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March 7, 2006

Book Notes - Jessica Abel ("La Perdida")

Jessica Abel's graphic novel, La Perdida, explores Mexico through the eyes of a young, half-Mexican woman searching for her heritage. Much more than a comic travelogue, as the woman becomes engaged with a collection of less-than-desirable American expats and locals, the tension builds and sustains throughout the book. I read La Perdida in one sitting, and though the ending was perfectly satisfying, Abel left me wanting more.

Many thanks to Jessica for participating in this series, she is the first graphic novelist to submit a "Book Notes" essay. Look for many more in the future...

In her own words, here is Jessica Abel's "Book Notes" submission for her graphic novel, La Perdida:

I can’t write with music on. At least not music I care about, whether I like it or hate it. It’s ironic, I can’t even write this note while listening to the music I’m writing about. When it’s on, I have to pay attention. But that’s the advantage of being a cartoonist; I spend many many hours drawing after the work of writing (both verbally and pictorially) is done, and then, the music’s on.

I actually wrote and drew La Perdida in New York, after I returned from living two years in Mexico, but the story is deeply connected with the language and the music I found while there. Here’s a short list:

Before I left, I’d discovered Perez Prado and Tito Puente. A good start, but of course, no Mexican (Prado is Cuban, Puente is Puerto Rican). But classic music in Mexico is heavily Cuban-influenced, and I was learning to dance mambo and salsa (and danzÛn, which is another elegant, old-fashioned type of Cuban music that I love) so the Cubans were where I started.

“Y hoy como ayer” (Today, Like Yesterday) Beny More and His All Star Afro Cuban Big Band
I can’t remember anymore where I first heard Beny More—I must have been listening to some radio show or something, because I had his name, and searched him out when back in the US on a trip (I know, anti-intuitive. I was still confused by Mexican CD store arrangements). From that first pure trumpet note, I thought, I have to learn to sing this. No, actually, it was, wow. Then I had to learn to sing it. And sing it over and over. It’s a beautiful ballad, with jazzy parts between verses, and it reminds me of a cross between “Now or Never” by Elvis, or Mel TormÈ (when he’s with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra). And if you don’t love that Nelson Riddle vibe, well, I can’t help you.

“El Huerfanito” (the little orphan) MachÌn
Another great in the same line, but a bit grittier, with not such a lovely pure high tenor, is Antonio MachÌn. His “el Huerfanito” is two minutes of unmissable awesomeness. Check the chanting backup band: “°Huerfano, huerfano soy! Yo soy! °El huerfanito!”

Other MachÌn songs I can’t get out of my head are “los Aretes de la luna” (the moon’s earrings). Great, evocative lyrics: “The earrings the moon is missing, I have them here, to make you a necklace...I have them here, at the bottom of the sea.” Throw in some excellent doo wop—pure class. MachÌn also does a great version of “Camarera de mi amor” (the waitress of my love (or something like that)).

Meanwhile I had heard a fascinating song at a party, sung at the top of her voice by a woman accompanying herself on out-of tune guitar that her annoying guitar geek boyfriend kept trying to tune while she was rocking out. Well, more like folking out. Fast-strummed guitar, singing at the top of ones’ range, and yodeling all turn out to be standard characteristics of son. But it took forever to figure out what I was looking for. The next time I found anything like it was

“Ojala Que Llueva CafÈ” CafÈ Tacuba
This turns out to be a version of a Colombian merengue from the 80s, not an original, and not originally a son. The arrangement is amazing, though, with the best yodeling ever. I know you’re thinking the Alps, here, but I’m talking Hank Williams times ten. I saw CafÈ Tacuba live last summer at the Prospect Park bandshell in Brooklyn, and to my delight they did this song. They had an old country musician playing the huapanguero guitar (or maybe it was a jaran·?) and singing (and kicking ass). That guy is the real thing, even if CafÈ Tacuba is a pop band. (A good pop band, don’t get me wrong.)

Finally, with that song, I had a name for the music I was looking for. I borrowed a cassette from a friend of mine and discovered...

“El Querreque” Los Aventureros de la Huasteca
Which is just about as funny and joyful as music gets. “Whisky or aguadiente, which is the better liquor? I say aguardiente because it gets the president drunk, and the governor too.” If you want this version, you can usually find these guys playing around the Centro de Coyoac·n, and especially in Cantina los enanos de Tehuantepec, and they’ll happily sell you a tape. They’ll even run home for one, as they did for us. (There’s a kind of underpowered version of el Querreque by los Hermanos Calderon available on CD, but it’s not the same!)

Later I discovered the mournful side of son, with the heartbreaking...

“El Pajarillo Jilguero” Conjunto de los hermanos Molina
(on the great resource from Corason: AntologÌa Del Son De MÈxico - Tixtla, Costa Chica, Istmo Y Veracruz)
Here’s a translation of the lyrics:
“Goldfinch, lend me your wings, bring me a remembrance to my loved one.
Fathers who have daughters who they mistreat, who they mistreat...we, who love them so much, we who love them so much, God takes them from us, God kills them.
The bird who abandons its first nest, If he finds it occupied, he deserves it, it’s his fault.”
I could just cry.

“Cucurrucuc· Paloma” Caetano Veloso
Speaking of crying...I almost couldn’t stop when I saw this song played in Almodovar’s Talk to Her. Another version of another traditional song, done by a hyper-talented Brazilian.

I found out much later that “La Bamba” (yes, that “La Bamba”, sort of) is a son jarocho (i.e. son from Veracruz—the key instrument is the harp instead of fiddle or haupanguero guitar). I love son so much I even bought a Kronos Quartet CD of versions of traditional Mexican songs (Nuevo) for their son...

“El Llorar” Kronos Quartet
Sure, they’re impersonating son instruments with violas and cellos, but they have a real son singer on there, yodeling his heart out! They also do a wonderful arrangement of...

Perfidia Kronos Quartet
...with a lush, soaring string section backing up grass blade. Yes, they found an old guy who sits in the Zocalo in Mexico City and plays haunting versions of the traditional songs on a grass blade.

One of the great things about Mexican music is the tradition of making and remaking the same classic songs, in all kinds of styles. Everyone knows the repertoire, and when troubadours come through crowded restaurants looking for to play for tips, groups, or even individuals, will often request a favorite and sing along. Karaoke has got nothing on this.

For example, I have three versions of “Perfidia,” including a peppy Perez Prado one and a great, romantic Nat King Cole American accent version. His accent is sooo bad, it’s charming. Mexicans must have thought so, because he was incredibly popular as far as I can tell. He has albums full of Mexican songs. In fact, one of the first Mexican songs I learned was his version of...

“Quizas Quizas Quizas” Nat King Cole.
It’s unforgettable. Done with such panache, but so American! “Eh-stas pear-dee-endoh el tee-empoh, Pain-sandohhhh, Pain-sandoooh!”

I don’t want to imply that it was all old stuff for me in Mexico. My faves on leaving Chicago had included the Stooges and Jesus Lizard, along with dub/jungle music. So I was curious about contemporary Mexican music, and dug, among other things, Control Machete, which was relatively new and on heavy rotation. And Plastilina Mosh, which was going to be the Next Big Thing according to a friend of our who came down to report on them for Spin. But the songs, all the songs are what stick with me.

see also:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)