It’s been about 36 hours since we touched down in Toronto after two months away in Mexico.
Moments ago, I almost tripped on the sidewalk and felt that familiar rush of being alive, having to pay more attention. The lady beside me on the subway sneezes in my face and despite the clock saying I’m 10 minutes late for work, mentally, it’s hard to process what planet I’m on. After a whirlwind Winter, touring about, getting back to reality may be harder than I thought.
What’s got me so disrupted? Despite the bad rap Mexico has been getting in the news lately, for Robert and me, a lot of it was like being in a magical land of music, culture, and food, met with being in a video game where your skills are tested at each corner.
Any time you choose to try something new, you’re going to have to relearn the ways you do things, so off we went. The first few weeks were all gig and performance oriented and because you can Google all the Mexican sight-seeing places you want, I’m going to focus on the venues, vibes, the workings of musical interactions, the talent, and lessons learned.
When you decide to go on tour somewhere, you must put all things into play and look at the big picture. If you get a different mixer than what you were told, if your set time is delayed by hours, or moved forward, maybe there are permit problems, or family emergencies, maybe the rain is so torrential that the streets flood… You never know what might happen.
The first thing someone will say is, “Welcome to Mexico” and if you can handle that, and really process that it’s time to let loose and go with the flow, then you’re going to have a good time.
Playa del Carmen
Ah, our beloved Be Roof in the Be Playa Hotel. Our first stop. Not even landed for two hours and we find ourselves atop the roof with our favourite crew.
We have been visiting the Be Playa Hotel since November 2016 and the staff and hotel itself holds a special place in our hearts. They are fantastic. Accommodating, kind, appreciative, generous, funny, pretty much the coolest cats to have around you in a foreign country. A gorgeous rooftop pool overlooking the sea with vast sunrise and sunsetscapes matched with twinkling daytimes.
That is, if the weather is good. A place like this can only be open on good days when the weather is warm and dry.
Our arrival was smackdab in the middle of a chilly spell in January and loyal Be Roof Lovers sat on the fence about venturing out during the day but when darkness fell, they joined each other on the dance floor under the stars in the crisp night air. Decker//, Norman Hines, Wes Straub, Rob and I played. It wasn’t a warm day at all and the vibe was tempered by the chill, but this is something we hadn’t experienced before.
Typically, as soon as the sun goes down, be assured the vibe goes deep and even more underground. Wes Straub is the OG of making these parties happen along with our dear friends from the Be Playa.
Robert Mason, Decker, Norman Hines and Victor Ortiz and I all shacked up for the night in Playa del Carmen and passed out early after the Be Roof because the next day, we were to be in Tulum so Decker// could play the opening set, early in the day. Norman Hines, owner of Stripped Music, also one of the event organizers, was up before the crack of dawn and out the door while we tried to grunt and maneuver.
The first lesson you must learn about Mexico, from my experience, is that everything is an approximate, a tentative, a suggestion… This means the party start time was simply a ballpark figure. With so many artists on the line up, we did some juggling and once things got going, and the sun set, Eden lit up magically in both esthetics and vibe. The party went until the early morning.
In Tulum, you can stay ‘in town’ or ‘by the beach’. We had to check into our hotel, ‘in town’, by midnight so we had to leave the party by 11, just enough time for it to set in, we were actually in the jungle!
After checking into our hotel, we tried to get something to eat. Unbeknownst to us, the restaurant we went to has the reputation of being a bit of a shady place. Long story short, a fight broke out over a good run of karaoke in the multicoloured Christmas light lit bar. We had just placed our order when it happened and being fresh on Mexican soil, it scared us…. ok, me.
So, we bounced without a word when the fight escalated over the pleas of the Karaoke MC, I will admit, and went to the corner store and had ice cream for dinner.
Another funny story about Tulum is that the owner of the hostel we were staying at came to visit with Decker, Robert and I one day and somehow it came out that he was afraid of the colour black. That it literally came to him in a dream about a black feather and ever since, he was petrified of the colour black.
We all looked at each other, who were still fresh off the plane, and all three of us were dressed head to toe in, you guessed it, black. And our luggage was black. Pretty much everything we owned was black or some variation of a shade of black.
That’s when we felt like tourists.
Cancun is whole different world. From the moment you drive into the hotel district, you can feel things aren’t what they seem. Speckles of coloured flashing lights behind frosted windows with no visible doors, leave a smattering of mystery. Quickly you learn your hunch is right and the late-night parties go on and on.
We played at Silverio Mezcal Bar in the hotel district. Turning the corner, we see our names in big bold letters on the outdoor sign! Completely unexpected, it was such a treat.
From there on in, the intimate late night gathering went on until the early morning. We were one of those unknown windows with the flashing lights and only those who dared, looked for the roll-away door on the wall. So much techno, so much mezcal.
Breakfast was being served by the time this party ended, and we sat staring for a while, probably until noon, each processing the wildness of the hours before.
Playa del Carmen
Back to Playa Del Carmen, the mini city town village we love so much. Up until now, we hadn’t ventured much passed playing the Be Roof. Truth be told, Mexico has a worldwide reputation for ‘certain things’. I can’t pretend cartel violence and fear isn’t present. Everything in Playa Del Carmen changed after the shooting at BPM 2017 inside the now completely barricaded Blue Parrot.
This being said, we decided to play at Da Rumm which was set up by Victor Ortiz, The Note V. It’s always good to work with someone you know when dealing in the unknown and this is what we did.
Da Rumm is an underground gem as it’s hidden behind another sliding wall coming out of a jungle-themed, magenta and indigo lit, lounge type area. Da Rumm is dark with mesmerizing paintings on the walls. The lighting plays with the paint and it’s like it’s moving. Really creative!
It’s a good room with an enthusiastic crowd that likes it a bit hard, or a lot hard, in fact. The energy I experienced was very welcoming and it wasn’t our usual crew in the crowd, it was all new faces, which was wicked.
Even when the lights went on, people still were raring to go! But it was time for us to go.
There hadn’t been any issue with payments to date and Da Rumm was no exception. All went smoothly, but if you go to play there, ask if you’re being billed for the drinks they offer you – yes, even the water. I paid 100 pesos (inc tip) ($7 CAD) for a Red Bull. A beer is double what other bars charge…
Robert Mason and I had been in Mexico City, CDMX, in June 2016. We enjoyed ourselves but since we were on our own much of the time, we didn’t really have a true CDMX experience. This time we flew with Victor and his 6-year-old son. We landed and from there on in, we were City Folks.
Our hotel was by a huge park and tucked away in a nice part of town. Victor handled our gig at Hookah Lounge and Gely Gonzalez facilitated with the VIP Sessions show. Once again, rather than have to deal with promoters ourselves, since we can’t speak Spanish well, we had music partners and friends help us out. Plus, we knew if it was a tight-knit event, it would be a good one.
Hookah Lounge is a shisha lounge that serves amazing food with an Arabic twist. Imagine a chicken quesadilla… in a pita. I gather it’s a Social thing to eat, smoke and techno here at Hookah and we fit right in. We recorded our set and really fed off the vibe, which was more metropolitan than the towns by the sea.
Despite the interesting layout of Hookah and after watching the transition from restaurant to Night Club, I see how it’s such a favorite in Mexico City. It’s a ‘one-stop’ for all and the people who came out shone, smiled and danced with all their might.
The following evening, it’s on to Divino Tinto for VIP Sessions. Invited to play by Gely Gonzalez, she and her partner, Aristides Bautista, have been hosting VIP Sessions for a while where they showcase local and international talent.
Just a little aside here, prior to the show, Gely and her boyfriend Rafael and Aristides Bautista
took us to Larva Clothing. This brand is 100% pure Mexican art inspired, with fabrics that are simply perfect. We were spoiled and sent home with bags upon bags of new threads we can rock at our gigs. And that we did.
With all VIP Sessions’ performers dressed in their Larva gear at the show, we lit up in psychedelic designs under the lights and warmly got to know each other as the hours went on. Again, Divino Tinto is a two-level restaurant by day and a club with a raised DJ booth at night. We watched it fill up and remarked at how ‘back home’ it’d be hard to pull this event off on a Sunday, at a restaurant, no less, and yet here we were, 11pm on a Sunday night and the party is just getting started.
Mexico City, this time around, opened its arms for us and welcomed us, not once but twice, in spectacular ways. Totally unique gig experiences but more so, the people that made it happen. Curious, determined to communicate, kind beyond what is normally considered kind and plain sweet – just really sweet people. We left with tears in our eyes but friends in our lives.
And so concluded three weekends of playing in various places in Mexico. We flew back to Cancun, hopped a Collectivo back to Playa Del Carmen and started to process what we’d just experienced. Robert and I don’t play out very often and here, we had a year’s worth of gigs in three weekends!
What did I learn from it all?
What’s the vibe really like in Mexico?
1. The people you meet are wonderful. They are interested and engaged. They are proud to share stories of Mexican history. They are accommodating and helpful. By having close people around, it makes traveling throughout the country easier, safer and more enjoyable. Mexico is home to many who work their asses off for the music industry.
2. If you have a schedule in mind or are a person who likes to schedule your life, you will have to toss that down the drain in Mexico like the water you can’t drink. There is an eight-hour buffer around any appointment / set time / meeting / etc. Eight hours is an exaggeration but if someone says they’ll pick you up at four, it will be six. If your set time is 4pm, it all depends if the sound system is there that was due to arrive at noon… Which may come at 5pm, or the next day… You see where I’m headed here? I am embellishing for comedy’s sake but yeah, if you have a schedule in mind, best consider it a ‘vague suggestion of possibilities’. Mexico works very informally, much like my experience in Argentina. When you let go and go with it, you have a much better time. And don’t worry that someone will get mad at you for being late, they’ll likely be late too.
3. Approach your bookings as you will but keep in mind that promoters disappear, and plans don’t pan out. Stick with the people and contacts you know or have heard good things about. Stick with your friends. Contracts can scare people off and your fee has to reflect Mexican economic feasibility. Never under value your work and do what makes you feel best, just know that as I mentioned before, things always remain unpredictable regardless of the plan. Please take into consideration, a local resident DJ does NOT get paid a lot by North American standards, I heard it was approx. $75 CAD a night, although DJing is a ‘viable’ career to pursue in Mexico. It is like eating a slice of humble pie coming out of my entitled Canadian world. This being said, our venues were generous with us Internationals and paid our fees without batting an eye.
4. Safety is key, and you can’t take chances. Let’s face it, Mexico has a bit of a bad rap with all its uprisings and questionable street tacos. We narrowly missed an earthquake, a bomb on a ferry, getting arrested, breaking our ankles on the broken sidewalks and a plethora of other adventuresome things. Now, these things aren’t normal, per say, but it gives you an idea of the random things that can happen that you never dreamt of. We had a saying from a TV commercial from our childhood, “Stay alert, stay safe!” and every time we found ourselves in situations that tested our resilience, we’d sing it to each other. It’s not that it was Mexico, the country, that turned us into Gladiators by the end, it’s the fact that it wasn’t Canada, or familiar.
5. Food poisoning or bouts of illness are hard to avoid. You think you’re eating in a clean place, you’re eating the exact same as those around you and bam! Six hours later you’re sicker than a dog while the world sleeps on. Or you’re out and about and start getting a cramp in your lower abdomen that progressively gets worse… Not the kind of Progressive you want. Fact is, bacteria and parasites are everywhere in Mexico and only the people who live in the same ecosystem aren’t affected by them (as much). Don’t eat the lettuce. Wash the film off your hands. Eat in clean places. Don’t drink the tap water. Literally all the things you’ve seen advertised are true. It’s better to understand the environment you’re visiting with an education, right? Also, never travel without extended health and medical insurance – that goes for anywhere you travel.
6. Avoid creating waste. Parts of Mexico are not ready for the influx of tourists that have come to visit. The Pink Lakes of Las Coloradas, the sprawling coastline of Tulum, cenote after cenote, are incredible wonders that are somewhat threatened by humans, due to dumping trash wherever, disrespecting nature and stomping all over where we shouldn’t, feeding wildlife our crap human food, you know, the dirty things humans do… When you’re basking in Mexico’s picturesque nature, hopefully you’ll think twice before asking for a plastic straw or Styrofoam containers. Even if you don’t care if you lose your sunglasses in the sea, if this should happen, you’ve polluted the sea and the repercussions are worse than losing your shades. Sea turtles nest at night on the beach, don’t leave anything behind after your day in the sun. Cut down on your waste as much as possible because Mexico’s beautiful nature can’t handle it.
There are so many more things I could go on about.
We didn’t just choose to go play, we went to learn about the culture and live Mexican life. That we did, my friends, that we did. Of course, I’m going to highly recommend you go check it out for yourself. Our experience was adventuresome and warm, in more ways than one.
I know there is a lot in the news right now about Mexico and its dangers. I can’t comment personally because we didn’t see violence, other than the bar fight in Tulum. There is a strong police presence but at times, knowing of the corruption, the police are more intimidating than the locals. You’ll have to make your own judgement call about visiting Mexico or not. The safest way, in my opinion, is having friends and a circle of contacts and support for wherever you go and having access to someone who is fluent in Spanish who can translate.
Like anywhere in the world, the key is not to take crazy chances, to stay alert, stay safe. The unpredictable can always happen, and will, but it’s a shame to miss out on an incredible country filled with so many sweet people, working hard to build solid, creative lives, those who have goals in mind and go for them with soul.
In the end, I know I’ll be back. I couldn’t stay away if I tried. Rob feels the same. Our experience made us strong and was an incredibly fun time along the way. It’s like we have family there now, just like we do elsewhere in the world, proving beyond a doubt that music unites people.
Bless you all, Mexico, thanks for giving us Canucks the ride of our lives.
Special thanks to Decker, Norman Hines, Wes and Sarah Straub, Chino Arias, Rick Pier O’Neil and Annick, Victor Ortiz, Gely Gonzalez, Rafael Cuevas, Aristides Bautista, Larva Clothing, Ivonne Barrera, The Be Playa Management and Staff, and everyone who came out to dance, especially David Pinto 🙂