Wednesday, April 8, 2015

San Miguel Tango Festival, March 2015

The festival

A tango festival in San Miguel, Mexico, is to a large degree a brainchild of "Tango Clay" Nelson who has a penchant for out-of-the way locations with a special vibe. Clay started the Thanksgiving tango gathering in Ashland OR (presently known as Tango Connect), and he continues to run a retreat in a tiny Mt Shasta hamlet of McCloud CA (pop 1,000) called Burning Tango. We've been privileged to attend both, and it gave us a lot of inspiration for turning Wasatch Mountain Club's traditional Mountain Milonga into a multi-day retreat. And, at last, we also got to visit San Miguel Tango Festival (which is now run by the co-founder of the festival, Nancy Roberts)!

Toasting tango at the balcony
of the rustic McCloud ballroom.
Oh the events Clay Nelson does!
Last year some of our friends visited Nancy's festival, and told great exciting stories about San Miguel, but we were also alarmed by the difficult logistics of getting there, and generally by fears of travel in Mexico. But then Nancy came to our Mountain Milonga Retreat 2014, and stayed for Mystic Milonga afterparty ... much talk, much dance, a good deal of good wine ... anyway she insisted that we must, absolutely must join San Miguel tangofest the following year :). And here we come, to return as true believers!

But before I start talking about the festival, I think I need to talk about the town:

San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico
San Miguel de Allende is a very special oasis of preserved colonial history and tranquility less than 150 miles from the bustling and chaotic mega-metropolis of Mexico City. One of the largest cities of North America during its XVIII century heyday, when it had greater population than either Boston or New York, SMA (as it is universally known) hasn't gained much population by the XXI century. But over 10% of its residents are the expats now!
Cobblestone lanes, ornate doors, wrought-iron balconies, traditional tin star lamps,
and throngs of foreigners day and night
San Miguel de Allende is the cradle of Mexican independence. The 1810 Insurgency began in the nearby hamlet of Dolores Hidalgo, and San Miguel became the first liberated town (and earned the second half of its name, "de Allende", after a leader of the independence fight). But the independence disrupted the same colonial silver mine supply routes which propelled the town to its prominence under the Spanish rule. Decades of the economic downturn turned SMA into a virtual ghost town. The nearly-deserted town has been given a new license to life after the revolution of the 1910s, when the narrative of the Insurgency has become one of the key ideological threads of the new regime. San Miguel de Allende has been declared a historic and protected landmark, a living museum of the Insurgency, with its famous cobblestone streets ordered to remain unpaved in perpetuity. Gradually, the protected town started turning into a holiday destination for the capital city residents, and a magnet for the history aficionados.

Then, starting from the 1930s on, came the foreign artists, and San Miguel's art schools reached international fame. David Siqueiros taught in SMA; many Americans on GI bill studied arts there in the 40s and 50s. Then, in the '60s and '70s came hippies, backpackers, and New Age wanderers retracing the footsteps of Carlos Castaneda. 1980s are remembered as a decade of rowdiness and drinking on the cheap. And then all along a steady stream of retirees from the North, especially women, poured into the town. The XXI century with the internet and ever-shrinking size of the globe brought more people there, and San Miguel is now pretty expensive by the Mexican provincial standards. No paved streets allowed there - only cobblestone. No traffic lights, nor fast food chains and neon signs. New construction has to fit in architecturally. The town remains remarkably safe and tranquil. UNESCO declared it World Heritage site in 2008.

The experience
We arrived from Mexico City airport on Bajio shuttle the night before the festival, to the usual welcome hugs from tango friends in hotel lobby - and the less usual tango hugs at the town streets (in fact we bumped into Alexei the DJ on a quiet dark lane off the beaten path!). Had a fantastic Mazatlan-style seafood dinner at Mario's just steps from the hotel, stocked up on ripe guavas and mangos at a little bodega at a side of San Antonio church, and walked through the heart of town. Wow! In the morning we took a cab to La Gruta (~~ the Grotto) hot springs (some 6 miles and USD 15 round trip North of town) and to Galeria Atotonilco with its halls and halls of folk crafts.
San Antonio parish, octopus, lobster, and marlin at Mario's, and bright blue waters of The Grotto

We now think of the bandoneon as of the quintessential sound of tango, but the 1800s and the early 1900s tangos didn't have this sound yet - they relied on guitar, violin, flute, occasionally piano. Vincente Loduca (who, like "El Tano" Esposito, also started playing bandoneon in tango duets and trios in 1908) recalled in 1913 that the instrument was at first perceived as vulgar and inappropriate for the dancing salons. It really started to catch on only around 1910, at the same time as the tempo of tangos slowed down and legato supplanted sharp staccato of Loduca's bandoneon. Genaro "El Tano" Esposito has become one of tango's most talented bando pioneers, even recording solo bandoneon tangos as early as in 1912-1913.
"El Tano" with his Parisian orchestra in the 1920s.
His work permit was issued for the "folklore genre",
requiring them to dress in faux gaucho costumes
In 1920 "El Tano" moved to France with the fellow bandoneon player Manuel Pizarro, first playing in Marseilles for pennies, then gradually moving "up the food chain" in Paris, organizing ever-more professional and renown orchestras. In the beginning of WWII Pizarro managed to escape to Argentina on a roundabout way through Egypt, losing all his life's savings. Genaro Esposito had two little sons by his recently deceased French wife, and her grave at the Cimetière de Thiais near Paris, and his French citizenship and misplaced faith in the strength of the Allied troops - so he stayed put, and as the Nazi occupation dragged on, he was forced to sell his possessions to feed his kids, and to play music for scraps of food. In winter 1943 he managed to get on a tour but came down with pneumonia on the trip, and returned home to his sons to die just months before the D-day.

His younger son, Claude R. Esposito, grew to be an avid dancer - but with only a faint memory of tango - until he finally rediscovered tango half a century later, and then reconnected to the music of his father with the help of the French music collectors. Please visit Claude's website for more twists of this story, pictures, and records!

John Gair played the following selection of Genaro Esposito's Parisian songs at San Miguel:
Viejo amor (1931) - Borrachita (1935) - Ninita - Mi pobre corazon (1935)
A bit more wandering around town and it's time for the opening milonga. The DJ played an unusual and captivating selection of records and I instantly jumped to a conclusion that we must be listening to an old Argentine. Only to find out that he was John Gair from Port Townsend WA, the home of an Encuentro I hope to visit one day, and to learn more about organizing retreats from the experience! So nice to meet you, John! One of the milonga's musical highlights was a tanda old records of a pre-WWII tango orchestra from Paris, introduced by the son of the bandoneonist and the leader of the orchestra who was in attendance. It was a great story of tango's formative years and indeed of the arrival of bandoneon into tango - please check the inset for "El Tano" Esposito's story!
Just like the local North American expat community at large, el gente was noticeably gender imbalanced. And as it is often the case in the places South, cabeceo sort of worked, but it works a lot better once you get acquainted and accepted in the group, once you rub shoulders and engage in small talk, It takes a bit of time, and do not hesitate to spend this time, it really pays. Just like in the town at large, there are even more non-local Mexicans than gringos at the milonga, first of all the Mexico City residents known as chilangos, but also better-off city folk from all other centers of commerce and culture around the Bajio (~~ the Lowlands, as the grand swath of Mexico North of the capital city is known - from Querétaro, Guadalajara, Morelia etc.). (And not to forget, half-dozen more Latin American nations were represented as well). Keep in mind that even the remarkably sophisticated chilango weekenders may be prone to look down at the gringos, at least at the first glance - spoiled, lazy Americans, unable and unwilling to respect social proprieties to the verge of indecency, generally far too free-spirited for their own good. And conversely, we often perceive them as too concerned with the outward proprieties, too preoccupied by the matters of class and decorum, maybe even too hard-working. So be nice, dress nice, play along. Once we get on the dance floor, every facet of cultural differences fades away, and the language of tango is spoken and understood by us all. (Speaking of which, at least 2/3rds of the guests speak English well). Attending classes together is also a great way to get to know people (and when you get to know them, then cabeceo starts working even if you don't share any other language other than the body language of tango). And as the last resort for the impatient ones, there were half-dozen taxi dancers from a tango school in Querétaro, some of them really great dancers, charging about as much as a taxi ride downtown, like 2 or 3 US dollars!
The weather forecast promises rainstorms, absolutely unusual for this time of the year - probably the same unusual weather pattern which also brought freak snowstorms to the US North-East and equally unusual endless rains to Puerto Rico where we tangoed in February. So while the weather s still nice, we skip all the classes and go wandering around town.
A panorama of the pastel-hued town from the hills of Chorro,
with the white egrets nesting on the tallest trees

Chorro views, with the jacaranda-ringed Parquia San Miguel in the center pane. 
We go to its oldest neighborhood, Chorro, near the hillside springs which gave birth to the town in the XVI c., and which continued to provide SMA with all its drinking water until recently. We pass Parque Juarez where the town's famous white egrets used to nest on tall cedars - until a few years ago the city government tried to expel them to make the park quieter and cleaner, and cut down some of the largest old trees in the park. The remaining egrets are tightly packed on a few remaining tall trees further upslope in Chorro,
Doors of San Miguel
We wander across the town center, check La Esquina Toy Museum, grab freshest fruit liquados and seafood tostadas at the vegetable market stands at the Colegio entrance to Mercado de Artesanias, and then of course spend all the rest of the time in the artisans' shops there... Time to retreat to the hotel and to stay put for couple nights, until the rain's over! (A least, now I feel vindicated for my decision to stay right at the festival hotel, instead of potentially far cheaper AirBnB places around: this way we don't have to have our feet wet to get to the classes and milongas!).
Pretty cool floor solution BTW - a regular
laminate floor assembled on the spot with
the edges held down by duct tape!
Most of the rest of the milongas are DJ'd by our old dear friends, Alexei from the Bay Area (a few memorable unusual jewels of records there!), and Tara and Dean from Colorado (Dean's alternative milonga had a superb  variety and quality of the music, yet, anyhow, fewer dancers than needed to fill the floor... perhaps it was the way it has been scheduled, wedged tightly between 3 (!) classes and the late night milonga ... or, perhaps, since many folks down there are indeed more formal and more concerned about "decorum and propriety", they just won't dance to alternative? Tara's was truly a DJ revelation, building up a perfect wave of tango bliss ... and the way she solves one of the most classic tango DJ quandaries of tinkering with the beloved-yet-sorely-overplayed milonga tanda of Cacareando-Fortines-Vieja Linda is totally spectacular). And the Grand Saturday Ball with performances, DJ'd by Santa Fe's Fer, had a palpable vibe of a Latin American festival milonga tinged with the later-period music, the drama, and the beautiful vocals. More friends found with every class, with every milonga. Better and better tandas. How I wish now that it lasted longer! Next time, maybe? Back up North, I just watch the amazing vids and break into a warm smile. Muchas gracias, Nancy!!

Hot spring "caves" along the highway to
Dolores Hidealgo, ca, km 10:
Red - La Gruta, Blue - Escondido (Black - Galeria Atotonilco)
ATMs: there is one at the hotel, also Azteca on the main drag just past the sharp corner with Codo on the right (we needed it when the hotel ATM was out of order)
Money exchanges: abound around Correo - but a passport is required
Booze: occasion retail blue-law restrictions apply, like on national holidays ... but you can talk eateries into serving it "out".
Cabs: 35 pesos across downtown. When going to a more remote location, ask the driver about picking you up for a return trip (regreso). You may also ask for driver's business card with the phone number for your piece of mind.
Old town SMA. Red - Mario's Seafood; Blue - artisans passages:
Black - El Jardin; Green - El Chorro egrets
Businesses locations on Google maps: they are in an unbelievable disarray! If I ever find myself on a lazy vacation in SMA, then I'll spend a lot of time fixing the Google maps craze.
Clothes optional hot springs: few if any options ... reportedly Escondido hosted some women-only nights, and possibly Mayan offers it with its private bookings but one needs to set an appointment like months in advance!
Fruit juices and fresh local food in the airport: Mexicans tend to be crazy about pizzas, fried chicken, hamburguesas, sweet pastries, and sweetened drinks, and that's what you find at the rest stops etc. But we were pleasantly surprised to find a good selection of more appealing foods in the giant food court of Terminal 2 of MEX.

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