May 15, 2002



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Mexican dictionary

THE FIRST THING I saw when I hit the curb outside the Mexico City airport was two bodyguards in beige suits flying out of the doors of a tinted-window Suburban. Doors slammed, traffic stopped, horns blared, and they ran up to the front of another Suburban that had just pulled up right behind them. They folded their arms as a groomed and chiseled telenovela star made his way from the car into the terminal. Once he was safely delivered, more doors slammed, and the Suburbans pulled away, just two more luxury tanks for personal hire merging into the mess of the Mexico City auto crunch.

It was the perfect introduction to a city that runs on the energy of its own sensory overload. Mexico City is pure sound and vision, a screeching and choked cloud of smog and hot cement that's all eyes and ears. Nothing happens there – from assassinations and robberies to street-corner fresh-fruit blending and poet cabdrivers spewing verse while changing lanes – that doesn't make either a scene or a noise.

Many cities could role-play as one of Italo Calvino's famous "invisible cities" – magical and mysterious wonderlands of underground labyrinths and hidden infrastructures – but Mexico City is not one of them. It is, instead, a visible city, an outward city, a city of endless and ecstatic exteriors where everything, even its secrets and undergrounds and masked realities, can be seen.

So much so that a group of Mexico City artists has created a "graphic dictionary" of the city: ABC DF, a book of 2,000 photographs divided up between 250 A-to-Z alphabetical word listings. The result is, like the city itself, overwhelming and impossible to register and index with one pair of eyes.

I could tell you about the stacked towers of wooden food crates or the fat, chopped root of a giant palm tree wedged into the side of a building. I could tell you about the hanging meat, the hair-flips of girl bangs, the rusting vans, the airbrushed taxi-door art, the lines of tuxedoed waiters, the quinceañera portraits, the Tlaloc stone statues, the bleach-blond fresa posing in front of stuffed goats and bears. And I could tell you about glowing clouds and electric skies and white linens hanging luminescently in the afternoon sun. But it would miss the main pleasure effect of ABC DF: the feeling of opening your eyes and being confronted with immensity, accumulation, and multiplicity, of opening your eyes and being asked to visualize the infinite.

"Mexico City is the choreography of the unemployed at stoplights," one of ABC DF's accompanying texts reads, "it is a theater of ubiquitous stages, it is the crowding of bodies in the Metro, it is the historical depository of smells and tastelessness."

Unbelievably, this is where Jack Kerouac went to find Buddhist silence and inner beat peace back in the '50s. In the poetry cycle he wrote about his stay, Mexico City Blues, he said he wanted to hear "the silence you hear inside the emptiness that's there everywhere." The only radio he wanted to tune into played "the music of the uninhabited spheres."

What he got instead was what he called "aztec radio," a street broadcast full of thick sounds and inescapable noises like the scraping of chairs, the clanging of iron pot lids, and the grating of dimes on ice. Even the most quiet of Mexico City neighborhoods (try La Condesa just before the city breaks for lunch) has a daily soundscape of audio announcements: the high whistle of bicycle-riding knife sharpeners, the train whistle of platanos vendors, the bell of the garbage collector, the morning pounding of drummers looking for donations.

That everyday clatter – some of which shows up on ABC DF's companion CD-ROM – also runs throughout Nuevo, Kronos Quartet's new avant-classical tour of Mexican music past and present. Mexico City street noise – the horns of passing cars, the "veinte, veinte" shouts of peso-questing hustlers – is what ties the record together. It connects their roaring, fuzzed-out take on Severiano Briseno's "El sinaloense" to compositions as varied as Alberto Dominguez's classic "Perfidia" (which features Carlos Garcia blowing the swooning chorus on a "musical leaf") and Café Tacuba's electro-folkloric Mexican raga "12/12." The best use of found Mexican sound, though, comes when Kronos transform the rural lull of "Cuatro milpas" by splicing a studio organillo into organillo street recordings until we're left with a chorus that sounds more like the chaos of blaring car horns.

Kronos don't think of Nuevo as an audio dictionary of Mexico or even of Mexico City. But listening to it can produce an effect similar to flipping through ABC DF, a kind of aural vertigo that sends you reeling on a era-hopping road trip from Ensenada down to Veracruz that asks you to flow from Chalino Sanchez's gangsta norteño into Juan Garcia Esquivel's skirt-chasing lounge without forgetting who you are.

It works because Kronos don't treat Mexico as a country with music. They treat Mexico as a country that is music, and by playing what they hear, they make all that accumulation, all that infinity, far easier to face.

E-mail Josh Kun at