no underground oil or natural gas lines…here in Oaxaca we have enough trouble getting the government to just fix the streets and sidewalks and make the tap water a little safer, which we receive. from a broken, antiquated, and inefficient groundwater delivery system—let alone embark on changing the entire fuel delivery system to a subsurface one (although recently downtown sidewalks and streets have been dug up to bury utilities).
Much more often than in the past, residents are choosing to use larger stationary propane tanks that are filled according to a delivery schedule so that these larger single tank propane trucks don’t announce to households that they are on the street. Similarly, the large water carts—which fill cisterns and tinacos for domestic use in addition to drinking—need not signal their presence because they only come to order. But if you’re down when the cow bell signals the garbage truck’s arrival, you’ve missed another week unless you track down the weekly garbage truck for pickup, either that day or another if you know the closest dates and routes.
There are also three types of informational announcements that you may hear on a regular basis. Again, there are merchants who do not sell their wares on the street, but rather inform Oaxacans of bargains or sales through car speakers, such as a supermarket chain promoting products or a pizza franchise that sells a large with two choices, plus two liters of soda for just 100 pesos. The second and perhaps more important type of information residents receive is public service, which consists of local news. Often, when someone dies in the colony, a truck winds through the streets of the neighborhood, advising not only of the passage, but also of the relevant details of mass, burial, and so on.
When there are public works to be completed that the municipal authority does not consider a timely solution within its mandate, the president of the colony can arrange for the work to be done by residents, such as brush clearing. The notice traditionally includes where and when the project will begin, with a request that you arrive ready to work and bring as many picks, shovels, rakes, and wheelbarrows as you have available. When you hear this type of exhortation, you know there is a neighborhood organization that sees part of its duty to pick up where “higher” levels of government left off, or is not prepared to wait for government to get around to setting priorities. residents consider important.
The last type of information your auditory sense picks up on the streets comes from celebrations, testifying to the richness and variety of social life and marking the arrival of an important customary or religious event. Although often some of the action may take place in a hall, church or saloon, in this fiesta-oriented society the celebration includes at least some of the festivities taking place in the streets or at home, or entirely in the local environment. At any time of day or night, it’s not uncommon to hear the blare of a sound system or a live band reverberating through the valley between neighborhoods. There might be a wedding for 400 people, a 50th birthday party, or a quince años (an elaborate celebration when a girl turns 15, similar to a Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish faith) in full swing. Depending on the makeup of the crowd, you might hear deafening rap, hip-hop, or another deep core type of teen-oriented music, or perhaps more traditional cumbia tunes or a mix of contemporary DJ music in one set, followed by live Latin music next. The most modest $100 stereo system can be connected to an amplifier and monster speakers to create a deafening distraction from an otherwise relatively quiet environment. Another type of music we often hear comes from more informal bands that wind their way through the streets as part of religious customs. Just look in any book that lists a number of holy days and other ritual dates and you can pretty well expect to hear the music of a band swaying up and down the streets, fading as the procession winds its way on and growing stronger until it arrives. you. Stop and ask what’s going on. Drink if offered a small cup of mezcal and eat whatever the festivities have to offer.
Follow your ears to the origins of the music and take a peek if you can, no matter how formal or informal the setting may be…you can be welcomed inside and really have an experience to tell people back home about. If you simply “listen to the music,” your Oaxacan experience will be that much richer.
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