Sunday, January 30, 2011

From Oaxaca to LA: Booming Banda Philharmonic

Olga García Echeverría

Banda music in the seven regions of Oaxaca rules. Whether at weddings, funerals, baptisms, first communions, quinceañeras, or annual Guelaguetzas, banda music is the beating heart of every town and every town festivity. It’s music that’s super-winded and oh, so alegre. Te jala de la mano. Te sacude lo gringo. Te cura de celulares y computadores. Sones y jarabes. It’s music that waltzes, and then de repente brinca, salta, da vueltas, zapatea. Cada pieza se va acabando, se va acabando, and just when you think que se acabo, vuelve a surgir de nuevo. It’s music full of swirling faldas, swinging trenzas, dancing piñas, men, women and children whirling colorful handkerchiefs above their heads as if saluting the sky. It’s music that’s traveled down from mountainous pueblos, from the edge of the Oaxacan coast, from the deep inlands. It has traversed centuries of conquest and resistance, crossed rivers, cities, state lines, and now even high-security border zones. Undetained, the music va cruzando, va volando, va llegando.

Ya llego.

Meet La Banda Juvenil de Santiago Comaltepec, made up of Oaxaca's next generation of músicos (this side of the border). Last week, I got a chance to talk with Estanislao Maqueos Lorenzo, founder and musical director of the band. Estanislao shared that when he migrated to the U.S. ten years ago, he brought his love of traditional Oaxacan music with him. At the time, he was happy to see there were many Oaxacan bandas in Los Angeles, but they all consisted of adults. Maqueos, who began playing his first instrument at the age of 8, wanted to do something different--form a band where Oaxacan children and young adults could develop a stronger sense of self by learning to appreciate, play, and pass on traditional music from Oaxaca.

In 2002 he formed his first musical group, Banda Juvenil Solaga USA-Oaxaca, and then in 2005 he formed La Banda Juvenil de Santiago Comaltepec. Two years later he also founded the Maqueos Music Academy, a modest, yet charming school located in mid-city Los Angeles on Washington Blvd. Despite harsh economic times, Maqueos says he thrives on the mission of his work. “La música es el alma de un pueblo. Estos estudiantes estan aprendiendo más sobre sus raices y más sobre las costumbres de sus padres y abuelos. Queremos que conozcan su cultura y que se sientan seguros y orgullosos.”

When I visited Maqueos Music recently, I couldn't help but notice the numerous egg cartons tacked onto the upper part of the walls. Affordable insulation, Maqueos explained. As I sat down in one of the many folding chairs, taking note of the cool, geometric designs formed by the egg cartons, a few students trickled in, each setting up a music stand and commencing individual practice. It was a low-key session at Maqueos Music that day, but don’t let that or the egg cartons fool you. In the past ten years, Maqueos’ bandas have accompanied such musical greats as Lila Downs, Susana Harp, and Lorenzo Negrete. This past December, the band also completed two volumes of traditional music, Banda Filarmónica Guelaguetza Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Not all of Maqueos' students are on the CD or in the philharmonic band, of course. Maqueos explained that his curriculum consists of 6 lesson books. When a student has completed and mastered the first two, the student can then join the band. This serves as a constant motivator for new or developing students. The school, Maqueos clarified, is also not just for children or Oaxaqueños. "Cualquier persona que quiera aprender a leer y practicar música es bienvenida."

Here are a couple of students I briefly chatted with during my visit at Maqueos Music Academy.

Kate López, 8 years old, plays the clarinet and she’s been taking music lessons for the past two years. “I take classes because it looks fun and you get to go places and show the world what you like to do. It makes me feel good because every time I pass a lesson I feel excited.” When I asked Kate why she thinks learning traditional music from Oaxaca is important, she said, “When I invite my grandparents to see me play, I can see they enjoy it very much. I can see it in their faces. It makes me proud.” She also extended a warm invitation to all our Bloga readers, "If you would like to start music, you can just come here with us and start music."

Miguel, on the right, has been playing in the band for the past four months. I wish I would've taken a picture of his cool purple shoes. He was warm, but a little shy as I asked several questions. “I like that my friends are here,” he said to sum up what he enjoys most about attending Maqueos Music Academy. Then he gave me that leave-me-alone-lady look, so I did.
Max Juarez, on the left, has been with the band for two years. “Being in the band keeps me occupied. I’d rather be doing this than anything else. It’s a good experience to practice music. It’s something everyone should do.”

17-year-old Liliana Velasco, who is on the CD, shared that music is everything to her. Aside from playing the clarinet at Maqueos Music, she plays the violin and sax at her school. "If I don’t have music, I’m nothing. I love music. It’s my life." About her roots and the type of music she is playing, she said, "I’m Oaxaqueña and that’s my religion. I’m proud of that. In the future, I may go back to my pueblo. I'm not sure. Maybe have a school so I can teach people and kids who want learn. No matter what I still want to continue with music."

13-years-old Yulissa Maqueos is another passionate musician. She’s been studying music for the past 7 years, and the clarinet for the past 3. I also got to see her in action as she conducted one of the band's practices. I think Gustavo Dudamel would be impressed. “Since my dad’s the teacher, I feel very happy,” she shares. “As banda members we get to visit different places, meet new friends and enjoy the music we play. I feel like it’s us making our pueblo a little more well-known. It shows where we are from and the different taste we have in music.” About her future goals, Yulissa states, “As a musician, I want to be a professional. I’m planning on going to college and getting my Masters degree in music.”

We chatted a bit about the power of music and how it crosses borders. “Those who play this music want to make our pueblo proud. Even if you don’t have papers, you can work hard and be proud.” When asked what her thoughts on current anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation, Yulissa had these words, “I think it’s unfair. Mostly what the US is made up of is immigrants and they do a lot of the hard work. It’s unfair that they don’t have the same rights as citizens.”

And this is Erre and Edward, the cutest (I mean cuuuuuutest) Oaxacan duo ever! Erre, who is 3 years old, just laughed at any question I tried to ask. When I asked Edward how he felt about being in the music school, he cracked me up with his candidness when he said, “Boooooooring! I wanna go home and play basketball outside with my friends, but sometimes I have to practice.” Still, he ran and got his horn and started playing for me when I took out my camera. His younger brother Erre quickly rushed to get his flute and jumped into the picture. Later, I saw Edward jamming on the drums with his fellow band members. It was boom! Clap! Clank! Crash! Vibration galore. Oh Gustavo (Dudamel that is), you gotta see this.

You can support these young musicians and Maqueos Music school by purchasing their CDs (see info below) or book them for an event or a party. Or if you or anyone you know wants to learn to play an instrument, visit the school and take some lessons.

Maqueos Music Academy
2142 W. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90018
(323) 944-4947

Monday- Thursday: 9-11 AM & 4-9 PM.
Fridays: Band Practice
Saturday & Sunday: 8-10 AM & 10-12PM.