Mayhem in Mexico
Last week. For three days, just enough time to fall in love with the place, not enough time to get acclimatised to the time zone. As a result the jetlag on the way back was a BITCH. All four of us have been swinging violently between narcolepsy and insomnia ever since we returned five days ago.
Raven were invited to perform at the festival marking the 25th anniversary of Monte Xanic, Mexico’s largest wine makers. They have a yearly festival at their vineyard (below) ending in a concert, and we had no idea how much of a big deal it was until we received a deluge of tweets from excited members of the audience. Having said that, I hope it was excitement they were conveying with all their exclamation marks. My Spanish is practically nonexistent.
Ensenada, Baja California, about two hours drive away from San Diego, where we landed. (Obviously we couldn’t travel through San Diego without snickering the immortal line from Anchorman.)
1. The Ravens
Did you ever read my post about Raven which introduced each member, complete with peccadillos and idiosyncracies? Natalie, the adventurous eater of the group, outdid herself on this trip. On day two, rehearsing Mexican encores arranged by Kirsty and Natalie in the hotel, Natalie started to look a bit pale and sweaty.
Me: What’s up? You look wierd.
Nats: I feel odd.
Me: What like stomach odd? It’s really hot in here…..
Nats: Yeah…*stomach gurgles* Oof. *clutches stomach*.
Me: [wearily] What did you eat for breakfast?
Nats: [defensively] Nothing! Just spicy beef stew, refried beans and cactus juice.
Me: For Christ’s sake.
Natalie loves to travel and likes to experience everything her destination has to offer. Really she should be working as a food writer for Lonely Planet. The practicalities of eating spicy beef before a concert don’t bother Nats….no sir. It’s all part of the Mexican experience. Luckily her recovery is remarkably speedy.
Steph’s weird symptoms were omnipresent and quite funny. I’ve already told you that despite her Southern European heritage, she is massively freaked out by heat, which in a Mexican summer is a bit of a pisser. She’d go quiet a few times during the trip, at dinner, on the bus. When asked what was the matter the answer was invariably something along the lines of “Oh nothing. I’m fine. Except my left foot has swollen up like a kipper,” (in her Scottish accent imagine “fooot” and “kapperrrr”.) My lunacy made a cameo appearance on the flight out: adopting the guise of panic during a turbulent side to side takeoff, and rage at the obnoxious presence of a stag do. Sporting matching ironically captioned t shirts, lamentable haircuts and a loutish attitude, the ladz proceeded to disrupt the entire flight, waking up sleeping toddlers, trying to chat up the indifferent cabin crew, and striding haphazardly up and down the aisles shouting, in search of the on-flight booze. When they had drunk the plane dry, they congregated at the back of the aircraft, talking loudly and farting themselves and me into oblivion. Alas, the back of the plane was where myself, Kirsty and Mr A Cello were situated due to our freakish dimensions. (Mr A Cello had been strapped upside down and had an inexplicable blanket over his head. A camp member of the crew flounced past and gasped loudly, momentarily forgetting his obligatory smile and genteel facade. “Oh my god!” he flapped. “I thought he was a corpse! Why’s he got a blanket over ‘is ‘ead?”) After three or so hours of trying to block out their banter and retching on booze farts, Kirsty got out her brand new Soap and Glory body spray from terminal 5 and squirted it directly at the offending bottoms while I yelled at them to “STOP FARTING!!! For the love of CHRIST!” It wasn’t our finest hour.
2. The Fame (No really.)
The hotel we were staying in was a splendid one. We had a suite each. (I know, we were spoiled rotten the whole time we were there, which is sometimes a lovely perk of our job. The problem with it is the firm smack down to reality when I return home to our little flat on the outside of a sprawling South London council estate, where I am expected not only to source my own food but then clean up the mess after I’ve eaten it. There are no mini bottles of bath products to bathe with, and outrageously, my bed has not been turned down before I retire.) The Hotel Coral and Marina is sea adjacent, and as the name suggests, boasts its own marina. Something (else) you should know about me is that I am a little bit obsessed with the sea. Not swimming or sailing on it, you understand. Just looking at it wistfully and inhaling sea air makes me feel like a saner, more grateful person. I’ve been known to brave inclement conditions on seaside gig days just to have a moment alone with the ocean, I’m not fussed which one.The colour, sound, smell and endlessness of it makes me worry about things a bit less. I was delighted to see the sea from my balcony.
At the hotel, we were recognised by strangers, which doesn’t happen often. Occasionally in London if we’re all together, someone will say reverentially to us on the tube, “Are you that quartet?” and we say “Yes, we are,” even though they may well be confusing us with someone else. It’s easier that way. We spent years explaining who we are to blank expressions, now we can’t be arsed. We’re not sticklers, indeed, in our own minds, we are “that quartet”. We do however draw the line at signing fake autographs. In Ensenada, unbeknownst to us, our gig had been very well promoted. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant the night before the concert (Nats felt delicate after beef stew for breakfast and lobster tacos for lunch so she restrained herself to a relatively tame portion of scallops in ginger sauce) and the waiters were a bit sniggery whilst serving us. At the end of the meal one of them said, “Is this you?” and pointed to the door where a big “RAVEN GRUPO” poster had been plastered. A few people we bumped into in the lift said “Ah! You are Raven!” They were looking forward to seeing us play……in fact everyone we met seemed to know who we were, which was lovely but disconcerting. We couldn’t work out why. Until we drove past this, on the way to the vineyard for the soundcheck the following day.
I’d love to say we were cool about this, that we nonchalantly drove past going “Oh look, that’s us on that billboard,” but we weren’t. We were excited. That picture was shot in a derelict warehouse in Northampton. Seeing it blown up in a cove on the other side of the world where there are cacti and pelicans roaming free was pretty amazing.
3. The Hosts
The people who looked after us were genuinely fantastic. Daniel, who worked for Monte Xanic was incredibly passionate about wine and the festival. His lady friend Kristina was great as well, she screamed her lungs out at the concert, as if we were Iron Maiden. In the silences we would hear “GO RAVEN!!!!!!!!!!” She was kind of like a Raven cheerleader. The producer of the concert was Carlos, who we all fell in love with utterly. He hardly spoke English, we barely speak Spanish (apart from Nats, who wopped out a Spanish speech mid concert to rapturous applause) and we communicated with mime, song (really!) and hand gestures. Every conversation was like a game of charades, but after a couple of hours, it all felt very natural and we got on like a house on fire. Carlos isn’t a musician but his father played the cello in the Guadalajara Symphony Orchestra for fifty years and he has a great ear. He looks a lot like Steph’s dad (who needs his own blog post, he’s such a character) and he was always cracking jokes. He gave us Spanish names and spoke in funny voices. Whenever I stopped talking he would stare at me wide-eyed and say, “Raquella! Que pasa???” before laughing uproariously. He was impossible not to like. At lunch on the first day, someone spilt spicy tomato sauce on his expensive looking white linen jacket within about an hour of meeting him. (I say “someone”, we think it was Natalie in her gusto for making lobster tacos but she vehemently denies it, bless her.) Big dollops of red dripped down both shoulders. At first glance he looked as though he’d suffered a violent ear-bleed. Carlos looked at the stains, shrugged, and said, “Shit happens,” in Spanish. (I know this because Kristina told me.) He was great. He videod our rehearsal and showed it to anyone who’d listen. The chefs in the restaurant, small children trying to play in the pool….we’d hear it coming through his tinny blackberry speakers everywhere we went, as he smilingly showed us off to all and sundry, like a proud uncle. Carlos was also very conscientious, without being a stress head, which we much appreciated. We relied on him utterly for all our performance decisions, and he was responsible for setting up the most fancy stage we’ve ever headlined on.
When we first caught a glimpse of the performance space, we gaped at it in silence, so awestruck were we. Carlos clocked our reaction and hurriedly chuntered in Spanish, gesturing wildly. Kristina translated for him. “Carlos says don’t worry, all that ugly metal will be covered in white cloth. It will be far more beautiful on the night! He is sorry for how it looks now…..” Eventually we managed to reassure him that we loved it. It was more beautiful on the night though. White ribbon adorned every surface, and we had lights, dry ice, big LED screens, the works. Our concert took place at dusk, as the sun set over the vineyard like a fizzing vitamin C tablet. The setting was so idyllic it was discombobulating. We’d been rehearsing in Bush Studios (home of rock and roll and the odd cockroach) days before. The contrast was stark.
Hans Backoff, Director of Monte Xanic (shown below…how’s your Spanish?) was generous and welcoming, tweeting nice messages to us before the concert and providing us with everything we needed. He bravely serenaded us with the help of an amazing guitar trio with Radiohead at the aftershow party, sadly without confetti or fireworks. It was lovely nonetheless.
4. The press.
The day before the concert, jetlagged and disorientated, we sat under the porch of a metal caravan at the vineyard and did some interviews for the local and National press. Interviews are hard when you’re in a group, as there are four people and you don’t want to talk over each other. On the other hand, there is often an awkward silence while we all wait for each other to answer the question. It’s hard not to talk utter bollocks when someone is pointing a microphone or a camera at you, because it’s a nerve wracking, unnatural situation. When you’re tired and can barely form a sentence, it’s even harder. Also I am painfully aware of sounding “media trained” you know, all polished and bland and not like a real person. (Although actually the chances of us sounding polished and bland are slim to none, particularly with my penchant for inappropriate swearing and Nats’ often heroic verbal mishaps. “We’re delighted to be here in Brazil!” ) Luckily all the reporters were great, all apologising profusely for how bad their near perfect English was, which was hilarious considering only one member of Raven knows more than three words in Spanish that aren’t “que?” “cerveza” and “nada”. We did a funny Q and A for Mexican TV where the journalist asked us, “How have you revolutionised classical music in the UK?” Being English and self deprecating, the temptation is to look at each other laughing and say “How DID we revolutionise classical music in the UK?” “Easily! That’s how. We revolutionised it on a Thursday, I think. Yeah. Piece of cake.” Luckily this question was fired at Kirsty who rallied and talked about how we perform classical repertoire in a nontraditional way. Then we shouted in unison “Hola Mexico!” down a big red microphone and felt like the Spice Girls.
5. The gig.
Two forty minute sets, spanning over 400 years of music, from Vivaldi to Katy Perry. The Monte Xanic audience sat outside, with tables between the seats to facilitate the drinking of a lot of wine. It was a big ole’ crowd, and they sat in silence, applauding the opening bars of the tunes they recognised and openly crying at the sad ones. (Making people cry is the aim of any self respecting musician, so we consider that a job well done.) Kristina screamed like a One Direction fan between tunes. It was great. The best bit was the encores though, when we unleashed our secret weapons: Mexican tunes IN MEXICO. Kirsty and Natalie had painstakingly arranged three tracks that we’d rehearsed a lot the week before the concert and during the final one, Cielito Lindo (made world famous by Luciano Pavarotti) fireworks went off and silver confetti rained down from the rafters. The crowd went nuts, singing along and shouting. As well as displaying a shocking lack of fortitude about illness, flying and performing….I’m also not very good with fireworks. (You’re shocked, I can tell.) My husband shields me from thunderstorms and firework displays like a nervous pet with marginally better bladder control. Obviously I have eyes, I love the look of fireworks displays, they’re amazing and impressive and beautiful. It’s the noise. Sudden bangs, that come erratically AT ANY GIVEN TIME. I’m the kind of person who hits the ceiling if a car backfires and screams in movie theatres. So someone saying “By the way, when you play this number, fireworks are going to go off behind your head. Is that alright?” makes me want to grab them by the lapels and scream “NO IT IS NOT! ARE YOU INSANE???” But of course, I say, “Great! That’ll be lovely!” and spend the next few hours bracing myself and evacuating my bodily fluids in case of a mishap. In this instance, it was such a special moment with the audience who were so touched by our performing of traditional Mexican repertoire, that I managed to block out the bangs and carry on like the seasoned professional I am. You could barely hear my whimpering under the racket.
Some nice soul filmed our final number and out in on youtube. At the risk of sounding saccharine, it was a goosebumpy kind of moment. When we came offstage, we were sad it was over.
6. The Place
We didn’t see much of it, but the bits we did see made me think that Mexico is a country filled with strange contrasts. (I realise living in England that that is a bold statement.) Extreme poverty and shocking affluence exist right next to each other. There are police checkpoints all over the place, where the military stand heavily armed and search trucks and random vehicles in an effort to curtail the unprecedented levels of drug related violent crime, and yet the Mexican people we met were the loveliest, most helpful lot you could hope to encounter. The palm trees, coastal bay views and the heat made us feel like we were in a tropical paradise. (Indeed, despite Steph’s intolerance of extreme heat, she managed a while in the sun on our balcony the morning we left Ensenada. I asked her, “Do you feel bad?” and she said “Not yet. This Mexican heat is quite cuddly isn’t it?” And with that, the term “cuddly heat” was born. I knew exactly what she meant. It was like sinking into a warm relaxing bath. Of course after an hour or so her weird symptoms were back but she had a good old go, before retiring to her air conditioned room, muttering about “sausage fingers” as she went.)
On our journey back, our lovely driver and bodyguard (!) Alejandro insisted we leave seven hours prior to our flight from San Diego, which was a mere two hour drive away. When I asked him why, he explained that it can take five hours to get through the border queues in Tijuana. Pish, I thought, irked at the loss of vital sunbathing/eating time before our long flight. However, that journey was a fascinating one-we’d missed it on the way out because it was dark, but as we navigated the (seriously bumpy) coastal highway, we saw picturesque views of the sea, sand coloured cliffs and cloudless blue sky. We drove past the Fox studios where Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed, we saw shanty towns and derelict buildings adjacent to huge white mansions and five star hotels before arriving at the border. Alej locked the doors of the minibus the second we stopped, which seemed a bit hysterical (I’m from the North of England! I thought, affronted) until I saw the sheer numbers of people snaking between the queues, trying to wash the cars or pedal their wares.
Sombreros, ukuleles, sad looking fruit, t shirts, hammocks, you name it, you could have bought a knock off version of it in that queue in Tijuana. There were children as young as 10 knocking on car windows, busking with harmonicas or juggling. We were there for so long, sweating in that bus, that cold drinks were purchased from a young lad in wearing a t shirt on his head to protect against the not so cuddly exhaust fume heat. This could not have been further from our experience the night night before, after our concert, when we were treated to a five course supper in the über glamorous and beautiful cave where all the fermentation of the Monte Xanic wine took place. When we entered we had a standing ovation from all the people that had seen us play and we spent the next half hour having our pictures taken with various festival guests, all of whom were full of warmth and gratitude about our performance. It was overwhelming actually. Often at the end of a Raven gig we’re out the door and on the tube home shoving a sandwich down our gullets within 15 minutes of playing, such is the nature of a corporate performance. Below is us at the dinner with beloved Carlos, resplendent in a stain free jacket.
We had so many delightful exchanges with members of the audience….of course I remember the one slightly unusual one, which came from a lady who informed me that in Mexico, Ravens are historically regarded as “messengers for the dead”, which was a bit disconcerting. I apologised for possibly bringing death and destruction to Ensenada, but she said, “I don’t care! Your Morricone was beautiful!” So all’s well that ends well.
We want to go back, tomorrow if we could. Now I want to see the whole freaking country. Mexico City, Guadalajara, the WORKS. Dodgy bits and beautiful bits. We were only there for four days but it felt like an adventure. (Adventure! I’ve gone all Enid Blyton-esque. Although she wouldn’t have been caught dead in Tijuana, mark my words.) I haven’t even told you about the Mariachi bands….they are our musical idols. Honest to God, the bolero jackets, the moustaches, the guitars resting on bellies….and they take requests, without using any sheet music, playing be-costumed in 50 degree heat. And do they complain? Probably. Wouldn’t you? If I knew any Spanish I’d ask.
Just as we were coming down from our Raven does Mexico jaunt, it was time to prepare for the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics, where we were performing with Madness. A gig so big, I just needlessly used capital letters. Our dressing room was next to that of the Spice Girls, who are TINY in real life. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post, hilariously entitled MADNESS AT THE OLYMPICS.