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Friday, December 5, 2003

++ Early Reflections on MUTEK México

++ As any musician can tell you, going on tour gives you a skewed perspective on place. Counterculture types like to make fun of traveling salesmen for their disconnectedness to the world around them. But once you swap out the accoutrements — The Wire magazine instead of John Grisham, a funky-smelling sweatshirt instead of the rumpled suit, a bottle of smuggled pills in place of the hip-flask of Jack Daniels — their paths begin to look much the same, and their perspective of the world is filtered, for better or worse, through the windows of planes, buses, and taxis. You can add writers to the musicians' camp (although in my case, my sweatshirt doesn't smell so bad, and my pills are limited to Sudafed, in the vain hope of sparing my hotel roommates my snoring).

I'm traveling across Mexico with a delegation of artists from Montreal's MUTEK festival as they play a series of dates in three cities here. Yesterday we left Mexico City after three very long nights and days there; today we're in Guadalajara for a spell, and come Friday we're off to Tijuana.

What have I seen? To be honest, it gets hard to remember, and the handwriting in my backpacked notebook gets worse every day. Mainly, though, the tally consists of the interiors of a number of hotel rooms (never for as long as I'd have liked, to be honest — at least, not with my eyes closed), more cabs and vans than I'd like to count, a handful of galleries and museums, several top-notch restaurants reveling in full dilapidated glory, and one dance club where stone-faced bouncers checked every crevice of our backpacks and DJ bags — apparently they used to have a little gun problem there. Mexico City, after all.

To be sure, the tour's had its disappointments. The MUTEK contingent's performances — a range of laptop techno, battered ambiance, and audio-visual flare from the likes of Akufen, Deadbeat, Tim Hecker, Skolts Kogen, Egg, Champion, The Mole, Mike Shannon, and guest Sutekh — were roundly impressive, a measure of the state of Montreal's electronic music community and its rapid evolution. But in Mexico City, at least, it was difficult to get a fix on the state of the art here. A 19-year-old named Plug turned out a promising set of minimal techno that hinted at affinities with Dimbiman, and Manrico Montero, Arthur Henry Fork, and Ghiz tapped microsound's global energy in their own sets of click, drone, and noise. But from other performers, whose identities blurred in a fizz of digital buzz, there were sub-par ambient excursions and adequate but hardly innovative takes on minimal techno. It's premature for me to make a definitive take on Mexico City's electronic music scene — while there I was handed a number of CDs, some highly recommended by trusted sources — but for a city of 20-something million people, there appeared to be less activity than previous reports had led me to believe. The final all-night party, featuring a dozen Montreal artists and seven from Mexico, attracted only a thousand or so people.

++ In the end, though, maybe my disappointment is more personal, stemming from a strange sense of in-betweenness. I travel a lot — South Africa three weeks ago, New York after that, Portland, Ore. and Chile coming up in January — but this business of following the music has me slipping through countries like a sneaky kid skipping over turnstyles. Between the clubs and Internet cafés, I miss out on the cities themselves, and in the attempt to soak up a few drops of culture — while mopping off a forehead slick with jetlag, long hours of preparation, and a few too many micheladas — the music wisps away as soon as the laptops are shut and the lights go up.

Or maybe I'm just stymied by the totalizing urge — the desire to pull together a story that encompasses Mexico City's dilapidated glory, gun-toting bodyguards, divine servings of garlic soup, artists accidentally dosed with E-tainted bottled water, long conversations with local contacts like the sound operator who recounted tales of field-recording expeditions in the '70s, on which he visited rural villages to document their age-old sounds, slept on dirt floors and took peyote with the inhabitants. Now he could tell a tale. For me, maybe it's just too much, too soon; perhaps the instantaneousness of digital photos and Internet communications fools us into thinking we can process everything immediately. Maybe I just need to get off this keyboard and drink another michelada.


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