Name: Gerardo Alejos
Occupation: Label Owner, Curator
Label: Lengua de Lava
Festival: Cha'ak'ab Paaxil
Festival Recommendations: No Idea Festival in Austin, TX, carefully curated and organized by percussionist Chris Cogburn; Umbral, the concert series created in Mexico City by improvisers Gudinni Cortina and Rolando Hernandez.
When did you start in a curatorial role - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
The first concert I ever organized was actually when I was 15 years old, in 1995, a death metal one-night festival in a local park in Merida with several young bands, including one of my own that sadly broke up a few days before the show. I wasn’t the sole organizer, as my close friend Enrique Rejón (also a band mate in that broken up band and others that lasted longer) put on the show along with me and other friends. Twenty years later, I am fortunate enough to keep putting on shows with Enrique, as he is also the co-producer of Cha’ak’ab Paaxil (and co-founder of my label Lengua de Lava).
But what I consider the beginning of my curatorial work was a Mexican band I put together for Texas-born trombonist Brian Allen in 2006, which was the first concert with an international artist that I ever organized. Brian won a Meet the Composer grant to work with Mexican musicians on several of his pieces, but since he at that time had no knowledge of the Mexican scene, I set up a band comprised of Merida guitarist Armando Martin, Mexico City-based double-bass player Arturo Baez and drummer Hernan Hecht (originally from Argentina). Our Merida concerts were so successful, artistically and audience-wise, that they basically launched my concert series and established me as a local promoter. Then a couple of years after that I started the Cha’ak’ab Paaxil festival and really began to test my curatorial and problem-solving skills every year.
In terms of early curatorial influences, I had both positive influences that guided my work in the right direction, like the programming work of Chris Cogburn for the No Idea Festival that seamlessly combines great international artists with local Texas musicians (all from different genres like electroacoustic improv, noise, free jazz, etc.), as well as very negative influences that I’ve staunchly rejected, which shaped what I don’t want my festival to become: festivals based on ridiculous star-system hierarchies (as absurd as they are in our tiny – in a commercial sense – experimental music scene), festivals where the out-of-town musicians are always the headliners (and the local musicians are exclusively the opening act, if at all) and never collaborate with local musicians, festivals where the musical focus is too narrow and become boring and complacent over the years, etc.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your work and/or career?
Besides the creation of the Cha’ak’ab Paaxil festival in 2008, as well as our upcoming eighth edition, our biggest one so far, a joint-edition with the massive Japanese festival MultipleTap, I would say the most important moment in my work as an organizer was meeting Merida free-jazz guitarist Armando Martin back in 2003, and then organizing a concert with him and saxophonist Remi Alvarez and electric bassist Aaron Cruz in 2005, which was probably the first totally freely improvised concert ever held in my town, Merida. Both Armando and Remi, musically as well as personally, are two of the main reasons why I started (and keep) organizing concerts, and having the chance of helping them in their careers has been and remains a complete honor for me.
How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in and how much does it get featured in your programming?
Unfortunately, the general music scene in Merida ranges from mediocre to dismal. There are a couple of good metal or hardcore or hip-hop bands, one or two decent DJs, and a truckload of milquetoast, boring indie bands or very derivative and soulless electronic/metal/reggae acts. Even though I try not to present my shows in a combative way, so as not to drive away even more people who hate/dislike the words “improvisation,” “composition,” “noise,” “electroacoustic,” or “experimental,” I’d have to admit that I intend my work to be in complete opposition to most of the local shows. Our local scene is so small that there are basically no improv/noise shows apart from what we put on, and in a broader experimental music sense, the only other good things are organized by people who came up or were involved with Cha’ak’ab Paaxil, like composer Elias Puc, who created last year an academic-based electroacoustic music festival. Composer Javier Alvarez, who lives in Merida, leads a contemporary music chamber ensemble that I go see every time they play. Sometimes I wish I lived in Mexico City or any other big city with a good, varied music scene, but then I remember about the hour(s)-long traffic jams and expensive cost of living and I snap myself back to reality.
In terms of how much the Merida music scene is featured in my programming, I would say that it is now a backbone of the festival lineups, as well as of our annual concert series. As an example, for our first festival edition in 2008, out of 36 total musicians, only 4 were from Merida: guitarists Armando Martin (whose importance in my work I highlighted earlier) and Leonel Traconis, electronic musician Enrique Rejon (my closest creative partner), and double-bassist Juan Garcia (who now lives in Mexico City). But in our seventh edition last year, out of 20 total musicians, 9 (almost half of the lineup!) were from Merida. And most of them had never been exposed to improvised music until I started my concert series in 2005 and the festival in 2008.
Is objectivity in any way a goal in your own work? What, other than your personal taste, are criteria for defining quality?
This may sound old fashioned, but I value objectivity very much, even though I am as suspicious of that concept as I am regarding subjectivity (“I is another,” said Rimbaud). Personal taste can be both the cornerstone of your work as well as a severe limitation if you’re not flexible or prone to revising your tastes. Being ready to challenge your own taste and your own preferences (even if you later realize the failures in doing so) is important. There’s also a pernicious type of subjectivity in mostly programming people you have a good personal relationship with, and not people whose music continually deserves to be presented. Not to mention the nepotistic practice (which I have noticed somewhat in festivals run by musicians) of festival organizers always having a secure spot in each other’s festivals.
About quality, a short way to describe it would be to say that it’s the kind of thing that you know when you hear it. I think that there are only two ways to measure the quality of music: in tears, and in shouts of joy. The music that makes you cry and the music that makes you scream is what I’m after. But, the most eloquent description about music quality that I know – and I hope not to sound presumptuous when I say it is the driving philosophy behind my curatorial work for Cha’ak’ab Paaxil and Lengua de Lava – comes from a Kafka letter (just replace ‘read books’ with ‘listen to music’):
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? (…) We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”