The Rich Sounds of Oaxaca: A Primer

Remember your auditory sense:

It is said that while in Oaxaca, if you don’t look up while sightseeing, you’ll miss a lot (i.e. centuries old detailed carvings, moldings and frescos, trees growing perpendicular out of walls and elaborately landscaped roof-tops). Similarly, if you don’t keep your ear to the ground your stay in the city will not be as culturally complete and informative as it could be. What follows is a sampler of the range of sounds you might hear from car-top loudspeakers, truck and scooter horns, steam whistles, stereo systems and live bands, and an explanation of what each signifies, as well as how to tell them apart.

It is not necessary to venture off into the pueblos to experience the plethora of diverse and colorful sounds, which in and of themselves provide you with a greater understanding of life in Oaxaca. Just head outside of the Centro Histórico by taking a bus or taxi, or simply going for a long walk, even a kilometer or two beyond the Periférico and N. Heroes de Chapultepec. I am referring not to the continuous din of donkeys and dogs, toads, turkeys, roosters, and the more exotic birds and bovine, but rather to man-made articulations. Such sounds advise the residents of the city of the proximity of vendors of a variety of goods and services, regarding religious and secular events, or that a rite of passage of a neighbor is under way.

Commercial vendors create most of the daily discord on the streets, and inform us of what fruits are seasonally inexpensive, delicacies which tempt the taste buds of locals, and how important it is for Oaxacans to have their fresh tortillas and other baked goods. The most unusual sound comes from a metal wagon wheeled along the streets, its operator selling hot fried plantain, with sweet cream and other condiments sprinkled atop upon asking…simply delicious, and generally a “safe” food to eat on the street. Usually during the evenings one can hear the pitch of its steam whistle, starting off with a low tenor, and reaching a high screech…can’t be mistaken. At the other end of the spectrum are the tortilla vendors who often drive by the same neighborhood streets 2 – 3 times daily, usually in a VW Beetle, or on a scooter, notifying residents of their presence by short beeps of their horns. You might also hear the bread and pastry truck trolling the streets, with loudspeaker atop, the driver busking the virtues of his bolillos and variety of pan dulce. When he’s not so extolling, he has music blaring, the same songs day after day so neighbors can identify particular songs with baked goods for sale. The same pattern of dividing announcements between the shouted word and recorded music is encountered with the fruit trucks, pickups sometimes selling simply oranges by the bagful of 25, 50 or 100, or in conjunction with other types of citrus, melons and piñas, by the piece or kilo, scales loaded in the back of the vehicle, young associate bagging, weighing and taking cash. When the voice goes hoarse, on comes The Beatles, Revolver. We learn a little about culture and economics…the price of gas and labor relative to the sale of such perishables and required profit margins; the importance for residents to have fresh foodstuffs; lack of proximity to more traditional retail outlets with such offerings; and finally, the availability of at least one person in the home throughout the day to make such purchases. Think of what percentage of your neighbors are home throughout the day to welcome such purveyors. In Oaxaca, with its extended family tradition, and responsibility for making purchases entrusted to quite young children, it is feasible for such a method of marketing to continue.

Distinctly different sounds are made for announcing the arrival of necessities. It is trite to note the importance of drinking water. Several times a day water trucks loaded with 19 liter blue plastic or clear glass bottles patrol every street in every colonia, although sometimes economics may dictate use of a large tricycle instead of the motorized vehicle. The sound one hears is always the same, and unmistakable…..agua (¡aah-gwaaah!). Almost as frequently one can’t help but miss the trucks selling propane by the tank, usually in your choice of three sizes…exchange your emptied for filled. No human voice used here, but rather one or more of perhaps three familiar signals…a deep fog horn type of sound, the racket of a chain dragging along the street, and/or the recorded sound of a mooing cow followed by a jingle. Propane is residentially used primarily for stoves and hot water tanks…no underground oil or natural gas lines…here in Oaxaca we have enough trouble getting the government to just repair streets and sidewalks, and make somewhat safer the tap water we receive from the broken, antiquated and inefficient underground water delivery system—let alone embark upon changing the entire system of fuel delivery to subsurface (although recently the downtown sidewalks and streets were dug up to bury utility lines).

Much more often than in earlier eras, residents are opting for the use of larger stationary propane tanks which are filled pursuant to a delivery schedule so that these larger single receptacle propane trucks do not notify households that they’re out on the street. Similarly, the large water trucks—which fill cisternas and tinacos for household use apart from drinking—need not signal their presence, since they arrive by order only. But if you’re downstairs when the cow bell signals the arrival of the garbage truck, you’ve missed it for another week, unless you track down the truck with the week’s refuse in back of your pickup, either that day, or another if you know the dates and routes closeby.

There are also three types of informational announcements you may hear on a regular basis. Once again there are merchants, not peddling their wares on the street, but rather notifying Oaxacans of bargains or sales by means of car-top speaker, for example a supermarket chain promoting products, or a pizza franchise selling a large with two selections, plus two liters of soda for only 100 pesos. The second and perhaps more vital type of information that is received by residents is public service in nature, consisting of local news events. Often when someone in a colonia dies, a truck winds the neighborhood streets advising of not only the passing, but of pertinent details regarding mass, burial, and so on.

When there are public works to be completed that the municipio does not deem within its mandate to address in a timely fashion, the president of the colonia may arrange for the work to be done by residents, for example clearing brush. The announcement traditionally includes where and when the project will be commenced, with a plea to attend ready for work and to bring as many picks, shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows as are available to you. When hearing this type of exhortation you know that there is a neighborhood organization in place that sees part of its duty to pick up where the “higher” levels of government have left off, or is not prepared to wait until government gets around to prioritizing what the residents deem important.

The final type of information your auditory sense picks up on the streets emanates from celebrations, evidencing the richness and diversity of social life, and signifying the arrival of an important customary or religious event. While often a part of the event may take place in a hall, church or salon, in this fiesta oriented society celebrating includes at minimum a portion of the festivities occurring on the streets or at a home, or entirely in a local setting. At any time of day or night it is not unusual to hear the blaring of a sound system or live band music echoing across a valley through neighborhoods. There may be a wedding of 400 people, a 50th birthday celebration or a quince años (elaborate celebration when a girl turns 15, similar to a Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish faith) well under way. Depending on the makeup of the crowd, you may hear deafening rap, hip-hop or that otherwise deep base type of teenager-oriented music, or perhaps the more traditional cumbia tunes, or a combination of D.J. contemporary music in one set, followed by live band Latin music in the next. The most modest $100 stereo system can be hooked up to an amp and monster speakers to create a deafening diversion from otherwise relatively tranquil surroundings. The other type of music one often hears comes from more informal bands winding their way through the streets as a part of religious customs. Just look in any book which enumerates the multitude of saints’ days and other ritual dates, and you can pretty well assume that you will hear band music swinging up and down streets, weakening as the procession winds further away, and strengthening until it is upon you. Stop and ask what’s going on. Have a drink if you’re offered a small cup of mezcal, and eat up all that the festivities are willing to offer.

Follow your ears to the origin of the music, and peek in if you can, no matter how formal or informal the setting may be…you just may be welcomed inside, and really have an experience to tell the folks back home. If you simply “listen to the music” your Oaxacan experience will be that much richer.