Eugenia León: concierto en San Gabriel, Jalisco
Last Saturday 1st August, Eugenia León was singing in San Gabriel. All my Mexican friends said I should go. My friend Queta even said that Eugenia León was a far better singer than Lila Downs. Given that I think that Lila Downs is an extraordinarily talented and wonderful singer, I found this difficult to believe.
Oddly enough, given how famous Eugenia León is in Mexico, I had never heard of her beforehand. She was singing in San Gabriel, which is really a tiny municipality of around 14,000 people, statistically defined as having a high level of marginalisation, on the other side of the Volcano del Nevado from Ciudad Guzmán.
San Gabriels’s main claim to fame is that the Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo was born close-by in Apulco in 1917, and spent part of his childhood in San Gabriel. The house, very near the center, where he lived has a plaque outside.
The house has been a private residence for 40 years now, but the elderly owners happily showed me and two friends around. It is a typical Mexican colonial house, with an indoor patio, which most of the rooms lead off, and a corral at the back, with a variety of fruit trees, and a covered area where horses used to be kept.
Juan Rulfo only published two books in his lifetime. The first, Llano en Llamas, published in 1953, is a collection of short stories, based in this part of Jalisco, and set predominantly in the time of the Cristero rebellion in the 1920’s when Juan Rulfo was a child, and suffered the assassination of his father and death of his mother. The Cristero rebellion, and the civil war it unleashed, was particularly bloody in this part of Mexico, and this deep suffering permeates all of Juan Rulfo’s work.
I read these stories in Spanish a couple of years ago. I thought they were remarkable. Each one is a finely carved gem and represents a profound distillation of human experience which weaves together personal, social, political, cultural, geographical, and spiritual dimensions.
It is possible to listen to one of these stories, ‘Diles que no me maten,’ read by the author, here.
I thought Juan Rulfo was like a Mexican Samuel Beckett, in his ability to describe and condense human life, and its inevitable suffering, to its archetypal, most spare essentials.
In fact, this quote I found about Samuel Beckett, by Richard Ellman, is a perfect description of Juan Rulfo’s work as well.
“…He has given a voice to the decrepit and maimed and inarticulate, men and women at the end of their tether, past pose or pretense, past claim of meaningful existence. He seems to say that only there and then, as metabolism lowers, amid God’s paucity, not his plenty, can the core of the human condition be approached… Yet his musical cadences, his wrought and precise sentences, cannot help but stave off the void… Like salamanders we survive in his fire. ”
In 1955, Juan Rulfo published Pedro Páramo. Many people view this masterpiece as the birth of magical realism. Gabriel Garcia Márquez, said, after a friend had given him the book and told him to read it, that he could not sleep at all that night whilst he read the book a second time. Jorge Luis Borges said that Pedro Páramo is one of the best Spanish language novels and of all literature.
Eugenia León had come to the tiny municipality of San Gabriel as the leading act in the XII cultural festival of San Gabriel, in homage to their most famous son, Juan Rulfo. She performed in the open air of the Plaza Revolución, where a stage had been built and sophisticated sound equipment set up just outside the main church.
My friend, Claudia, took advantage of the afternoon rehearsal session to pay her own homage to Juan Rulfo.
In the evening, after two local singers had sung a few songs as a warm up for the main act, Eugenia León appeared, initially hidden at the side of the stage. As the band began to play, she started to sing. I don’t think I was the only person in the audience who had goose shivers. I knew a few of the traditional songs she sung, as I had heard them sung by Lila Downs – but my Mexican companions seemed to know all the songs, and vigorously sung along with her.
She interspersed her songs with short readings from Juan Rulfo. The readings and her songs meshed together perfectly. At the end of her performance, there was the mandatory presentation of a reconocimiento (acknowledgement) to her, and she was joined on-stage by the Presidente Municipal and other key people who had been involved in putting the festival together, including my friend Alejandro, the Coordinador de Turismo en San Gabriel, on the far left, who had invited me to the festival
I left the concert knowing without doubt that Eugenia León was another extraordinarily talented Mexican singer. Her range is huge and encompasses ballads, ranchero, bolero, tango, and many other classic Mexican songs. I still thought, however, that I preferred Lila Downs, by a whisker.
A few days after the concert, a friend sent me a link on YouTube of Lila Downs and Eugenia León singing together. If I ever go to heaven, this will be the music to greet me.
Subsequently, too, another friend wrote to me that Lila Downs will be singing in Guadalajara at 9pm on Friday 18th September at Teatro Diana. ¡Vamos!