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    Go south, young musician

    Mazatlan meets Mahler, and two formerly frantic freelance viola players from Seattle find steady work and communal musical bliss in Mexico, where orchestras thrive while their counterparts in the U.S. are struggling.

    Larissa Brown, in working mode.

    Larissa Brown, in working mode.

    "I could get used to this": Brown and Sah take a break at Poncho's Restaurant in Mazatlán.

    "I could get used to this": Brown and Sah take a break at Poncho's Restaurant in Mazatlán.

    Inside the Teatro Angela Peralta.

    Inside the Teatro Angela Peralta. Destino Mazatlán

    The high season was still a week off when I arrived in Mazatlán, fleeing the collective cabin fever that is December in Seattle. Perhaps the slight nip in the evening air — the southern edge of the cold front that gripped Seattle — further helped keep the tourists away. One barkeep blamed baseless lingering anxiety over last year’s swine flu outbreak in Mexico.

    Certainly a more persistent epidemic, narco-violence, was scaring some away; Mazatlán had seen a reported 300 narco-related killings in 2010, and widely publicized shootouts this past September and October, one of them just a few blocks from the beachfront tourist strip. In April the U.S. State Department advised travellers to “visit Mazatlán during daylight hours and limit the time you spend outside tourist centers.” So where to go at night? The roads and highways in the surrounding state of Sinaloa, home to Mexico’s leading drug cartel, are deemed even more perilous; U.S. government employees are only allowed to drive them by day, in armored vehicles.

    Worst yet for the tourist boosters was a breezy recent piece in the Washington Post that purported to reveal which parts of Mexico “are safe to travel to, and which are dangerous.” It concludes by declaring some areas “an easy call [to avoid], such as destinations along the northbound drug routes and near ports, such as … the resort town of Mazatlán.” That despite the fact that Mazatlán’s port is a minor one and it’s off the main drug routes — unlike Tijuana, which an expert quoted in the same article mysteriously declares “perfectly safe.”

    That’s not to say Mazatlán can’t be dangerous, at least for the Mazatlécos. One local businessman told me the city had seen a record 600 homicides in the first seven months of the year. Drugs weren’t the main driver, he explained: Extortion — kidnapping and good old-fashioned protection money — was. “If you don’t pay on time, they beat you up. If you go to the police, they kill you.” He paid. “They don’t touch the tourists” — though a couple had gotten caught in crossfire. “They’re afraid of the United States.”

    However scary all that may sound, another city just 170 miles to the north on Highway 15 has always sounded much, much scarier: Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, the headquartes of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel and for many decades a marijuana-industry mecca. Even in the 1970s, when I bused and hitchhiked around Mexico, the word was to watch out in Culiacán and stay out of the fields around it. “You should defer non-essential travel to Culiacán,” the State Department now warns. “Since 2006, more homicides have occurred [there] than in any other city in Mexico, with the exception of Ciudad Juárez.”

    Sounds like just the place for a couple of bright-eyed young viola players from Seattle to go to pursue their art? Yes, indeed, I discovered to my delight — because whether or not Sinaloa and Culiacán live up to their reputations as narco-meccas, they’re eager to establish themselves as homes for a very different business, classical music.

    Tourism downturns have their upsides: a cheap flight with room to stretch. Million-dollar sunsets for less than $40 in the best beach-facing room in Mazatlán's Hotel la Siesta, which looks like a set from an old Bogart movie and has a bronze plaque commemorating Jack Kerouac’s stay there. The restaurants had plenty of room, the waiters had all the time in the world for you, and the ambient conversations were in Spanish, not English.

    The tourist discos were closed (no loss), but a very different entertainment venue was packed the night I arrived: the beautifully restored 19th-century Teatro Angela Peralta in the Centro Historico. I learned there was a concert there by chance, while riding the elevator down from the rooftop bar atop the only semi-highrise on the Olas Altas beach.

    A young couple boarded, she in black gown and he in white tie and tails. Both carried viola cases, and they spoke in distinctly American — perhaps even Northwest — accents. What’s on the bill, I asked? “Mahler One,” she replied with a smile: Gustave Mahler’s formidable First (Titan) Symphony, plus the good ol’ 1812 Overture as an appetizer. You don’t sound like you’re from around here, I said. “We’re from Seattle,” she replied. And thereby hangs —a tale, a fable of cultural diffusion and globalization.

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    Posted Tue, Jan 3, 8 a.m. Inappropriate


    Your comments about Mazatlan and Mexican violence are typically ignorant. Quoting locals and old news only scares people. As for the swine flu scare--it was in 2009 and if it matters, there were only a few cases in Mazatlan and each of them was a person who had traveled outside of the area.

    Your piece did a good job talking about music and the musicians. Our orchestra has a very diverse international mix. This mix is often criticized in local papers as some would prefer an all Mexican orchestra. Where I take great exception is setting your story against the backdrop of narco violence and extortion. If your subject musicians took a job in any major city in the U.S., you could site the same facts about murder rates and extortion, but you wouldn't. Somehow when it is Mexico you journalists feel the need to talk about the violence. You could have set your piece against the backdrop of the economy which is struggling here as it is elsewhere in the world. Many cultural events were not sellouts this year as in the past. The cruise industry is facing challenges and lack of cruse tourism has severely impacted the local economy. The northern part of Mexico is in a severe drought. This has caused some food prices to skyrocket pinching already tight budgets.

    In the future, please either stick to sunsets, beaches and umbrella drinks or, if you want to learn about Mazatlan, come back and we'll show you around. We have a lot to offer--far beyond what you touched on. Grabbing the obvious and overdone topic of violence is the cheap and easy way out and I believe you are a better journalist than that.

    Thanks for listening.

    Greg - full-time in Mazatlan

    Posted Thu, Jan 5, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    There is an incredibly strong arts scene all over Mexico, much of it fueled by gringo dollars. Places like Puerto Vallarta and San Miguel del Allende are well known for their galleries, artists and designers.Tijuana frequently makes the Architecture magazines as young architects design without the rules that are so deadening in the USA. Guanajuato has its opera house, it's university, it's museum of Diego Rivera.And if you are retired and living in Mexico taking up painting or theatre or writing is just the thing you've always wanted to do. Myself I purchased a warehouse for a painting studio at an incredibly affordable price. While it can be difficult to make a living as an artist in Mexico the rewards are plentiful and many succeed. The cost of living is so much less that one can sell artwork in the USA and live a healthy life in Mexico. At some point a real bridge will happen between artists freezing their asses off in the northern climes of North America, Europe and Asia, and warm and friendly and very affordable Mexico and Central America. One note on safety; I feel safer in Mexico than i do in downtown Seattle.


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