SINGING A DIFFERENT TUNE—For the Same Old Song
By Ron Knight
This dusty cluster of 14th century cobblestoned villages has spawned a mini cultured growth of US and Canadian expatriates who left their home countries for a variety of economical, political, and social reasons, most with an alter-ego sense of wanderlust; and a few indigenous Mexicans who grew up on the pop music of the USA, being within earshot of the radio station signals across the southern US-Mexico border, incidentally and coincidently merged while taking over the space of an Open Mike Night at a club called La Bodega.
Nestled in the Sierra Madre around Mexico’s largest inland sea, Lago de Chapala, is our by now known eclectic Mexican village with a long history as an artists colony. Ajijic, the 14th century rustic gem has become home to retirees and artists since the 60’s, and those seeking a time out from The American Dream.
Together, the by choice shipwrecked musical refugees combine into various troupes that infuse musical sensibilities ranging from the Carolina Blues, Hawaiian skiffle or new Hawaiian (Jawaiian) adapted Jamaica roots music from Reggae and Ska; a mean driving bass bottom supplied by the almost classically trained hands in the folkloric jazz bass of Mexico, mixed with the pop sensibilities of Southern California’s studio rhythms, whether by drums or Latin world percussion of the Cajon. This Ronrico meets Bacardi cocktail of pop and dance music means a world of memories and good times for those in need of a balmy breeze from any "Change your Latitude" beachside resort. The highland bowl of life at the altitude of 5,100 feet is a pretty far cry from the hustling swarms of the planned Vegas-style implosion of growth of the resorts like Puerto Vallarta.
By now many of the musical Expats are known in the villages by name, some with profound history whose pasts keep creeping into life now as playing music never seems to let the players go, regardless of life in "retirement". You can take man out of music, but you can’t take the music out of the man. Or woman.
Richard Paul Brier, a long time resident, is "happily retired", but as an Emmy award writer and music consultant, he now works in TV again because after all, some people you’ve left behind still obviously can’t get it right, and Paul does. Paul is a very enjoyable multitalented instrumentalist and many enjoy his entertaining around locales La Bodega, Adelita’s and more. Besides playing keyboards, guitar, a saxophone that always features the most remarkably correct on pitch accuracy (a lot of sax players have a problem with sharpness or flatness on their pitch with damn reeds being too hard, too soft, but rarely as Goldilocks might find are just right), Paul also sings a large catalog of songs from memory lane and he understands the driving force of Community.
Jay Shuffle is a blues man who plays a remarkable harmonica. It seems he can jump on a southern bulldozer and drive right over and through the Blues with the best of them, but then has no problem tenderly and lovingly hitting the chromatic melodies of harmonious lines in an American Songbook Classic, that counterpoints just as well thought out as an arranger’s string section for call and response to a love tune. Recently Jay posted a picture of himself from daresay younger hippie days in Hawaii teaching his young nephew how to play the mouth harp. Many would say just watching Jay he teaches a LOT of folks about the mouth harp.
Louis Pavao is an interesting anomaly of singer and troubadour and acoustic guitar, who is also known as the Maui Superman, although he heralds from The Big Island. A tad sweet and sour, one might think of him as a mix of barbecued kahlua pork from a luau, now being served as carnitas. Gene DeAmici who plays a gentle straight ahead blues guitar, claims a past playing with the historic Carolina rock band "Swingin’ Medallions, (Double Shot of My Baby’s Love), although as a former DJ whose responsibilities included filling out the thousands of publishing codes for all songs played on national radio networks, this writer has not personally found any such published attribute or credit. Doesn’t matter. We all have tales of those we actually did in fact play with, but for one reason or another, publishing and credits rather dropped the ball. Personally, I’ve sat in the offices of Sir Paul McCartney and played with jazz master Dave Pike, who as now retired happily paints in Del Mar, California, but you won’t find these listings in any accredited bio, either.
A favorite of many here at the Lake, Jimmy Barto, trumpet, keyboards and vocals is a younger expat than the average age here, and he boasts being from Berklee College of Music in Boston. His countless Boston sessions and film work covers a huge knowledge of pop cultures style, and perhaps besides his amusing and killer renditions of sound-alike Louis Armstrong, the most fun you can have with Jimmy is sitting around on any night and spinning through the jaunt of Situation Comedy TV show themes. He’s a library, and hey you can’t help popping down another beer when everyone at the party is punching through a sing along of Gilligan’s Island, the Addams Family or the Dick Van Dyke Show.
Sergio Casas, the beloved local who heralds originally from Guadalajara as one of the local finest session players on six string bass, not an easy instrument to master, as well as vocals, also hosts a local Wednesday night open mic. The preeminent 6 string electric bassist from Guadalajara is virtual text book on all American Pop Standards and Mexican Romantico,
I, Ron Knight, rather pass through the area coming and going for three years, and have been heard on world percussion, keys, guitar, vocals, and before Lake Chapala, most recently of the 12 piece "Horn Band 101"and perhaps best known prior as host on Sirius Radio.
Mike Leisenbach, on countless Saxes and flute, retired early from LA and decided with his wife Karen, also in music to grace the lake now for quite a few years as long time residents. Aside from past performance with Los Cantantes Del Lago choir, the two have merged into the local scene not only playing the best of their American jazz standards repertoire with various other players around the Lake, both as individuals and as a duo, they have also pierced the veil of cultures to also play with the local Mexican bands and orchestras. You’ll know Mike. He’s the anomaly white guy with the shocking platinum white pony tail playing that huge sax in the Salsa band. But this is cross culturalism at its best.
Renowned guitarist Blue Jay Slim Pinkus, International Blues Competition Winner 2014, graces the Lake part of the year and is always enjoyed by Blues aficionados and those who enjoy the whirling blues style of dance. He and wife Mindy would most likely move to the Lake year round, but they’re perplexed by the darn kid who won’t move out of the house. Okay, that’s inside information, but those Blues lovers who know the inside track are very blessed to have Blue Jay Slim and Mindy here for the time that they are. Blue Jay lays down everything from the expected "Crossroads" to his well loved originals such as "Stick Out Your Can, Here Come the Garbage Man." Yeah, Jay. Well stated for the annals of music.
Noe Raygoza of Noe and The Classics does amazing vocals of Elvis for a boy from Tijuana. He charms with his vocals and guitar. Growing up on the TJ side of the USA - San Diego border meant listening to DJs like Wolfman Jack "XERB, Baby!" and who’s dad actually worked with Herb Albert producing "The Lonely Bull". Today, Noe makes the rounds playing music, but his compensation comes from selling remarkable gourmet cheese, which he brings to any performance. Hey, do you think musicians make that much money playing around the Lake? So Noe plays and performs and then he brings out the cooler that has the best variety of World Class Cheeses, and sells them for about 70 to 100 pesos a wrapped block, chunk or slice. All the players lovingly call him Cheeses of Nazareth.
Francis Dryden, or Santa Claus as he’s also known, because at the holiday time of year, he grows his beard and Santa is what he does, is a hold the fort down drummer. Mostly playing with Paul and Jay, as the Ajijic Jamm Band, Francis also keeps tabs on the local music scene publishing Lakeside Live to keep his ever growing email list advised about all the weekly music happenings. An activist, Francis mounts the campaign for everyone to stop regarding Lakeside as high season and low season as there is a year round community here who lives and exists here, and every time the community as a whole presumes it’s a low season, business will kill itself with that attitude: Pre-determinism of economic fate.
Some of us with businesses around the lake agree. You have to allow for a local "chamber of commerce" to ensure commerce for those who live here year round. If you presume otherwise, those who love here year round will die so they can’t be here to be of service to you "high seasoners" when you’re here and you expect to have someone serve you your god damned cheap tequila that you come to expect for so cheap so you can live on your cheapskate pension plan. Yes, your dollars go father here and yes you can buy lovely luxurious real estate to live far better here than you can in Northern climes, but stop dissing this place and the locals as not being year round.
You get all these musical guys together and the scene can combine, turning a slow roast into an injection of the occasional nostalgic recounts of Latin Pop radio crossovers such as Wooly Booly and 96 Tears, and it’s a pop sixties nostalgia time and much, much more for your Island Time Barbecue, Luau, Bo Diddly Ribfest or Junkanoo Holiday quick fix at your club or venue. Sprinkled with the Mexican folklorico that you know that you came for.
With a last call to embark while you’re here, shove off and ship out. Enjoy being an expat. It’s a slightly different tune to the same old song.