FLIGHT WITH LA BRUJA

November 2009 rozinlapaz

Ay que bonito es volar
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
Ay que bonito es volar, ay mama
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly! Oh, Mama)

The start of November is when Mexicans celebrate El Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Step outside after midnight and you just may hear, in the darkness, a “whoooshing” sound overhead. It’s an apt time to encounter La Bruja (The Witch) – a hauntingly beautiful melody with lyrics that mix humor, terror and glee.

La Bruja is a traditional Mexican song that reflects a uniquely Mexican attitude towards death. It is also a dance. The country’s Nobel laureate Octavio Paz talks about the Mexico’s attitude, so different from the somber kid-gloved treatment death receives at the hands of many other cultures: “The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love.”

On Nov. 1 and 2, families visit the graves of loved ones, offer the departed favorite foods and drinks, and build temporary altars. This is a festival for the senses: marigolds and velvety purple coxcombs, candied skulls and fragrant sweet bread with “bones” of dough.

The lyrics of La Bruja are rife with double meanings about a witch who may also be a seductress. The composer is unknown. Salma Hayek sang the song in “Frida,” a film about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. But my favorite version is a duet by Mexican singers Lila Downs (pictured below in red) and Eugenia León (in purple). You can listen to their wonderful duet on YouTube. Go to:

And here are the lyrics of the first few verses:

Ay que bonito es volar
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
Ay que bonito es volar, ay mama
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly! Oh, Mama)

 

Subir y dejarse caer

(To rise and let oneself fall)
En los brazos de una dama
(In the arms of a woman)
En los brazos de una dama
(In the arms of a woman)
Y hasta quisiera llorar, ay mama
(I almost feel like weeping, Oh, Mama)

 

Me agarra la bruja
(The witch grabs me)
Me lleva a su casa
(She takes me to her house)
Me vuelve maceta
(She turns me into a flower pot)
Y una calabaza
(And into a pumpkin)

 

Me agarra la bruja
(The witch grabs me)
Me lleva al cerrito
(She takes me to the hills)
Me vuelve maceta
(She turns me into a flower pot)
Y una calabazito
(And into a little pumpkin)
Ay dígame, ay dígame, ay dígame usted!
(Oh, tell me, Oh tell me, Oh tell me, please!)
¿Cuantas criaturitas se ha chupado usted?
(How many children have you sucked dry)

Ninguna, ninguna, ninguna ¿no ve?
(None, none, none. Don’t you see?)
Que ando en pretensiones de chuparme a usted!
(It is you I intend to suck dry!)

La Bruja is often performed by dancers who float slowly across the stage, each with a lit candle on the head. you can see versions of this dance on YouTube. Here’s one:

Meanwhile, from a Web forum on Mexican folklore, here are a few spooky stories about the possible origin of the dance:

Theory #1: There was a young couple very much in love. The man gets sent away on a ship and the girl is left very sad and despondent. She can’t bear the emptiness in her heart and so she gets into a small rowboat and, with a candle as her only source of light, heads out to the sea to find him. She’s never heard from again. (From Irene Hernandez, director of Grupo Folklorico Sabor de Mexico).

Theory #2: In Mexican tradition, the presence of witches is related to the appearance of fire balls floating in the air, and thus the women dance with a lit candle on their heads. The slowness of the dance (allowing the dresses to be still) makes them look like they are floating on air.

Theory #3: The song makes reference to the drumming sounds coming in from the ocean. During the time of the slave trades some Africans would beat on the walls of the ships, as drums, for their religious purposes. These beats were carried over the ocean and the peoples on the shore thought it was some witchcraft or a bad sign coming in from the ocean.

Part of the fun of Web research is getting sidetracked. Looking for information on La Bruja led me down a few Internet side alleys. For those who want to do some exploring, here are interesting links I stumbled across:

The real Frida Kahlo Video: It’s a fragment of a documentary from The History Channel Español that uses footage from her life. The accompanying music is the lovely song, Esa Noche (This Night), by the group Café Tacuba:

Salma Hayek singing in the movie Frida: Here you’ll find video of Hayek practising La Bruja in the studio and of her performing in the film:

Singers Eugenia León and Lila Downs: If you enjoyed their performance of La Bruja, you can learn more about these Mexican divas from the Web. YouTube is a rich source of other performances by both singers. And you will find songs and biographical information by googling their names.

(originally posted November 2009)

CHILE OF DESIRE

September 2009 rozinalapz

When you bite into a Chile en Nogada, you get a taste of Mexican history and legend. This is the dish that bewitched the wedding guests in Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate.

The chiles not only looked good, they were indeed delicious — never before had Tita done such a marvelous job with them.

In the novel, the first wedding guest to react to the chiles in walnut sauce “immediately  recognized the heat in her limbs, the tickling sensation in the center of her body, the naughty thoughts, and she decided to leave with her husband before things went too far. When she left, the party started to break up.” All the other chile-eating guests quickly made their excuses , throwing heated looks at each other, and left. Everyone was in a hurry to make mad, passionate love.

The platters of chiles proudly wear the colors of the Mexican flag: the green of the chiles, the white of the nut sauce, the red of the pomegranates.

FEAchilesAccording to some historians, the dish that Esquival cast as an aphrodisiac was, in fact, invented in the 1800s by nuns in the town of Puebla. It was August 1821 and pomegranates were in season. The military commander Augustin de Iturbide had just signed the Treaty of Cordoba, granting Mexico its independence from Spain. He was travelling from Veracruz to Mexico City, and planned to stop in Puebla, where there would be a feast in his honour. The Augustinian nuns of Santa Monica Convent created a special dish in the colours of the Mexican flag: green chiles, white walnut sauce and red pomegranates.

Nowadays, Chiles en Nogada are served in September, the month Mexicans celebrate Independence Day. It’s not an easy dish to prepare,  but if you’re determined to try, google “chiles en nogada”  and “recipes.” Take your pick from the dozens of variations listed.

Or look for this dish on the menu at restaurants around town this month. One likely location is El Zarape, which specializes in traditional dishes. It’s at 3450 México street (between Oaxaca and Nayarit).

The last word goes to the magic storytelling of Laura Esquivel:

“The chiles disappeared in the blink of an eye. How long ago it seemed that Tita had felt like a chile in nut sauce left sitting on the platter out of etiquette, for not wanting to look greedy. Tita wondered whether the fact that there was not a single chile left on the platters was a sign that good manners had been forgotten or that the chiles were indeed splendid.”

(originally posted September 2009)

 

WITNESS TO HISTORY

FEAcasasolas1August 2009 rozinlapaz

It is a compelling, enigmatic image of the Mexican Revolution. The woman sits on the train tracks, stares into the camera’s lens. She’s dressed in men’s clothing. Her arms are filled with what look like branches. Behind her, there’s a crowd, most faces concealed in shadow.

The date of the photograph is 1915. The caption reads: “This woman, nicknamed La Destroyer, was famous for helping those who had fallen in battle to die a more rapid and less painful death.”

This photo is from the Casasola Archive, a collection of close to 500,000 images that document the history and culture of modern Mexico. The archive is the work of hundreds of photographers, but the cardinal figure is Agustín Víctor Casasola.

FEAcasasolas1Casasola is among the most important photojournalists of the 20th Century. He and the photographers who worked for his press agency took pictures of everybody: ordinary Mexicans and the famous, alike. They recorded Porfirio Díaz at the end of his 30-year reign; revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa in moments of triumph, and death; artistic and intellectual figures such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and exiled Russian Leon Trotsky.

FEAcasasolas2Here’s where you can learn more about the photographer and his pictures: Mexico: the Revolution and Beyond is a magnificent coffee-table book published by Aperture in cooperation with the Mexican government’s CONACULTA INAH. An excellent introduction by Peter Hamill puts the photographs into historical context. The ISBN number for the hardcover English edition published in 2003 is 1-931788-22-7.

Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution by Mexican journalist and novelist Elena Poniatowska is a slim English-language paperback crammed with fascinating stories, accompanied by Casasola’s photographs, about the women who travelled with the revolutionary armies and often fought alongside their men. Allende Books, La Paz’s English-language bookstore, has copies in stock. Allende Books is at Independencia #518, between Serdan and G. Prieto. Phone number: 612-125-9114.

(originally published August 2009)