Alibi V.25 No.7 • Feb 18-24, 2016 

Aural Fixation

Only in Oaxaca

Alejandra Robles at Teatro Alcalá

The Teatro Macedonio Alcalá in Oaxaca was much smaller than I thought it would be. It was also much fancier than I was prepared for—think red carpets and ushers in coattails. Think, as I later found out, that it’s the same venue that the metropolitan opera performs in. I found myself in the familiar position of wishing I had nicer shoes.

For 250 pesos (about $13 American) I bought a ticket to this concert that I knew next to nothing about, beside the fact that it was highly anticipated by most Oaxaqueños, judging from the fact that the city was plastered with posters for it. It was a benefit for the  Escuela Normal Bilingüe e Intercultural de Oaxaca, which, coming from my Americano perspective, I naively assumed was a Spanish-English bilingual school. I was liberated of this assumption once the curtains came up and the MC and poet Natalia Toledo stepped onto stage and began speaking in a language I had never heard before. Turns out, the Escuela Bilingüe teaches in Spanish and Zapotec, the mother language of the indigenous Zapotec peoples of the Oaxaca region.

Toledo opened the evening by reading several poems in both Zapotec and Spanish, a mental workout for me, as even my Spanish is dodgy at best. I understood, at least, that these were very political poems: about the right to speak one’s own language, about the right to live as one’s people have always lived. You will find that much of Oaxaca’s modern poetry and music scenes are focused on political themes, and a concert attended by well-heeled Oaxaqueños is no exception.

After Toledo’s reading, the stage filled with fog as the Banda Filarmónica Universitaria, led by Maestro Manuel Victoriano, took up a lilting brass rhythm. This sort of stage setting, which at first seemed out of place in its drama, all made sense once the star of the show, the classical singer Alejandra Robles, glided onto stage.

In a gorgeous gown embroidered with multicolored flowers of a traditional Mexican pattern and long enough that she had to drape the fabric over her arm to keep from tripping over it, Robles absolutely requires your attention once on stage. With a flutter of her bedazzled fingernails and a toss of her Assata-esque afro, she burst into a fiery tenor with a smile. With over a decade of voice training under her belt, Alejandra Robles has more vocal control than anyone I’ve heard before and an unbelievable octave range. Despite the years of work (or, more likely, because of it), she gives off the sense that performing is effortless for her—that she was born to be on stage.

Robles is a Oaxacan native who takes the affectionate nickname “La Morena,” a term that your Spanish textbooks will tell you means “brunette.” It, uh, doesn’t mean that precisely. It’s more along the lines of “dark-complexioned” in reality, but there are no derogatory associations with the word, as far as I can tell. Robles is from a small population of Mexican people of African descent who live on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, and she pays frequent tribute to her home and her people on stage by shouting “Viva la costa!” (“Long live the coast!”) and raising a fist between songs.

Robles, who has studied singing and dance at the School of Fine Arts of Oaxaca, the 12th Paris Conservatory of Music and the School of Music at the Universidad Veracruzana, is one of the most admired singers in Mexico. Along with several original songs inspired by Mexican music of the ‘40s, she sang mostly Mexican standards like “La Llorona” and “Mambo Lupita.” Besides being a phenomenally talented musician she is perhaps the best frontperson I’ve ever seen: smiling, dancing on stage in her impossible dress, charismatically chatting up the audience and the other musicians between songs, and captivating everyone with her beauty and confidence. She is the definition of charming.

After performing several songs with the Banda Filarmónica, Robles announced that she was giving the stage to a very special group of young musicians that she wanted us to hear. Onto the stage walked three young Zapotec men in untucked button-up shirts and sneakers, each holding a cordless mic and looking down with patently obvious discomfort. One of the three spoke up to announce that they were called Badu Bazendu, a Zapotec term which loosely translates to “young rebels.” They cued up an instrumental track, and instantly the awkwardness vanished as the three burst into a synchronous rap, thorny and angry, switching fluidly from Zapotec to Spanish and back again between verses. There was a palpable feeling of surprise in the audience, which was composed mostly of middle-aged Oaxaqueños—people who likely don’t listen to much rap—but at the end of the song they all burst into shouts and applause, which, in turn, seemed to surprise Badu Bazendu. At the end of the show, I was one of dozens who swarmed their merch table to buy a t-shirt.

After the show let out, I sat on the curb with my companions, eating elotes and listening to the noise of the city. “I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life,” I said. One of my friends, who’s lived in Oaxaca for over a year now, said “You’ll find yourself saying that a lot here. Welcome to Oaxaca.”

Alejandra Robles in Concert