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Mexico: Guitar Central

Cover Story

In Paracho, the Six-String Is King. Almost Everything-Business, Celebrations, Hospitality-Revolves Around Music.

October 14, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Christopher Reynolds is a Times travel writer. He last wrote about South African safaris for the magazine

It is a mild day in the mountains of middle Mexico, a fine day for chasing butterflies or lingering on cobbled side streets, neither of which I'll be doing. I am here to sniff sawdust and engage in arcane conversations with old men in dim, cluttered rooms.

I step down onto the runway of the Morelia airport--the old colonial state capital of Michoacan, midway between Mexico City and Guadalajara--with one less piece of luggage than I expect to take home. In a hidden compartment beneath my belt, I carry a large amount of cash. In my wallet, I carry an address given to me by a guy who knows a guy.

I rent a car and head southwest. As darkness falls on the colonial buildings of Patzcuaro's main plaza, I corner a wizened man named Raul, who in a few moments will be singing and playing "Guadalajara" to a restaurant full of Mexican and American tourists. I nod at his guitar, and in my Spanish, which has been compared with President Bush's English, I say something like: The guitar you are playing, is Paracho from it, that town of guitars in the mountains? Um, yes, says Raul in Spanish, half-surprised.

I am going to Paracho this week, to see the festival, and to buy a guitar. Is there a guitar player, no, a guitar-maker, whom you can recommend? The man from your guitar? "Amezcua," says Raul. But he adds that he couldn't afford an Amezcua himself. He's been playing this Velazquez for about eight years now. Anyway, Raul says, I can find both on the main street. . . .

Now it's a Sunday afternoon. the big cities and colonial scenery are behind me, and under a sky full of dramatic clouds, I'm racing along a two-lane highway, passing cornfields, crawling up pine-stubbled slopes, rolling at last into Paracho, guitar-making capital of North America.

Above the town looms a jagged mountain peak, Tare Tzuruan, which in the indigenous Purepecha language might mean Big Hill or Eagle Mountain, depending on whom you ask. But I can't take my eyes off the shop windows: Taller de Guitarras. Barajas Guitarras. Jesus H. Fuerte Guitarras. Casa Amezcua Guitarras . . .

Inside I see guitars large and small, whole and half-built, hung on hooks, strangled in twine (to hold the wood in place while the glue dries) and cradled in the arms of makers wielding files and hammers and saws and rags and other tools whose purposes I can only guess.

The Morelia airport is about a three-hour drive, perhaps 100 miles, but it seems much farther. Down the street my rental car creeps, past shops advertising guitars, produce, guitars, wooden curiosities (including guitars), gifts (including guitars), food, guitars, toys (including guitars), guitar-making tools, an Internet cafe (hey, this is rural Mexico, not the dark side of the moon), an auto repair garage and more guitars.

Although it's a town whose population wouldn't quite fill Staples Center, Paracho in early August practically seethes. Its annual fair has just begun. In search of a parking spot, I crawl south to north the length of the main drag, which changes names twice in its eight blocks. The buildings are one or two stories, except for the church tower, which looks over the main plaza and a cultural center. At the north end of town, perhaps a five-minute walk from the central plaza, the raw countryside resumes.

"This not just a guitar festival. This is the whole town throwing its summer festival--people all over the streets doing all sorts of stuff," a Paracho veteran named Kenny Hill told me before I headed south.

Hill, a professional guitar-maker and player who spends most of the year in Santa Cruz, is the only American with a workshop in Paracho. He's been a regular visitor or part-time resident for two decades, and he estimates that there are more guitar-makers in Paracho than in the entire United States. Guesses range from 1,200 to 3,000.

Paracho's population, including neighboring settlements, was put at 31,003 in the 1999 Mexican census. By some estimates, it produces as many as 80,000 guitars a year.

Search for it on the Internet and you'll find precious little; I only heard of it a few years ago, from a friend who'd wandered through on a backpacking trip in the '80s. But Paracho is not quite invisible. Last year, the National Geographic Society published a children's book on Paracho and its guitars by Peter Laufer and Susan L. Roth. Titled "Made in Mexico" and filled with wildly colorful paper collages, it features a blurb by singer Linda Ronstadt. Years before she began exploring her Mexican heritage in her 1987 "Canciones de Mi Padre" recordings, Ronstadt recalls, she first learned to play guitar on an instrument from Paracho.

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