In Musical Veracruz, Now Hear This

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Close my eyes.

That's what I'm going to do, I decide, as I fold into a low-slung metal chair under the colonial-era arches of the Plaza de Armas in drowsy, under-appreciated Veracruz, Mexico.

I've blocked my sense of sight for a moment to heighten my other senses in this sensual place. And it's my sense of smell that kicks into overdrive first, tricking me for a split second into thinking I'm in Havana. I draw in luscious cigar smoke: not the cheapo variety, not the eau de Swisher Sweets and other bargain stuff we get in the States but an authentic fog of torched and puffed Montecristos, Cohibas and Diplomaticos straight from the island.

Then I hear the notes: playful, cheery, vaguely tropical. Strings strummed by a thick thumbnail.

"Amada Margarita, mujer de Don Simon," a raspy voice croons: Beloved Margarita, wife of Don Simon.

"The one who wants me to eat tamales made of rat meat," he growls in Spanish.

Laughter from the table next to me.

I take a peek. Old men in startlingly white guayaberas, white pants, white shoes. One runs his fingers across a jarana, a small guitar that resembles a ukulele. The other leans into the coolest harp I've ever seen. It's like a piece of furniture. All inlaid cedar wood: giant, but somehow delicate.

I've arrived in a place I like to call Mexico's Living Jukebox. On this unassuming square, in this unassuming city, you can hear the entire catalogue of Mexicanized Latin music. Live, unamplified and exquisitely performed. Just call the musicians over and slide them a few pesos, or sit back and enjoy the songs the people at the tables around you are requesting.

Over there is a trio of men in cowboy hats howling drinking songs to the Latinized oompah rhythms of NorteƱo banda music; a few steps away, a sleepy-eyed man waits his turn with batons poised over a cedar wood marimba. There are mariachis, of course -- this is Mexico, after all -- and there are also men in flowered shirts ready to shake maracas to a Son Cubano rhythm. The competing bands politely take turns playing, so they don't drown out their fellow musicians.

I normally have little patience for cheesy street musicians who hover around tourist areas playing mediocre versions of the same tired standards, but these guys are different. They're the real deal. They can flat-out play. They are Veracruz institutions. And Veracruzanos love them.

It's a shame that this city, an important cargo port and offshore oil town that perches on Mexico's east coast 260 miles from Mexico City, barely registers as a destination for Americans, except, that is, for oil company executives and the occasional convention-goers. True, the murky gulf water that slaps its dreary beaches can't compare with the bathtub-warm embrace of the sea off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula or the awe-inspiring waves blasting onshore on the Pacific side. Those places, though, are overrun with Americans and Europeans. Veracruz feels like a place created by and for Mexicans, and it can be a nice spot to chill out for a few days of eating, drinking and slowing down.

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