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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Making music in the streets of Mérida

The streets of Yucatán's capital are a symphony of songs blending with street sounds

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David W. Keelan
Pennsylvania native, relocated to Maryland in 1994. David W. Keelan retired in 2020 and living his best life in Mérida, Yucatán.
Photo for illustrative purposes only: Getty

Merida is a street symphony. I realized that today on my bus ride home from Nueva Vida.

Today the mission said goodbye to two staff members, Maribel and Abi, who are moving on to new chapters in their lives.

The school director, Fatima, arranged for a breakfast for the entire staff, and I was invited. Fatima and the staff rolled out the red carpet for Maribel and Abi. Words were spoken, gratitude expressed, gifts exchanged, and well wishes given all around.

It was a very nice social gathering, and I was actually able to follow some of the conversations. It was touching and surprising when the staff took time to thank me for my work and presented me with small gifts.

After cleaning up I made my way a couple of blocks to Calle 60 and 119 to flag down a bus to Centro. Maybe the time of day would explain why the bus was full, not a seat to be had. I was the only one standing on the bus until we picked up more passengers and the bus became completely full.

The bus driver even took extra care going over the topes. That is until a combi cut him off on Calle 60 and 69. The bus driver seemed to be determined to directly express his poor opinion of the other drivers’ driving skills.

As the bus filled I had to move further and further to the rear of the bus. By the time I was in the rear of the bus I noticed an old man boarding. I only noticed him because he was carrying a guitar.

It was an old guitar, almost orange in color, and next to the bridge near the base of the guitar was a gash that pierced its body. I wondered if that guitar could even be played. Other than that gash the guitar looked in fine shape. It had a simple rope as a shoulder strap. Tied to the rope, next to the neck of the guitar, was a small red feather. The old man was dressed neatly, he seemed to be freshly shaved, and his salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back over his ears to the back of his neck. His shirt was clean, and pressed, it was also orange, darker than the guitar, and I could see rips in the fabric in various parts of the shirt.

It was not long before he raised his guitar and began to play a soft melody and sing in a low, old man’s voice. He could carry a tune. It brought to mind Johnny Cash’s last album.

Even though the bus driver was being careful with his full load, those of us standing had to hold on tight. Despite the rough ride the old man played and sang well. When he finished his song he asked for donations and many of us responded.

Since I was the last person standing in the back of the bus I became the old man’s cashier taking donations from people in the rear of the bus. Men and women tapping me on the elbow or shoulder handing me 5, 10, 15 pesos to carefully place in the old man’s dark and tanned hands, as the bus jostled up Calle 60. The bus stopped and we poured out into the street. After listening to the old man it seemed easier to notice the street musicians.

Starting at Fernandez Electric and Plumbing up to Pakar Zapaterias, and all the way to the Plaza Grande. A saxophonist standing against a store window playing the blues, a pair of men in clean and pressed, but ill-fitting pants singing while playing a guitar and maracas, and others.

I thought of the disabled man who sings and plays guitar for the tourists in front of the Teatro Joe Peon Contreras (he even plays at the baseball stadium), the Cuban woman who sings to people dining outdoors, the many young adults I see walking around Santiago with musical instruments, and my English neighbor who plays violin for the Merida Symphony Orchestra.

There is a house a couple of blocks from me that has an old “Se Vende” painted on the outside. For a long time, I never saw anyone inside. I wanted to call the number on the sign, but one digit was not legible and my Spanish is not good enough to play telephone roulette.

One day, as I was walking Penny one of the front doors was open and three young men were seated on chairs arranged in a circle, singing and playing guitar together. I have only seen them one more time since, but I would love to catch them again, only this time I would be carrying a six-pack of beer, hand it to them, then take a seat and listen.

The streets of Merida are a symphony — music blending with street sounds. People on crowded sidewalks, automobiles rolling by, traffic horns and whistles, street merchants calling to customers, mothers and daughters walking hand in hand, and people living busy lives.

I was thinking these musicians, sights, and sounds would make a good video. Maybe one day I will find a partner, or do it myself, to help me film and interview these men and women of the Merida Street Symphony. Perhaps record their music, voices, and their stories for a mini-documentary.

Where do they live, and how did they learn to play? So many questions.

I don’t know, but I think the Merida Street Symphony deserves an audience.

Well, that documentary may never happen, so next time think about stopping and listening to the voices, the guitars, violins, maracas, saxophones blending with the street noise. Maybe those car horns will stop being so annoying.

The Mission of Friendship Yucatan-Erie, where I volunteer, has a program where they support families through a sponsorship program. They also support them with non-monetary services. If you have Spanish skills, the school Nueva Vida would like to help the high school students learn English. They have an immediate need to help a female high school student. We may form a group of tutors as the need is great. If you are interested (or know someone who may be interested) please contact me.

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