May Day Mezcal

As is often the case after an evening concert, my partner and I stopped by our local taco shop on West 72nd Street for a quick bite before walking the dog. I love the place, even though there’s nothing remotely Mexican about it. Owned run by a Korean family, absolutely none of the ingredients are homemade (including the frozen steak they reheat) and any chili or semblance of spice comes in the form of countless bottles of Sriracha along the counters and in a cardboard box next to the refrigerator. This is so classically New York. Like your Cuban-Chinese takeout restaurants, or your Eastern European owned fried chicken shops, places like these are testament to the fallacy of authenticity. Late-night drunk food doesn’t have to be authentic, or even homemade. Why? Because it’s late night drunk food (and it tastes fucking great).

Tonight’s post-libation nutrition was necessary as I attended a Mezcal tasting cum contemporary music concert, the first of its kind in NYC. Curated by composer Felipe Perez-Santiago and distiller Alejandro Aispuro, the event was hosted Andrew Ouseley and Unison Media, a social media and publicity firm based in Long Island City. Around 5pm, I arrived at Bowery Electric on the Lower East Side, where the smell of fermented agave whacked me in the face as soon as I walked in the door. I looked to the bar, and around 100 glasses of Mezcal were lined up and ready to go for a different sort of happy hour.

As guests wandered in, I spoke with Alejandro and Felipe about what it meant to pair a spirit tasting with a concert of contemporary Mexican music. Alejandro began, “Mexico is going through an interesting period of cultural self-discovery right now. Local culture is increasingly more important, and a product of that is a revival of interest and appreciation for Mezcal.” He went on explain that Mezcal, a spirit made from agave, is the father spirit of Tequila but is much more refined. In the wake of mass alcohol production in the twentieth century, the Mexican government has inadvertently sanctioned the cheapening of the distillation process in order to increase exports to the United States. Tequila only needs to be 51% agave-based to be called “Tequila” and even then, the agave may not be cooked or treated, but simply processed raw. “It’s a fascinating time, as we have started to see a wave of immigrants return to the region of Oaxaca to take back up the family business of making Mezcal. The profits are high, and families are increasing sending their kids to business programs in universities, the fruits of which are brought home to help foster sustainable business models. It’s very exciting, as there’s something with true Mexican identity that is seeing economic growth.”

Felipe echoed Alejandro, saying “contemporary music is also booming in Mexico, especially in Mexico City where we have the most number of composers per capita on earth. Our state orchestras regularly perform new music by Mexican composers, and we have started to see the emergence of new orchestras devoted solely to contemporary Mexican music.” But in seeming contrast to the native significance of Mezcal, the success of contemporary Mexican music comes in a certain rejection of national paradigms. “The composers you will hear tonight (including) regularly get performed all over the world. In Mexico, composers are not nationalists in the way that other countries in Latin America might be. In Brazil, there’s still pressure to sound like Villa-Lobos. In Argentina, like Piazolla. We Mexican composers live and work all around the world. I myself lived in Amsterdam and Berlin for almost twenty years, but am now back in Mexico. There’s no ‘Mexican’ sound.”

Felipe and Alejandro have been friends for years, and have recently been teaming up to pair tastings with concerts. When asked why, Felipe laughed and said, “well first of all, we’re musicians. We like to drink!” But they spoke of the craft and detailed processes common between distillation and composition. “Like being guided through a tasting, learning how to listen to new music is essential for building a new audience.” When I asked why they came to New York, they said that it’s the ideal place for both Mezcal and music. Alejandro said, “with the growing affluence of a Spanish speaking population here in New York, the demand for Mezcal has only gone up and up.” Felipe was more explicit, saying “the benefits of waves of immigration to a city like New York mean that there are musicians and musical styles from all over the world. But with that, there are also several ways of listening. There are concert halls and recital venues, but this is the city of people like Terry Riley and Steve Reich who didn’t wait around for commissions. They got their friends together in bars or in their living rooms and did it themselves. In New York, nights like tonight are just as valid as a concert in Carnegie Hall.”

As the tasting proceeded, I surveyed the crowd. It was thoroughly multigenerational, international, multiethnic – that is, with the glaring exception that I didn’t manage to come across a single Mexican or Latinx guest. On the other hand, it was nice to see that there weren’t any other musicians in the room. While Felipe pointed out that musicians in New York often get their friends together, it’s very easy to go to New Music concerts in the city and see the same faces in the audience: your fellow musician colleagues. But tonight I spoke to one couple who commuted in from Princeton, NJ simply to attend an event hosted by Unison Media. “We’ve been trying to get tickets to Crypt Sessions for over a year, but haven’t been able to.” When asked if she came specifically for the music or the booze (or both), the wife said, “Neither! We really just wanted to see what the atmosphere was like.”

For the last several years, Andrew Ouseley and Unison Media have held monthly concerts, pairing music with chef-tastings in the undercroft of gothic-revival church in Upper Manhattan. These concerts have been a hit. Tickets sell out virtually instantly. Indeed, tonight’s event comes on the heels of Unison Media’s announcement that they will be starting another concert series in the catacombs of the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. As I spoke to more attendees, one elderly couple said that they came because wanted to try more Mezcal after visiting Oaxaca earlier this year. One sharply dressed millennial said she wanted to “do something classy for Cinco de Mayo.”

At around 6:45 the attendees departed Bowery Electric to head to Le Poisson Rouge (better known as LPR) on Bleecker Street. However, the commute was somewhat interrupted on Broadway by a May Day protest against immigration raids and deportations under the Trump administration (along with a handful of Anarchists, anti-Israel marchers and Black Lives Matter activists). The marchers were maybe only 200 in number, only holding up traffic for 5 minutes or so. And yet the centrality of immigration to this labor protest contrasted sharply to dressed-up, bourgeois evening devoted hearing and tasting Mexico in the comfort of two bars in Lower Manhattan.

After the guests settled in, musical curator Conrad Cummings stood and walked the audience through a new composition by a young composer named Juan Pablo Contreras. Listeners were told what open strings sounded like on a cello and how harmonics create an ethereal quality on the violin. Much like the Mezcal tasting, attendees were being guided through how to listen, like tasting with their ears. Thereafter, the concert proceeded with a live broadcast on LPR’s radio show “Relevant Tones,” hosted by Seth Boustead. While each of the pieces was immaculately played, two facets of the evening stood out very starkly. First, it was clear that there was no focus on the musicians whatsoever. Programs were printed without artist bios, and there was no discussion of the music by the performers. While some might argue that it’s irrelevant that none of the musicians on stage were Mexican, I personally found it a little difficult at first to engage with a performance where the musicians had no explicit connection with any of the composers, let alone the country of Mexico. Second, it became apparent the composers represented were interconnected in some form or fashion. Felipe Perez Santiago had not one, but two compositions performed at the beginning and end of the set. A colleague and former teacher of Felipe’s composed the second work, Tres Danzas Seculares by the name of Mario Lavista. Composer Gabriela Ortiz’s De Animos y Quebrantos was workshopped in new music scheme developed by radio host Seth, and Ana Lara, composer of Y Los Oros La Luz was apparently instrumental in getting Seth his first radio broadcast as a composer. Indeed, while being advertised as evening of contemporary music from Mexico, it was apparent that the Mexican composers were chosen not necessarily based on how representative they were of the Mexican contemporary classical music scene (which I was told was one of the largest in the world), but on their proximity to Felipe and Seth.

Anyone familiar with the new music world will know that a personal connections are often how you get your music off the ground. But what is slightly bizarre is that an evening of extremely high music making took place in which the performers were seemingly alienated from both the music and its presentation. While it was true that all the music was composed by living Mexican composers, there was nothing significant about the performances or works themselves that made them particularly Mexican. After all, Felipe was keen to stress that the composers tonight were not nationalist, but global in their outlook and appeal. I admit to having left the event slightly wondering what the point of marketing music as a national product, when the product itself apparently eschews national definitions. On one level, it’s a cognitive dissonance seen in the ongoing debates about America’s Dreamers. What makes a Dreamer any more or less American if they’ve lived their lives here, are part of our culture and fundamentally share the American dream? And if America really is an “immigrant culture,” how are we deciding which immigrants are worthy and which aren’t? Then again, on another level, I was content as the quality of compositions and playing alike were so incredibly high, that national provenance didn’t really matter. Like my not-Mexican taco, this dubiously Mexican concert was fucking great.

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