Episode 383 – Mérida Fest! (Part 1 of 3)

January in Mérida is culture month, the annual celebration of the city’s birthday. This year, Mérida is 481 years old!! From January 5th to the 29th, 154 separate FREE events take place in the city: concerts, theatre, spoken word, dance, book readings, and movies, including performers from all over the world!

I was going to do one massive post for the festival, but realized mid-way through that it would be far too long, so here’s what we did during what the program considers weeks 1 & 2 of four, but is really just a bit over a calendar week since the first “week” only ran from Thursday to Saturday.

NOTE: All the embedded videos are Ted’s.

The website and posters, both published mid December, indicated ticket pickup at the Olimpo Cultural Centre on Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 – 6, with a maximum of 2 free tickets per event, and listed those events which needed tickets.

We had hoped to get tickets for 19 of the 24 evenings.

As we’ve noticed several times already in our short time here, what the website says and what actually happens can be two very different things. So… after a couple of fruitless visits to a closed Olimpo in the last half of December, the ticket table finally appeared on January 3rd, but without tickets for many of the events. “Maybe later” and “we don’t think that actually needs tickets” were the 2 responses we got. It’s a good thing I’m learning to understand Spanish!

We ended up with tickets for 5 events, including the inaugural concert, and a plan to keep going back during the Fest to see if more tickets are released.

Subsequent visits, including on the opening day of the festival, yielded no further tickets, but the assurance that most of the events we hoped to attend did not require them. We do know, from even the “normal” evening events, that arriving an hour before show time is the only way to ensure a seat. Fingers crossed!

Where it was possible for Ted to get decent video, i’ve inserted links to his YouTube posts, so we’ll be able to enjoy the music again when we look back at these blog entries.

Friday, January 6th. The inaugural concert, outside the Palacio Municipale: Tribute to Yucatecan Trova. Trova in Mexico has been widely influenced by Cuban popular music originating in the 19th century. This concert featured Cuban artists Haila Maria Mompié with Vania Borges, Leo Vera, and William Borrego accompanied by a full band. The Cuban Consul was in attendance as a guest of honor. We were also treated to an excellent opening act, a 4-man Cuban á capella group, who we may catch again in a future concert.

Outdoor stage at the Plaza Grande, with seating for over 1000 people on chairs and bleachers.
Snapshots of the inaugural concert’s acts.

Saturday, January 7th. Dueto de Música at the Palacio de Musica. The duo of Ablaye Cissoko from Senegal and Cyrille Brotto from France was billed as “a story of friendship and respect between two men and two instruments, the diatonic accordion and the kora”.

The kora is a Senegalese instrument made from a huge fruit, with 21 strings, played with both hands a bit like a lap-held harp.

Sunday January 8th. Bach Sagrada (“sacred Bach”) at the Teatro Felipe Carrillo Puerto, part of the cultural centre of the Independent University of Yucatan. The performers were the Ensemble Unarum Fidium, playing baroque instruments, and featuring mezzo soprano Malina Rauschenfels.

Top: the entire ensemble. Centre: Baroque old viola, cello, and bass. It was explained to us that those instruments have not changed significantly in 400 years, except that their wood and natural strings are much more susceptible to changes in humidity than modern instruments. The players had to tune after every single number, even though most of the cantatas, arias, and gavottes were only a couple of minutes long. Bottom left: the modern oboe (left) is very different from the baroque oboe! Bottom right: Malina.

Honestly, the acoustics in the theatre weren’t great for a classical ensemble and singer, and, although Ted quite enjoyed the program, I was reminded of what I don’t love about Bach: the very mathematical, almost stilted sound of some of his compositions. I came home feeling like I need to re-read Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, the book by Douglas Hofstadter that explores the connections between math/logic, artistic symmetry, and music.

Tuesday, January 10th (there are no events on Mondays). Our music options tonight were Trova inside the Olimpo Cultural Centre, or “Maya Etnofusion” outside in the Parque Santa Lucia. We’re really glad we chose the Trova night, because in addition to a great venue and wonderful music, four Trova pioneers were honoured with special recognition medals and awards for their lifetime of musical achievements.

The interior courtyard of the Olimpo.

A typical trova band consists of just 3 or 4 musicians, of which one is a percussionist playing bongo drums, maracas, gourds, and claves (the 2 sticks/dowels that are rhythmically struck against each other). At least 2, but more often 3 of the musicians also sing. Listen here:

The concert reminded me of seeing classic doo-wop groups like The Coasters or The Drifters; some of the trovadores (that’s what trova musicians are called) had to be in their late 80’s, and still put on a terrific energetic show. As each group was introduced, their decades-long accomplishments were given: residencies in famous hotels, awards, recordings, etc. “Missing” group members were replaced by younger trovadores; this style of music is quintessential Yucatecan, and in no danger of dying out. While most people associate Mexico with mariachi bands, those larger groups of brass, violin, and guitar are really more typical of the Jalisco province. Trova, with its Cuban and Colombian influences, belongs to the Yucatan.

Wednesday, January 11th. We weren’t sure there’d be time to catch a concert tonight, because my Spanish class doesn’t end until 6 (and then we need to eat!), but fortunately we were in time to see and hear Yucatecan composer and performer Felissa Estrada in her concert entitled “Se Tratta del Vivir” (It’s About Living). Accompanied by an 8 piece band led by Juan Palacio, Felissa took us on an emotional journey through the highs and lows of life and love. At the same time, she also took us on a musical journey around Latin America, featuring songs from Mexico, Cuba, Peru, Equador, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia (I might have missed a few in trying to keep up with her patter in Spanish). She has a strong compelling voice, great stage presence, and even plays much of her own percussion, including bongos and a box drum. You can listen to one of her songs that Ted filmed here:

Such passion!

Thursday, January 12th. “Secuencias de Plata” (Silver Strings), a performance of music by the Orquestra de Cámara de Mérida (the Mérida Chamber Orchestra) to celebrate their 25th anniversary. It was truly a “wow” concert of soaring strings from the 16 piece orchestra, young guest violinist performing a piece written by her grandfather, and a young Mexican soprano just returned from performing with the Croatian National Opera.

Ready…. Set…Go.

Six of the compositions were created especially for this celebration, and the composers – one of whom plays viola in the orchestra – were in attendance. If tonight was any indication, the future of orchestral music is in very good hands.

Here’s a sample that Ted recorded:

The two soloists, the conductor (with arms spread), and 5 of the 6 composers, receiving the audience’s appreciation. Sadly, no programs get handed out at these events, so I couldn’t keep track of people’s names.

Friday, January 13th. Canadian ex-pat Josh Cohen and a night of “jazz fusion”. The problem was, we just couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be fused with. Ted called it “jazz CONfusion”.


Josh and his quintet were clearly into the music. To be fair, much of the audience was too … just not we two.

The one number we both enjoyed was his solo guitar piece, below:


Saturday, January 14th. Back-to-back events in the Plaza Grande under the stars, billed as the first of three “Noches de las Culturas” (nights of cultures), featuring Juumil Moots Mayan etnofusion, followed by Al Anwar Haifa in concert.

What a wonderful night of music! Juumil Moots, with their outstanding lead singer Jasmin Novélo, performed an hour of rock, reggae, Latin, pop, and blues – all in Mayan. Their performance was energetic. Every single number had us swaying and clapping. It was a lot of fun despite the fact that we didn’t understand any of the lyrics.

Jasmin was such an expressive singer that Ted couldn’t resist trying to capture several moods. The stage lighting rotated through several colours, as evidenced in his photos.

Enjoy my favourite number of the night here:


Al Anwar Haifa, a 6-person Palestinian ensemble now living in Haifa Israel, performed classic and modern Arabic music on violin, darbuka, oud, canon, daaf and guitar. The combination of instruments sounded really beautiful together.

Several female audience members were REALLY into the music, belly dancing in front of the stage – one older (our age) lady repeatedly headed for the stage area to dance around very theatrically with her shawl, and unfortunately was so distracting that she almost upstaged the musicians.

The full ensemble with the San Ildefonso Cathedral as their backdrop – and our “bonus” dancer.

ALL of this was just the first week of the festival! We have more than two weeks to go, with activities available every day except Mondays, and a grand finale concert at the end. All the venues are within a 20 minute maximum walk from our home base, so we’ll continue to try to get out to an event every evening.

I’ll keep track of them with a week’s summary posted on the next 2 Sundays. What a perfect place Mérida is for enjoying live entertainment!

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