Thursday, 1 February 2007
Welcome to the Jungle
Owen Powell – 1st February 2007
I arrived too early at Battersea Square. I’d been here the week before to see Alejandro Garcia Gonzalez and his band, Alejandro Garcia Sound System, play to a packed crowd at BarRio, but now it was nearly eleven in the morning, the square was deserted and BarRio – where we’d agreed to meet – was shut.
I went on a time-killing wander down to the river, took a photo of a helicopter landing at Battersea’s riverside helipad (we’re opposite Chelsea and its billionaires – more of that later in the day) and got back in time to meet Alejandro. He was wrapped up warm today – last week he had arrived at the gig wearing a leather pork pie hat which he promptly popped on my head as Milena (see no. 30) introduced us. Now we sported woollier hats, scarves and gloves, but BarRio remained shut so we stood around outside chatting while we waited for Milena to join us.
Alejandro talked a bit about the gig and his style of music. While he has Mexican influences, he also looks to other cultures for inspiration. (This band is only one of his musical projects, and is what he describes as ‘Latin American Jazz’, a bit of bossa nova, a bit of Spanish guitar.) I mentioned that Mexican cinema in particular is making a bit of a splash globally at the moment, with directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu producing multi-layered, fragmentary and frequently quite bleak films.* It appears that these three adjectives might also be a fair representation of Mexican society as a whole. “Mexico is seven countries in one,” Alejandro explained. “It is not united. There are many problems, political problems. We have a new president, but still the old problems. Nothing really changes.” One of his other musical projects has the ironic name ‘Another Death Poet’, and is dark music, almost film score music, using lots of synthesisers and produced on computers in his bedroom. He’s spent a lot of time on it during the winter in London when the evenings are dark and cold, and he stays inside. The name is a reference to the constant threat in Mexico that intellectuals might just sometimes ‘disappear’. In the 1970s, when he was growing up, 25 students from a nearby area disappeared.
BarRio was steadfastly refusing to open, which was a shame as its owner, Daniel, was from Monterrey, like Alejandro. Not only the same town, it turns out, but the same quarter – and not only the same quarter, but the same street. Alejandro couldn’t believe it when he found out, and didn’t really remember Daniel, who’s a few years older. “But,” he smiled, “I do remember his sisters …”
Music and art run throughout Alejandro’s life. His mother was a painter, and he teaches painting in London and back in Mexico, encouraging the kids to dip their hands in paint and splatter it all over canvases on the wall. In 2005, he spent some time making videos with Picasso – so called because his front resembled an abstract painting after he had had a fight with a shark. Picasso, I should make clear, is a dolphin who lives in Cancun. After several weeks working at the dolphin sanctuary, Alejandro wrote a song for them and played it with their trainers looking on. The trainers all cried – Alejandro had sneakily written the song from the point of view of a dolphin who longs for the freedom of the sea.
This encapsulates Alejandro’s attitude to art – there is no point in doing it if it doesn’t change things. His work tends to have a sharp political (or, more recently, environmental) edge. One of his favourite paintings plays with the myth of the founding of Mexico City (or Tenochtitlan, as it then was). A prophecy had told the Aztecs to build their city when they found an eagle sitting on a cactus, eating a snake. This was found, the city was built, then, a few centuries later the Spanish arrived, destroyed it, and built Mexico City on the ruins. The eagle and snake still appear on the Mexican flag today, but in Alejandro’s painting the snake reaches up to turn on the eagle, devouring it – the corruption, the self-destruction of the capital city.
Alejandro is getting more and more interested in the ancient history of his country. Milena stumbled across him in the ruins of a Mayan temple in the middle of a Mexican jungle, in November 2005. It was only in that year that Alejandro himself had travelled far enough into Mexico to come face to face with this amazing evidence of his country’s previous inhabitants. Monterrey is in the north, and is very Spanish – the remains of Mayan culture are mainly found in the south-east of Mexico. The modern Mexican artists whose work Alejandro most admires, the mural painter Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo) and David A Siqueiros – unknown in Europe – were producing their most iconic pieces in the 1950s, just as the Mayan murals and artworks were being discovered, and Alejandro sees strong echoes of the vibrancy and power of these earlier works in the twentieth century. Just by chance, I had in my bag a pack of photos I had taken of a mural on the side of a building in Cable Street, commemorating the events of 1936 as Mosley’s fascists were prevented from marching into the East End by a loose affiliation of Jews, communists and trade unionists. As we sipped our coffees, I passed the photos round and Alejandro gave the mural the once over. “I think it looks a bit Mexican,” I hesitantly began, basing my comment on little more than having watched the film ‘Frida’ with Rachel a year and a half ago. “The colours, the faces of the characters, the way the scenes all whirl together.” Alejandro nodded – it had passed the test. However, he suggested I should travel to Mexico to see some real murals as soon as I could. This is the trouble with doing this project – my list of potential holiday destinations is getting longer and longer.
After meeting Milena, he joined her in London in May 2006, and played his first gig two days after landing. Within a few weeks, Milena had whisked him off to Bulgaria to take part in the annual festival she helps organise. This time, his first appearance in a new country was not so auspicious – one morning he woke with intense stomach pains and went straight to A&E. While waiting to be seen, writhing around on a hospital bed, he watched two surgeons in bloody uniforms relax with a quick smoke and a game of chess, as Welcome To The Jungle played at full volume to drown out the screams of the other patients. Alejandro’s operation, to remove his appendix, went well, although he was slightly disturbed to come round from his anaesthetic to discover the doctors had written ‘666’ on his forearm in marker pen. It took a while to work out they weren’t accusing him of being Satan, it was just a way to remind them that he’d had his operation on the 6th June 2006. So, just to make things worse, he’s not able to drink during the World Cup that begins three days later. Nor can he swim, with a load of stitches and dressings attached to his stomach, which is a problem when you’re sitting by a pool and two naked girls are inviting you to join them for a quick splash around. (Milena helpfully chips in at this point that the festival was also about fashion, so there were lots of models about). In a fit of anger and irony and possibly surrealism, Alejandro produces an autobiographical painting for the festival showing him with his appendix being removed, an appendix in the shape of (and labelled, to make things clearer) Bulgaria.
The music and painting are an ongoing project. He and Milena are putting on a joint exhibition of paintings at the Bulgarian Embassy on March 26th, but the next date for your diary is Alejandro’s next gig – at the Ritzy in Brixton on February 10th. If you go to his website (http://www.alejandrogarciagonzalez.com/) you’ll see that the music is described as ‘Music To Make Love’ – I asked where this came from and what it meant. He laughed. “It’s sort of a joke. I was being interviewed on Mexican radio – a big radio station – and this radio interviewer, well, she was flirting with me a bit. So she asked what kind of music it was, and I just said, ah, you know, it’s musica para hacer el amor – music to make love to. And she went crazy! She was on the live radio, and I said that, and she was like – come on then, Alejandro, right now! Make love to me.” He scratches his head. “Man, she was a big woman. A big, big woman.”
*When Inarritu’s first film, Amores Perros, came out I asked my friend Alice, learning Spanish at the time, what the title meant. She furrowed her brow, and eventually suggested “Dogs In Love”. Which was quite close. It actually translates as “Love’s a Bitch”.