Scene: Music in Oaxaca.


Went to Oaxaca with my bodyguards, and some things besides mosquitoes got in our ears.

Out in the zócalo: A brass band represented the still-standard mode of southern Mexico -- a stoic conductor, 30 motley men in tight black jackets, a series of women singing in exuberant traditional gowns. Seven tubas nailed the simple oompah riffs; when a gray-haired gent flicked his wrist, a huge bass drum shivered the guts of a thousand idlers. Unlike many party outfits from farther north, this band did not fake inebriation; they swung with melancholy dignity in the hot winter sun, and the women wailed helpless despair.

From the boomboxes outside the chachke market in nearby Mitla: brass bands. From the windows of cars in the endless traffic jams: brass bands. On the radios of the kitchens: brass bands. If people liked pop, they didn't let it break the studied charm of the tourist areas.

In the Zapotec-antiquities rooms of the historical museum: High synthesizer drones suggested mystery as we squinted through the dim lighting at grotesque divinities; in this former cathedral complex, you were encouraged to feel that murky barbarity, some of it older than Jesus, could not compete with bright Christian redemption. Still, the stiff religious icons of the Conquest contrasted poorly against the indigenous artists' elegant violence.

In a high-end restaurant: Two classical guitarists plucked a clean arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophe." That's just showing off.

From a storefront next to the zócalo's sidewalk cafés: A keyboard-and-timbales duo drowned out evening diners with timeless favorites. Hearing the 1969 electric-guitar solo of "Oye Como Va" played perfectly, I peeked in and saw no guitarist; it was young Carlos Santana on a karaoke track. The keyboardist sang while playing, which he should not do. But the dude rattling the timbales drove out demons.

The musical avant-garde: It's alive in Oaxaca. Day and night, we experienced a long conceptual piece -- many loud cherry bombs exploding at irregular intervals. Maybe the composer wanted to remind us how a notable Oaxaca native, President Benito Juárez, once dealt with foreign intruders.

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