Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Follow the sun

Last Saturday was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere – always an interesting day to watch shadows. If you missed it, step outside and look at your shadow today – it’s only been three days since the solstice and the effect is very much the same. Early and late in the day your shadow will be long and cast towards the south. At “noon” itself (about 1:40 p.m) there’s not much of a shadow to be seen but it is cast directly south.

Having the sun north of us is an event that never happens in Canada or Europe. In the United States it only occurs in Hawaii – the only U.S. state that lies in the tropics. On the summer solstice the sphere of the earth, spinning on its axis and taking a year to circle the sun, has seemingly traveled as far north as it will go. It has reached the Tropic of Cancer, an imaginary line running parallel to the equator that cuts across northern Mexico, and has started back south to the Tropic of Capricorn.

But looked at another way, those who have made the effort to climb the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán, where I was on Saturday, have seen for themselves that the earth is flat. What is spherical is the dome of the sky overhead. And if there is a domed sky overhead there is certainly an equally sized and inverted dome underneath our flat earth. It is the shadow of those domes you see on the moon during a lunar eclipse.

Ancient Mesoamericans also believed that every morning the sun, starting on the eastern horizon, climbs seven enormous steps to get to the center of the sky by noon. Then it goes down six steps to the western horizon. Hence, 13 hours in ancient Mesoamerica’s days.

In order to get back to the east by sunrise the sun goes down five enormous steps to the lowest level of the dome of the underworld – the realm of the dead – and then climbs four enormous steps back up to the eastern horizon ready to illuminate the realm of the living during the day.

Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun seems to be a model of the sky overhead. It too has 13 levels. If you count ground level as level one there are six enormous stepped landings up to the top. The seventh level is missing – it was the roof of the temple at the top – and there are six steps back down to the ground.

Standing atop the Pyramid of the Sun, where the ancient Mesoamericans believed the sun was born, is marvelous any day. Especially so on the summer solstice.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The power of the Cup

I find the World Cup fascinating. Is there is any other event that can bring together different ages, cultures, ethnic groups,and religions from around the world? It’s an achievement writers and film producers strive for — producing a work that can interest both children and adults while riveting their attention. Fair-weather fans like me join hard-core sports fans in cheering on the teams.

At 2 o’clock Tuesday Mexico will face soccer powerhouse Brazil. It will be hard to find a place in urban Mexico where you are out of earshot of shouts and shrieks when a goal is scored—or missed. Short of being in the stadium in Fortaleza, Brazil, the grandest locations will be watching the game on a big screen in the Zócalo of most any Mexican city.

If a politician were in the crowd the Mexican press would say that he or she were getting a “baño de pueblo” – a peoples’ bath. That’s what it feels like. You’ll be saturated with people and their enthusiasm for the game and their country’s team. All ages and all social classes will be there.

We’ll watch interviews with Brazilian players by Mexican television reporters that go untranslated, leaving us to figure out what was said in Portuguese. We’ll see some advertising surrounding the playing field that is familiar but also advertising for brands that aren’t sold here and some in script that is unintelligible to the western eye.

For those of us perceived as foreigners in Mexico, watching the World Cup is a rare opportunity. We’ll be welcomed in, cheering for Mexico’s team, celebrating its victory or sharing the “we’re still in the running – it’s all based on points” consolation if it goes the other way.

With a few exceptions, World Cup soccer players represent the countries of their birth. Just watching a World Cup game involves an appreciation of history and geography. European colonial powers — and their former western hemisphere colonies — can easily be distinguished by the racial mix of their teams. Non-colonial countries stand out because of their homogeneity.

If Karl Marx were writing today, I think he’d say watching professional sports is the opiate of the masses. But the World Cup is different. In fact, in developing countries, hosting the World Cup awakens peoples’ demands of their government.

Every four years this spectacle is taken in by the pueblo, expanding its world-view while witnessing other peoples around the world sharing the same planet and enthusiasm for the same game.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The other Hallelujahs

“Hallelujah” will be presented in Cuernavaca on Friday. When I saw the poster for this concert I mistakenly thought they would be singing Handel’s famed Hallelujah Chorus. In fact they are singing two very different versions.

The singers are the Agrupación Coral Deo Gracias, a Cuernavaca-based multilingual chorus representing many nations. It’s an interesting group of people who are joined together by their love of music.

There’s Olga Ruiz, a retired obstetrician-gynocologist and grandmother in her 80s who will sing one of the solos. Her granddaughter Natalia Reveles, a student at the Tec de Monterrey in Cuernavaca, joins her in the choir.
Bass soloist Tony Trejo has also involved his family; he now has two teenage daughters in the chorus.

Susan Kirago is from Kenya and like the rest of the choir sings in five languages. They haven’t yet sung something in her native language.

Many of the singers, like my friend Ellen Macdonald-Almazán, are cancer survivors.

And they are all serious about their music. In addition to rehearsing for concerts like this one, they study music theory and vocalization each week with the chorus director Andrea Carr and her assistant Moisés Hernández.

Andrea Carr has been leading the group since retiring as head of the music department at La Salle University in Cuernavaca. Born in Montreal and raised in Mexico, she was a child prodigy on the piano and performed from the age of 10 in major recitals and concerts.  She traveled to England for high school and spent her college years in Canada, studying under piano greats Luba Zuk and Charles Reiner at McGill University.

While always pursuing her love of piano, Andrea took voice lessons and sang in choirs wherever she lived. At the age of 19 she began to accompany those choirs and eventually led them.

Chorus assistant Moisés Hernández is a La Salle music school graduate and was a student of Professor Andrea. As a result of a 2008 accident he’s bound to a wheelchair and no longer able to pursue a career as a drummer. He and Andrea split the 38-member choir so they can teach both beginning and advanced music theory.

In this, their sixth concert, the Agrupación Coral Deo Gracias is singing an ambitious program ranging from the baroque to the secular, from the 16th century to the 21st.

“We’ll sing all six movements of Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D Major in Latin,” Ellen Macdonald-Almazan told me. “When the music was presented to us by Andrea we thought it was impossibly ambitious. Our first performance was enthusiastically received — far surpassing our expectations.”

Friday’s concert will feature a medley of songs from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and “Sin Ti,” a Mexican favorite written by Guadalajaran Pepe Guizar (1912-1980). Guizar is the composer of the mariachi favorite “Guadalajara.” They’ll also sing Hal Hopson’s arrangement of “The Gift of Love,” a beautiful hymn-like piece perfect for this season of Pentacost.

The program will begin and end with “Hallelujah.” I remember as a boy in Colombia everyone getting to their feet whenever the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s “Messiah” began. I was told, and believed, it was because at the “Messiah”’s original London performance King George II was so moved he spontaneously stood; when the King was standing everyone else was expected to stand as well.

Though a nice story, it’s apparently untrue. The “Messiah” did not even debut in England but in Ireland and there is no record of George II ever attending the “Messiah.” Nonetheless, myths are difficult to destroy and this one has such a nice ring of authenticity.

The program begins with a contemporary arrangement of “Hallelujah” by Philip Hayes. It closes with the singing of Canadian legend Leonard Cohen’s probably equally beloved “Hallelujah,” as arranged by Roger Emerson.  Unlike Handel’s sacred music, Cohen’s version is a secular anthem, though it will be the second time I’ve heard it sung in a church.

Charlie’s Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins is a huge Leonard Cohen fan and has attended a number of his concerts. “I don’t know whether it is related to standing during Handel’s “Hallelujah” or not but concert audiences always stand for Cohen’s performances of his ‘Hallelujah.’ I prefer to think it is because it is the aching anthem of a generation that’s suffered the destruction of so many illusions.”

With the two “Hallelujah”s bracketing the Cuernavaca concert, goers will have the opportunity to decide whether to stand or sit at both ends of an eclectic musical evening. Either way I say, hallelujah for this continued gift of music in the community.

“Hallelujah” will be presented Friday June 13, at 8 p.m. at Parroquia María Madre de la Misericordia, Calle Río Tamazula #25, Colonia Vista Hermosa, Cuernavaca. Doors open at 7 p.m. $100 pesos, 50% discount for students with ID and INAPAM cardholders.