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This Quinta is fertile ground for young music students

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
La Escuela de Musica Kookix grew quickly at a quinta in Yucatán, where a modest school building has broken ground. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When designer Marjorie Skouras and her husband, Bruno Bardavid, moved to Mérida, the grand Centro Histórico home they put together merited a spread in Architectural Digest. Now, the California duo is in the countryside with an entirely new emphasis: bringing out the musical talent in local children.

Lured to Yucatán by fellow Los Angeles designers, they joined the community of artists and designers who found this part of Mexico a perfect outlet for their creativity. Marjorie knew right away it was an ideal match. 

“We checked into the hotel, went outside, and I said this is gonna be the place, yeah,” says Marjorie. 

But several years later, they’re not in exactly the same place. They have set up housekeeping about an hour northeast of the city in rural Dzemul, on Quinta Kookix, growing henequen. The crops take years to mature, but when they do, they will be sold to an artist whose output requires trucks full of the fibrous plant.

Their new house is a plain block structure with surrealist murals. Inside and out are colorful vignettes from Marjorie’s collections. It’s an artist’s version of a ranch house, where guests are greeted by their pet pig, Tina, who roams freely, nuzzling guests. 

Marjorie Skouras and Bruno Bardavid are never really alone in their large ranch an hour northeast of Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The atmosphere is very relaxing — attributable to both the home and the hosts. Although we appear entirely isolated from everything, children from nearby start to appear, some carrying musical instruments. It draws our attention to the beginnings of a building across the field, space for the music school they’ve begun: Escuela de Música Kookix.

The school is a private, not-for-profit project that offers free music classes for children of all ages, including the instruments of their choice, started by Marjorie and Bruno on their ranch in September 2021 with three students ranging in age from 6 to 10. Although some funds and instruments have been donated, Marjorie and Bruno have financed the project personally. 

The school arose after state arts funding was slashed, eliminating cultural programs in public schools. Dzemul, like most of Mexico, has a rich musical and dance tradition. Its folkloric jarana dancers are known statewide, and three generations ago, Dzemul had an 80-piece orchestra called the Clave Azul, or Blue Note.

“We were aided by our friend Eduardo Zarracino from the Hacienda San Francisco in Dzidzantún, who has been working with the children of his community for more than 15 years and took his group to perform at the White House not once, but twice,” Marjorie writes in a letter that lays out the music school’s backstory. 

After the first class, they took the children and walked to a community of families evicted from a hacienda where they had lived and worked for generations.

Until practice room facilities are finished, students at La Escuela de Musica Kookix perform outdoors. Photo: Courtesy Marjorie Skouras

“We walked door to door to explain what we were offering and that all were welcome, accompanied by percussion instruments. One week later, we held an open house with a musical demonstration and a piñata. The following week our little group had grown to nine students.”

By Christmas, enrollment snowballed to 14, and a choir had been formed and had six songs, including one in Mayan, under their belts. They were invited to perform at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony for the neighboring town of Cansahcab and received a certificate of thanks from the mayor, Marjorie recalls. 

Later in December, several students were invited to participate in a traditional Mayan musical performance at the Teatro Peon Contreras, Merida’s beautiful opera house. Three children had never even been to Mérida, the state’s capital.

By 2022, children expressed an increasing interest in learning to play instruments. Marjorie posted on Facebook asking if anyone had any used instruments they could donate. The response was overwhelming: generous cash donations and musical instruments from around the globe — violins, cellos, guitars, ukuleles, clarinets, recorders, a transversal flute, trumpets, a trombone, a beautiful keyboard, percussion instruments, three electric guitars with an amp, a mandolin, and a vihuela de Mariachi, an elegant string instrument from Mexico.  

To top that off, Steve Katz, one of the founding members of the legendary group Blood, Sweat & Tears, gifted the school with his own guitar. 

“For a girl from 1960s San Francisco, this was really, really cool,” Marjorie states. 

As of August 2022, the school had 43 students and five instructors. They had broken ground on the northeast corner of the property for five classroom areas, audio-visual facilities, a performance area, and two bathrooms. In the project’s spirit, the contractor and local supplier reduced their fees.

“In a place where every penny counts, everyone who can help is helping,” says Marjorie.

California designer Marjorie Skouras and Tina, one of her more affectionate animal companions, on Quinta Kookix at sunrise outside Mérida. Photo: Courtesy

Harvesting creativity

After nearly 17 years in the film business, Marjorie Skouras is a prolific home products designer whose lighting, furniture, and accessories have been featured in magazines including World of Interiors, Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Vogue, House and Garden, House Beautiful, Harper’s Bazaar and Veranda.

She says her aesthetic is informed strongly by her travels, particularly time spent living in Mediterranean countries, Hollywood, and San Francisco.

In 2007, Marjorie was one of Metropolitan Home’s 100 most influential designers.

Today, her office and studio are in Mérida, producing current lines and new pieces while working with local artisans and materials. Moreover, Marjorie has lent her vintage clothing collection for an exhibition on view at the Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatán through January 2023. A book on the collection is also underway.

Marjorie’s tenure in film encompassed both management and creative roles in development, production, business affairs, distribution and management. She happens also to be a descendant of the Skouras family, which governed 20th Century-Fox for 30 years. 

Online: marjorieskourasdesign.com

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