Reflections

I’m so glad I agreed to accompany the Bi-Co Chamber Singers to Mexico on their tour.  My research is based in Mexico– it’s a place I go regularly and I even lived and worked in Mexico City for three years before coming to Haverford.  I knew I would enjoy being in Mexico with the group, but I didn’t know how much I would learn.

As a (relatively) new faculty member, I especially appreciated the chance to learn about my colleagues and their work.  It’s so easy to be focused on my own courses and research that– honestly– I might otherwise not ever have had a conversation with Tom Lloyd about chamber singers.  I’m so glad that wasn’t the case.  I’m very impressed at the opportunity he created for his students; it takes hundreds of hours of planning and a true, gracious, flexibility to make a tour of that size go so well.  Kudos to Tom!

I also got to see a different side of the students than I normally see.  I was so impressed with their true willingness to engage– to engage with the students at the UNAM, to engage with the language, the music, the dance, and even the food (though sometimes the culinary adventurousness was accidental!)

I’m grateful to have shared the time and experiences in Mexico with these colleagues, students, and new Mexican friends.  Thank you for including me and welcoming me.  (To all the students– if you’re ever in Stokes, feel free to swing by my office and say hi!  It would be great to see you.  And you might even consider taking a linguistics class some day…)

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Faculty co-leaders Jim Krippner and Brook Lillehaugen
leading the gang through the park on the way to
the Anthropology Museum.

 

Chamber Singers Mexico Tour

It has been a real privilege to share the Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges Chamber Singers Mexico Tour! I was amazed by the way that our students communicated with audiences and with their peers from UNAM. Since I lack a musical background I was not aware of the extent of the learning that goes on in rehearsals and performances. It was a pleasure to watch our students grow in confidence as they negotiated Mexico. I hope the friendships they made continue to develop now that they have returned to the United States. The effort they made to learn songs in Nahuatl and Purépecha as well as in Spanish genuinely touched the Mexican audiences. Our students served as outstanding ambassadors in both Mexico City and Morelia. I was proud to be a part of this trip, which definitely enhanced the images of the United States as well as of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges in Mexico.

Friday – our last full day in Mexico

Today began for most of us with a trip to the Artisan’s Craft Market, a 20-minute walk from La Casa.  We arrived a little early, so many of us went across the street to the impressive new national library, including rooms for the private libraries of important Mexican intellectuals, each with it’s own imaginative design and space for reading and study.  Both the vast atrium spaces and small library spaces had a quiet presence about them conducive to thought and reflection, not unlike the cathedrals we had visited.

The artisan’s market itself was full of booths for individual craftspersons in wood, weaving, silver jewelry, guitars, hats, and every other kind of folk art object imaginable at a higher quality than available on the street but for very reasonable prices.

A highlight of the morning was meeting Brook Lillehaugen’s friend and her daughter from her time studying in Mexico, who came three hours by bus to visit with Brook.  We thought this merited a special reward, and so we serenaded the mother and little girl in the middle courtyard of the market, drawing attention from other shoppers as well.

Our tours always end with a farewell banquet – this year we were incredibly fortunate to have the banquet hosted for us by bi-co alums Bob and Edith de Kostes at the beautifully preserved colonial Hotel de Cortez near the Alemade park not far from La Casa.  We had the whole courtyard to ourselves, shared a delicious meal at a long table set with linen and crystal, bringing Bob and Edith up to day on all things Haverford and Bryn Mawr.  After a serenade for Edith from our Bryn Mawr students and for Bob from our six Humtones on the tour, the choir went to the center of the atrium and formed a circle with Edith, Bob, Jim, and Brook joining us in the circle as a special thank you, to sing several of our songs…..as usual, one wasn’t enough – it was the kind of special moment that can only come at the end of the tour when everyone feels a sense of collective gratitude and joy for the time we shared with each other and the wonder at all we had experienced.

The evening finished as it had on the Friday night of our arrival – with watching a group of about 100 dancers and two drummers teaching each other Aztec dances in the shadow of the Monument to the Revolution, just a couple blocks from the Casa – only this time, several of our crew had the confidence to join in – an appropriate symbol for where we had come in a week after full immersion in the life of this vibrant and historic city.

Thursday – Anthropology Museum and Radio Interview

Today was our day to visit the extensive and beautifully displayed collection of the National Anthropology Museum.  We were reminded again that the most advanced and complex variety of early civilizations in the Western hemisphere are found in Mexico.  We had a more circuitous walk than planned because there was a event with the president of Mexico going on in the park at the same time – but the park itself was a fascination journey through a vibrant street life – here are my co-leaders Jim Krippner (history) and Brook Lillehaugen (linguistics) leading us through:

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I also visited the UNAM classical radio station with students Isabel Gross and Robin Banerji for an interview about the tour with our host conductor Ana Patricia Carbajal.  I was so proud of them not only for their Spanish fluency, but for their confidence and how articulate they were in this setting.  The show was broadcast live throughout Mexico City and will be posted as a podcast soon.

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Coyoacan and an impromptu “jam” with the UNAM singers

Internet and wi-fi access have been very spotty the last two days, so I’m afraid I haven’t been able to upload as many photos and videos as I had hoped to, but we have lots of great stuff in the pipeline! (There is a new video posted on yesterday’s blog from our Morelia concert).  Today we left Morelia after singing a fond farewell on the bus to Gerardo Cardenas, the wonderful children’s choir director who had arranged such an unforgettable visit and concert for us in this historic city.

We had the bus take us directly to Coyoacan, once an independent city but now an outer suburb of Mexico City and the home of the Frida Kahlo Museum, where the iconic artist and her husband, painter Diego Rivera, lived for 30 years.  The art, artifacts, house, and gardens were completely entrancing to all, and provoked extended discussion in the garden before we left (photos to come).

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We then walked a few blocks to the music school of UNAM to meet with our friends from the CELE and Karita choirs.  We weren’t quite sure how the session would develop – we had already rehearsed and performed all our repertoire together – but we ended up singing together for another two hours before going off to dinner together, followed by a very extended farewell outside the bus (they wanted us to just transfer to UNAM!).  More details and video to follow about the singing session – they asked me to do some warm-ups, which turned into a mini-session on the Estill Voice Training techniques I have adapted for the Chamber Singers – we were in a very resonant rehearsal room, so the sound of 60 voices opening up together was quite a wonderful thing.  We then sand Balaju with Gabriela Franco again, but this time with the student “Son” dancer (Mexican flamenco) who danced a solo at out Sunday concert teaching us all the steps ourselves.  Then we taught the UNAM choir “Ain’t got time to die” without music, lining out one part at a time, and then adding the “ring sha’wt” circular dance movement.

I thought that everyone would want to move on to something else at that point, but the students all wanted to keep singing – so we did the Spiritual we performed in concert again (In his Care-O), this time with the ring sha’wt movement, and then sang La Adelita again with Ana Patricia Carbajal, this time with much more animation and some choreography.  After this, we went off to dinner together in Coyoacan until final farewells and group poses at the town square before heading back to La Casa on our chartered bus for the night at 11.

A visit to a remarkable colonial city

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Today (Tuesday, November 14) we took our overnight trip to Morelia, a beautifully preserved colonial capitol with a historic cathedral at its center.  It will take a while to get the photos and videos uploaded, but keep checking back to see more throughout the week (I just added a video of short excerpts from our performance at La Casa Sunday afternoon to that earlier post).

The drive to Morelia gave us the chance to see the beautiful and quite varied countryside of Morelia along a modern super highway that wove through mountains covered with pines and beautiful stretches of farmland and lakes.  The town of Morelia itself is truly stunning and the experience of singing our Renaissance pieces (Mexican and English) in the historic Cathedral where they would have been sung centuries ago was a highlight of the trip:

We were given a tour of the city on an open bus that ended with a rain cloud dropping some heavy drops of rain that eventually caused us to go underneath to the lower level of the double decker but that let up in time for us to walk to the Ocampo Theater just a block away from our hotel.  The children were already dressed in their concert outfits and were a little shy at first – but as you can see from the rehearsal clip below, a little bit of singing together and our laughter together couldn’t be contained:

The concert itself was a ticketed concert arranged by our host, Collegium Musicum of Morelia founding director Gerardo Cárdenas.  As a gift to us he used the proceeds of the concert to pay for the hotel rooms of the students who chose not to do the home stays he also arranged.  The atmosphere was electric as people from the city entered the concert hall, and the performance itself was clearly our best.  Gifts of t-shirts (designed by our Ben Weissman), and flowers, and books, and many other beautiful things from the Morelia choir were exchanged at the end.

There is so much more to say, but the bus leaves back for Mexico City in a few minutes – please do check back to this post for videos of our singing at the Cathedral and in the concert itself.

Mexico today and long ago

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The pyramids of Teotihuacan are impressive when you see photos and read about the history, but experiencing them in person is beyond description.  That a site originating over two millennia ago still has such a massive physical presence, such a highly-imagined plan of ceremonial and domestic spaces, and even painted wall murals that have only recently been restored gives us the opportunity to step out of our fast-paced digitally-connected world into a time where human beings just like us lived in an entirely different way.  As time passes so quickly in our lives it is a significant stretch of imagination to put ourselves back in that time so long ago and yet still continuous with ours.

But it was a joyful as well as awe inspiring afternoon, as you can see from the pictures above and the video (soon to be loaded) below.  We started our day very much in our own time, with a specially arranged meeting with Edgar Ramirez, the director of Homeland Security for the US Embassy in Mexico.  We walked to the Benjamin Franklin Library, an extension of the embassy. It was especially heartening for me to see the students from Chamber Singers and the students from the Migration Seminar fall into small groups to discuss migration issues among themselves, becoming even more animated as the start of the meeting was delayed because Mr. Ramirez was delayed at the Embassy.

When I greeted him at the door at 10:50, he apologized and said he would need to leave at 11:15, but he ended up staying until noon!  His answers to a variety of questions from the students were detailed and informative both from what he said and what he didn’t say on some issues.  But whether the students found his answers completely satisfying or not, they were impressed by the dedication and intelligence of this career boarder patrol officer who had come up through the ranks to this leadership role (he was clearly not a political appointee with an ideological agenda).

 

 

Concert with the Kárites Choir at Palacio Museum

Sunday was a very special day, starting with a performance at one of Mexico City’s most magnificent museums with a Mexican women’s choir whose movement and dancing were as stunning as their singing.  We sang to a capacity audience of 350 (many more were not allowed in once the capacity was reached, including Haverford’s own Prof. of Spanish Aurelia Gomez, who nevertheless stayed to share lunch with us in her home city.

The Kárites Choir was directed by Gabriela Franco, who also danced with the ensemble and sang a beautiful solo.  The highlight of the concert was sharing a performance of the Mexican song “Balaju” with both choirs and one of the Kárites performers featured as a Mexican-flamenco dancer in a dazzling white dress (I’m hoping to upload a video tomorrow).  We brought them back to do Balaju as our final encore so we could share the stage at the end.

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I think many of our students were surprised not only by the size and enthusiasm of the audience, but how attentive they were and appreciative of not only our Mexican songs and the spirituals, but the more formal settings at the beginning of the concert.

After the concert we had some free time on the Madero pedestrian shopping boulevard before heading back to help shop and cook for the monthly community dinner at La Casa.  The students really got into the food preparation and enjoyed talking with some of the supporters and constituents of this remarkable community.

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Our performance at the end of the dinner was much less formal than earlier in the day, but a very special and personal one in many ways.  Our audiences have been very responsive to the Spanish-language introductions to different parts of the program by students Isabel Gross, Robin Banerji, and Damon Motz-Storey – but on this occasion their ability to speak spontaneously in a second language without notes really began to take off.

Singing “A Quiet Place” in La Casa, where so many people fleeing violence and turmoil have been sheltered made the words especially moving: “There is a quiet place far from the rapid pace where I can soothe my troubled mind….whether a garden small [like the courtyard at La Casa] or on a mountain tall new strength and courage there I find..”   I hope to be able to load some photos and videos of moments of this special event soon.