Elben Macari – Música Para Planetarios (1987 / 2017)
They say that history is written by the victorious. If this is true, in Mexico the victor is loss. It is a country were organized civilization dates back three and half millennia, predating the beginnings of Greek antiquity by almost a thousand years, but where, since the 16th century, concrete fact almost immediately disappears.
When the Spanish arrived in Meshtleeko – the lands which make up modern day Mexico, in 1519, they encountered a vast network of individual cultures and societies, the majority of which, particularly in the middle geographies, had been forced into submission by the Aztecs. So began a process of suppression, with the bending of truth and will, which continues today. To understand contemporary Mexico, or its recent history – if such a thing is even possible, one first must recognize the legacies of colonialism – its brutality, inequities, and forced world view, lingering at the heart.
Across the first half of the 16th century, the Spanish deployed a basic series strategies to conquer the indigenous peoples of Mexico – division, violence, the destruction of cultural heritage and history, and the control of information. They joined forces with the societies who were oppressed by the Aztecs, only to turn on and enslave them once the dominant threat was vanquished. They burned vast quantities of codices – holding these cultures’ ancient knowledge, history, and religious belief systems, and tore down their remarkable architecture, constructing churches on the sites, using the remaining harvested stone to build the beginnings of their new cities. What they created was vastly polarized society, divided along racial and cultural lines – those early acts of cultural and historical destruction and suppression, now offering coded metaphors for the realities of Mexico over the centuries since.
For those who grow up beyond its borders, Mexico is a shadow. We know little about it beyond media distortions regarding violence, poverty, and the exit of immigrants in search of better life. It is an incredible diverse world of beauty, depth, pride, culture, and remarkable history, but, even with what is and what remains, it is country defined by loss – one within which accurate truth is obscure and difficult to obtain – continuously veiled, altered, or eradicated in the service of the consolidation of wealth and power. For all its wonders, as it was in the early formations of its modern society, it is a country marked by division, violence, the destruction of cultural heritage and history, and the control of information – albeit taking slightly different forms.
In the fields of history, anthropology, and archeology, the beginnings of reconstruction almost always begin with the artifacts which are left behind – the products of the arts – sculpture, painting, literature, and music. Those of us who embrace these fields, professional and armature alike, love to imagine that the resulting image is far more complete than it is – that what is captured is something resembling a totality. It is impossible to know what degree of fact is found, when a sense for what is lost does not remain. In Mexico that is made all that much more complex by the degree of destruction which has been perpetrated, and the fact that one society was literally built from the bones of another.
Unsurprisingly, the United States has played a part in this all, but that country – my own, for all the evils it perpetrates, is not without its paradoxes and virtues. Since its birth, it has displayed a binary of profound diversity and inequity, relentlessly pursuing the destruction of its most remarkable attribute – it’s diversity – who we are and what we bring to its shores, in favor of cultural homogeneity – that we are all Americans under one banner. Rather than achieving this, the blow black – the fervent retention of cultural heritage, has become one of our most important and distinct features. We have never truly existed under one banner. We are a country built on the back of transience, almost always forced, in desperation, or in chains – literal, economic, or both. We descend from the tired, poor, huddled masses, and we carry them with us we go – the always indigenous, the once Africans, Latin-Americans, Europeans, Asians, and on. The United States is a time capsule – a place where the traditions, histories, and cultural artifacts from across the world gather and are preserved – held onto with iron grip. Thus, despite all the distortions perpetrated by the media and political figures, for many of us, it is across the border, in the Untied States, that the pursuit of Mexico begins.
I have often written about the record collector, that most devoted and self-sacrificing form of music fan, as an incarnation of historian, anthropologist, and archeologist. We have spent decades digging in the bins, stitching together the lost narratives of culture from what has been left behind. For most of us, a curiosity about Mexican music was inevitable. There are few cities in the United States within which the wonderful sounds of Salsa, Mariachi, Banda, and Cumbia can not be heard drifting in the streets. At some point along the way, some of us began to encounter strange artifacts that didn’t entirely fit with what we knew. While most of Mexico’s musical traditions are appreciated cross-generationally – loved by the young and old alike, these sounds took another form – specific to time, place, and generation – counter-cultural defiance, tapping something at once ancient and futuristic, contained on albums by shadowy figures like Jorge Reyes, Arturo Meza, Antonio Zepeda, Luis Perez, and Carlos Alvarado.
Reconstructing an image of the scene of Mexican underground music which developed at the end of the 1970’s and across the 1980’s – the one to which artist’s like Reyes, Meza, Zepeda, Perez, Alvarado, and many others belonged, is extremely difficult and impossible to dislodge from broader social and political occurrence. Because of its complexity, and that of its context, it demands an extended piece in itself – something I am currently working on, and had hoped to finish before this review needed to come out – giving it support and context. Unfortunately, time has gotten the better me, forcing me to find a balance between this piece and the one which will now follow.
As obscure as it is in the North America, Europe, and Asia – where its largest fan bases have grown, the history and artifacts of this loose musical movement are almost entirely forgotten inside of Mexico. There are webs of reasons for this – some political, some social, some economic, and some simply a matter to taste. It is within those webs – the suppression and loss of history, as within the music itself, that something of true Mexico can be found.
The counter-cultural music which developed in Mexico toward the end of the 1970’s – those standing slightly apart from Punk, are most often associated with broader movements New-Age of the same period. While certain aesthetic similarities exist, particularly the draw toward sweeping ambiences, electronic synthesis spliced with traditional instrumentation, and, in some cases, a kind of sonic mysticism, this scene was considerably more complex. It is part of a long legacy of avant-gardism and musical modernism which sprang up in the period following the Mexican Revolution – attempts to create a sonic hybrid which fairly represented the country’s diverse cultural attributes and history – European and indigenous. It is equally a product of a long arc of social and political reality following the failures of the revolution, ultimately resulted in the Guerra Sucia – the Dirty War – a conflict between the ruling PRI – Partido Revolucionario Institucional, backed by the Untied States, and left-wing student and guerrilla groups, which stretched from 1968 until 1982. While the Guerra Sucia had sweeping implications and consequences across Mexican society, it is particularly visible in the culture of music. In 1971 the PRI barred all music which it viewed to be counter-cultural from the radio and recording industry – the preemptive destruction of cultural artifacts and the control of information. Part of the reason that Mexican counter-cultural music from the 1970’s and 80’s remains so unknown, is that it was truly underground, with the vast majority of its artists only able to privately release small editions of recordings, if documented at all. Fortunately, some LPs and cassettes managed to make their way into the world beyond Mexico’s borders, contributing to their revival, and, in some cases, reissue – spawning small, but notable celebration.
Among the most tragically unrecognized figures of the movement and era, is the guitarist and composer Eblen Macari. Of all the artists whose work I have inquired after during the time I have spent in Mexico, his name is among the most forgotten. Tragically, this more common than it should be. With little to no access to their work, the contemporary vanguard of Mexico’s younger musicians often grow into the world with little to no knowledge of those who proceeded them. Paradoxically, for record collectors in the United States, Europe, and Asia, Macari’s masterwork from 1987, Música Para Planetarios, remains among the most hunted and coveted holy grails of Mexican music – demanding prices on the secondary market which would be enough for an average Mexican to eat for an entire month.
One likely reason for Eblen Macari’s lingering obscurity is the fact that his musical career followed a slightly different path than most of his peers. Many of those figures – particularly Reyes and Alvarado, grew out of the world of progressive rock – bands like Decibel and Chac Moll, a movement which developed from the ashes of earlier, political and psychedelic efforts which were suppressed during the Guerra Sucia. What followed had three likely sonic aggregators – encounters with the work of ambient pioneers with links to Prog – Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, etc, the advent of Punk, and the fact that the 1970’s witnessed a substantial growth in interest in Mexican indigenous music. The majority of field recording and releases of this music were produced during this period – a principle inspiration for the coming movement of counter-cultural music. Macari grew from another vine – humble and introspective, with none of the Rock & Roll swagger – more closely connected to forms of the Latin American Nueva Trova and Nueva Cancion- politically tinged forms of folk-ballad, widely popularized in Cuba and by the Chilean poet and singer Victor Jara.
Música Para Planetarios is Macari’s fourth full length release. His first two – Un Producto De Los Sesentas and Trayectos – a duo LP made with Juan Valdés, are beautiful artifacts from Mexico’s vastly neglected movement of late 20th folk music. By 1984, with his third LP, Glaciares, it is clear that radical changes were underfoot – folk becoming one contributing fragment within a much wider whole. It is a stunning piece of work- abstract and minimal, with synthesizers beginning to take a dominant place in the construction of his sonic landscapes. While Música Para Planetarios and Glaciares operate as a lovely dialog – a pair, there is one crucial conceptual difference. Glaciares is an album constructed from a wide viewpoint – it is Latin American music looking afield. Música Para Planetarios is unquestionably Mexican, its gaze delving within.
Música Para Planetarios is, in my view, perhaps the greatest of Mexican albums created within its idiom – the form which combines electronic and ambient music, with elements of Mexico’s ancient folk traditions. For all their virtues and wonders, some of those iconic albums by Vía Láctea, Tribu, Jorge Reyes, Arturo Meza, Antonio Zepeda, and Luis Perez, often date in slightly uncomfortable ways or are inconsistent in quality. Música Para Planetarios has none of this. It is an incredible work, with profound weight, from start to finish. Conceived for weekly performances series in the Luis Enrique Erro Planetarium in Mexico City, as a solo work using synthesizers, guitars, and pre-hispanic Ocarinas, the album’s arrangements are vastly expanded, doubling as an illustration of Macari’s crucial connection to the broader scene within which he sits – containing contributions by Tribu, Arturo Meza, who, in addition to his own noted solo efforts, worked with Jorge Reyes and within Vía Láctea, German Herrera, who worked with Gerardo Bátiz and within Grupo Isla, as well as being a noted field recordist of traditional Mexican forms, and José Luis Almeida, who worked also with Jorge Reyes and Arturo Meza, and would go on to create wonderful collaborations with Macari down the road.
The degree to which I adore Música Para Planetarios is hard to express. It is an album of remarkable cultural importance and creative brilliance – an attempt to claw back lost history, reimagined and given life in the present. It is a conjuring in sound. The artist as a political Trojan horse, reconnecting a society with its origins and roots. It is an album which transcends its own signifiers – whatever superficial or aesthetic connections might be formed through its instrumental sources – traditional percussion, synths, guitar, harpsichord, and vocals. These quickly fade in the face of the interactions and structures they produce – balancing incredible complexity and melodic simplicity and elegance in a single breath.
I’ve spent years hunting for a copy of Música Para Planetarios, digging in countless shops and the streets of Mexico City without luck. It is unquestionably among the rarest of all Mexican records, made that much more tragic by the fact that it one of the greatest. It then goes without saying that I was overjoyed to hear from the Canadian imprint Seance Centre – a label I’ve been a big fan of since their launch in 2017, that they were reissuing the album in all its glory, remastered from the original tapes. It is crucial artifact from Mexico’s long and obscured cultural history – a complex doubling which attempted to illuminate loss and suppression, only to be itself lost and suppressed by circumstance – it present return becoming a small victory against the breadth of that loss. I can’t possibly recommend this one enough. Beautiful, challenging, and essential on every count. One of the great documents of the Latin American avant-garde and Mexican Counter-cultural music. You can check it out below, and pick it from Seance Centre, or a record store near you.
Eblen Macari – Música Para Planetarios, Side A – Planetarios, Tres Gringos Perdidos En La Selva, Viaje En Topolino Por Los Caminos Del Sur, El Pirata Del Grijalva, Los Sueños Del Pirata, Supernova En Macuspana (1987 / 2017)
Eblen Macari – La Constelacion Del Pejelagarto (Bambuco), from Música Para Planetarios (1987 / 2017)
Elben Macari – El Grito De La Lluvia, from Música Para Planetarios (1987 / 2017)
Eblen Macari – Lux Aeterna, from Música Para Planetarios (1987 / 2017)