Screeching a Living

The first time I heard her, which was before I saw her, was about six years ago. There are often crippled beggars outside the cathedral in Cuernavaca, making for a very medieval scene. There are also musicians, mostly working the patios of the various cafes. They’re usually guitarists but a violinist is not unknown.

She, however, was a violinist only in the narrowest sense of the word. Simply put, she couldn’t hit a note, phrase a melody nor keep time. She was terrible. She was like an eight-year-old after her first lesson: keen to try, but not yet capable of varying the sounds the bow makes on the strings.

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The mystery violinist outside the cathedral wall in Cuernavaca.

Periodically, I’d encounter her again and think: Surely you’re learning a bit? I can’t play a violin, but if I played as much as you do, I’d have figured out how to make it sound more or less acceptable by now.

But she wasn’t learning, and I had no idea if she was even trying. In our market in Tepoztlan, there are often one or two ‘musicians’ whose sole aim is to annoy you so much that you give them a few pesos just to go away and let you eat your quesadilla in peace. Perhaps, I wondered, she’s like them.

But they wander around. She puts out a music stand, or props her sheet music on a bundle-buggy, and remains in one place for an hour or so, producing bits of (I think) Bach, Vivaldi or Mozart. Somebody taught her fingering, judging by how she holds the instrument, but she seems tone deaf to her own sounds. Maybe she’s wholly deaf, I sometimes speculate, but she does try to tune her instrument before starting, which a deaf person couldn’t manage.

She initially irritated me, then amused me, and finally intrigued me. But she’s very wary of human contact, never even muttering a quick “Gracias” if I drop a sympathetic five pesos in her violin case. The first time I tried to take a photo of her, she dodged behind a pillar, staring warily at me till I went away. I felt mean for trying, even though the street is a public place, and her chosen venue is a busy tourist destination.

I forgot about her for the three years I was back in Toronto, and I was surprised to find her still on the same street last year. She’s still somehow determined to eke out a borderline living from a complete lack of musical skill.

If anything, she might have become worse in the intervening years. One day I’d like to interview her, just to find out what she feels she’s doing, but as I noted, she avoids direct acknowledgement of other people. She’s an institution now, a living monument to artistic ineptitude.

She’s not yet out of middle age. But one day she’ll be gone, perhaps with her identity still a mystery. Some other street performer –– a mime, a singer, a mandolin player – will replace her, and squeezing the visitors for cash will continue as it probably has since before there was even a Christian house of worship here. But when she does go, something uniquely quirky will have disappeared from Cuernavaca. Few people, I figure, would ever dare make such a tuneless noise in a public place, and tacitly ask donations for doing so.

Ear Worms

May 25, 2019

The lady in the photo below is probably grateful that her image isn’t too clear. Often, street musicians in Mexico like photos, because it means they get a tip after it. This woman, I decided after watching her one day from a safe distance, gets no donations at any time. And she was very wary of me and my camera.


Mexico has a long and wonderful tradition in music: everybody knows La Cucaracha or the Mexican Hat Dance, while several other song styles sound immediately familiar, even if the words aren’t. And Mexico without mariachis would be … well, southern Texas.

Now, there are people who play music in public in Tepoztlan that are truly bad. They are marketplace musicians who hit on people eating at the taco stands in my town, and while I’m fond of one or two of them, and am at least polite to a couple more, there are some so bad that adjectives fail me.

One man comes around with a leaf or blade of grass between his thumbs, and blows onto it like the reed of a wind instrument. As a kid I did this for fun, with no intention to produce an actual song. Grass-man doesn’t really produce one either, but he makes up in volume what he lacks in tunefulness.

And seriously, he is loud: he must have practiced for years to attain that level of off-key volume. He knows three songs, and plays them, faltering and re-starting their phrases, until somebody slips him five pesos to shut up. Even then, he just moves on a few yards to the next stand, from which he’s still painfully audible, and repeats the performance.

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The Tepoztlan market: music, good and bad, is always present.

A new threat emerged in town a week ago with a man who plays a guitar with a certain dangerous flair, posturing and flinging it around him as he strums (more or less) his way through old Zeppelin songs, or the AM radio hits of the 1980s. He has a speech impediment, so that he both sings and speaks in a way few non-Mexicans can grasp. But he seems immune to rejection … so there goes another regular five pesos on the “Thanks and please leave now” principle.

But the woman in my photo is in a league of her own, and I’d prefer she stays in the nearby city of Cuernavaca, where I first noticed her late last year. She has sheet music (Vivaldi, Schubert), she knows how to hold a violin and bow, and she looks like she’s about to give a passable rendition of a sonata or a movement from somebody’s chamber piece.

Instead, what comes from her instrument is a sound that two mating cats might make on a hot summer’s night, but with extra disharmonic resonances. She can’t hit any single note accurately, nor does she have any concept of phrasing. If you know the music of Pierre Boulez or Luigi Nono, and imagine either one of them performing it at four in the morning after an all-night bender on cheap gin augmented by several joints, you wouldn’t come close. The concept of keys is abandoned, the idea of discernible tempo is as absent as rye whisky at a Mormon Christmas social, and the notion that anyone would enjoy her sound is beyond my capabilities of imagination.

Maybe I’m being too mean here, but … hey, I’ve heard her, and you haven’t. Why, I wonder, does she do it? Is it a bet with a friend? Some sort of public atonement for having betrayed a painful confidence? An obscure sociological experiment, with her waiting to see if someone offers to put her violin out of its misery?

I don’t know. But she’s in a class of her own, beyond the worst of the marketplace minstrels I’ve heard. I thought it might be that she simply has no other job skills; but she doesn’t have this job skill, so why doesn’t she just beg for change? People might actually stop for her then.

She remains a mystery: a cacophonous, counter-melodic, string scraping mystery.  I just hope she doesn’t come to Tepoztlan. She might make some of the existing sonic terrorists more ambitious than they already are.