Loud Mexico City: Exploring The Sounds And Noise
Mexico’s capital is full of sounds that could be as rich and melodious as rowdy and overwhelming. After all, it’s the most populous city in North America — and quite likely the loudest. In a special three-part series, we look at how people there love, hate and contribute to the sounds of their city.
The Loudest Street
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Fausto Rodriguez, an architect specializing in sound design, stood at one end of Mexico City’s loudest pedestrian walkway, and pointed his right index downward.
Rodriguez explained the components of what he calls the “urban canyon” of Madero Street, which stretches for seven blocks from Mexico City’s main square (the Zócalo) to the city’s oldest public park (the Alameda Central). The components of the canyon, he said, are the hard surfaces of the buildings lining the street, which average 65 feet in height, and of the ground.
“The first thing is the ground,” he said. “It's not asphalt, it's not tiles. This is granite mixed with cement, so it makes for a very sound reflective area.”
Rodriguez, an architecture professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico, has been on a quiet campaign for the past 10 years to educate people on the health effects of sustained noise, which has been associated with fatigue, stress and sleep disorders. In 2009, he was commissioned by the Mexico City government to make a map of the city’s loudest highways. On a recent Tuesday, he took a visitor on a listening tour of Madero Street.
The most immediately noticeable source of noise are the people who promote restaurants or tattoo shops by shouting advertisements. For example, 21-year-old Gabriel Lopez, who shouted: “There are tattoos! There are piercings!” Apparently, it works. Lopez said he’s often mid-yell when someone will tap him on his shoulder and ask to be taken to the shop.
This type of marketing, Rodriguez said, has been around for centuries. And that’s more or less what this street is: a competition for people’s attention. People shout, loud speakers blast music and buskers play instruments.
On the next block down, and on roughly every other block of Madero Street, Rodriguez found a person grinding a street organ, producing a sound found in many corners of downtown Mexico City.
In this case, Rodriguez spoke with Camilo Juarez, an organ grinder wearing a beige uniform and holding out a hat to ask for spare change. Juarez told Rodriguez he walks onto Madero Street seven days a week to play a 26-key Harmonipan-brand organ, and while his feet often hurt from standing and his eyes burn from the polluted air, he does not notice any discomfort in his ears from the sounds. Rodriguez replied the street noise likely still affects his body, and recommended ear plugs.
“The whole time, you’re tense,” Rodriguez said. “In that sense, one should take care.”
Rodriguez walked for more than an hour along Madero Street and eventually crossed to the public Park, the Alameda Central, where tall trees grow on sections of dirt between narrow walkways. In this urban respite, birds chirp — and a steady stream of traffic hums from the surrounding streets. Rodriguez is dismayed by the insidiousness of the noise.
“You hear the roar of traffic, no?” he asked. “This is terrible.”
Still, this is a good place. Rodriguez hopes, he said, people will look for this park here, or somewhere calm near wherever they are, to once in a while give their ears some rest.
The Vibrating Arts Of Sounds
In sound-filled Mexico City, many artists and institutions work to preserve or contribute to its rich soundscape. They are building projects and public spaces specially designed to listen, learn and enjoy.
An example lies just a few steps away from rowdy street vendors in downtown Mexico City and from Mexico’s National Palace. It’s an old, tilted church. And as you walk in, the urban noises are replaced by soundscapes.
“We are a museum, but at the same time a space for live and performing arts,” said Tito Rivas, director of Ex Teresa Arte Actual, a space focused on sound experimentation. And he says sound art is becoming more and more popular in Mexico City.
“There’s some listening thirst in the public,” said the museum director. “In the last 10 years we see a very active and dynamic movement of sound artists that are creating one of the most interesting scenes in the world”.
As a sound artist himself, Rivas has been influenced by the city’s sounds — and tragedies. One of his pieces is called ”Silence,” a tribute to Mexico City’s 2017 earthquake.
It’s an audio collage made from his recorded experience trying to rescue victims buried under the debris.
“The screaming of the people working to try to find someone are completely emotional,” Rivas said.
The University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC) is another art institution with a space dedicated to sound art. For Rivas, Mexico City’s combination of contemporary and ancient sounds provide a unique experience to create pieces and spaces, making Mexico City one of the top audio art scenes.
“To come to Mexico City, it’s a very interesting city, but not only come to see or eat, but to hear, ” said the artist.
Jesús Pacheco is a cultural journalist and agent promoting sound art in Mexico City. He recruits audio artists and underground techno musicians to create unique recordings and experiences.
“It’s about connecting artists and audiences with Mexico City’s sound landscapes in a creative and recreational way,” Pacheco said.
In Pacheco’s project "Sinestesia," sound artists build some sort of a soundtrack to visual arts pieces from the Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum. They record the audio interventions and stream them online, but also have live performances at the museum, allowing the audience to see the audio artists interacting with the pieces.
For "Céntrica," Pacheco searches for electronica sound artists and underground DJs to record EPs (small albums) mixing music and soundscapes.
"The dynamic includes asking artists to go fishing or hunting sounds in Mexico City’s historic downtown," Pacheco said.
Pacheco says the audio art scene in the city is growing, but it’s still hard to find a budget to develop spaces and exhibits.
“These projects make the audio art scene in Mexico City more visible, but we are in a moment of re thinking them to see how to make them happen,” Pacheco said.
History For The Ear
In the city’s south, an institution also works to bring awareness on local sounds — in this case, with a historical value: Mexico’s National Sound Library (Fonoteca Nacional), directed by Pavel Granados.
Thousands of recordings can be heard there, like one of Jackie Kennedy’s speech while visiting Mexico City with her husband, President John F Kennedy, in 1962.
“We tend to think that the sounds of the city are eternal, but fortunately or unfortunately, they’re not, and so we work to protect and archive them,” Granados said.
The Fonoteca Nacional stores from street noise and oral traditions to radio shows and music recordings. Their collection includes Mexico’s first recording from 1898, which features indigenous huichol chants recorded by a Swedish anthropologist using an Edison phonograph.
“We have already digitalized and catalogued around 11 years of sounds,” said Granados. And that’s just a third part of what they have.
The National Sound Library has a room with computers to revise their archives, a hall for temporary exhibits and a garden to relax and listen (Chapultepec Forest has a similar garden called Audiorama).
“Regardless of the border, Mexico and the U.S. are intertwined in many ways,” Granados said.
And sounds prove it, like American crooner Frank Sinatra singing “La Mentira” — or “Yellow Days” — a Mexican bolero by composer Álvaro Carrillo.
Making Sounds For A Living
In Mexico City, many street jobs have become part of the soundscape: from hand-cranked organs and folk musicians to vendors yelling or playing horns.
There’s for example what sounds like a factory whistle, but it’s one of the most distinctive sounds in Mexico City’s dusk: a guy known as the camotero (sweet potato vendor) with rolling stove cooking sweet potatoes and plantains.
But as modern times bring them obstacles, some try to keep these jobs — and sounds — alive.
El Organillero, The Hand-Cranked Organ Player
Thousands of street workers like him make sounds for making money in Mexico City, among them Esteban Cuevas, who plays an organillo, a vintage hand-cranked organ. He teaches me how to make it sound by cranking a knob, playing the old-fashioned chords of a traditional song.
These instruments arrived from Europe in the early 20th century and are now considered an icon of the city’s squares. But Cuevas says the tradition is almost gone, as many people consider it noisy.
"It's a Mexican tradition, but now a lot of people are letting it go; there are parts in the city that no longer let us work," Cuevas said, who gets his job from the owner of the instrument, a man who inherited some organillos from his ancestors.
Cuevas says that, regardless of the changing habits, some people still appreciate its beauty, particularly tourists, which helps preserve the tradition — and jobs.
"Many people come from the United States, take pictures and give us a tip," said Cuevas, who migrated from the state of Puebla. "I came to be part of this tradition and it is very beautiful; and to be honest, I am very proud of it."
But unlike Cuevas, others depend more on locals, like Felix Marín.
El Panadero, The Bakery Vendor
Every morning, Marín parks his tricycle packed with bakery products and coffee, calling his customers with a horn. Like Cuevas, he migrated but from the state of Veracruz, years ago. Many street workers like them come from impoverished regions in the country.
A problem he faces is corruption.
“Well, I have to ‘tip’ the ‘delegación’ (local municipal authorities) every week, you know how it goes in Mexico; and it’s a problem from the country I can’t solve,” Marín said.
Marín says the tradition of selling bread on the street grows — but so is the number of vendors cramming the streets.
“You see, the tradition increases, but also the number of tricicleros (street vendors riding trycicles). But it's an easy and fun job that I know well, my customers know me and wait for me, and so I am happy," Marín said.
The Sound Collector
Bruno Bartra is the coordinator of the Sound Map of Mexico, an online map sponsored by the National Sound Library that matches locations with sounds recorded by him and dozens of contributors.
Many of the sounds include merolicos, street vendors using chants to attract customers. Bartra shows me some examples, like a man that, almost singing, yells that he fixes curtains.
“It’s a city that’s within this amazing human soundscape. Every city has its unique sounds, but there’s very few cities that have so many sounds at the same time and that are so noisy as Mexico City,” said Bartra.
Bartra, a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of New York, wants the map to help preserve the auditory memory of the city.
“Not only we will preserve this sounds of this city, but we will create cultural connections with the past, with the present and eventually with the future,” the expert said.
He says very few cities in the world are even allowed to be so rich in sounds.
“I mean, you can’t go out in the streets of New York City shouting that you're selling donuts or ice cream or whatever, and not being eventually prevented from doing it, right?” he said, as he chuckled.
El Tamalero, The Tamal Vendor
A looped recording well-known by locals fills the streets of a middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City inviting to buy tamales.
“Pida sus ricos tamales oaxaqueños, ya llegaron sus ricos y deliciosos tamales oaxaqueños …”
It’s played by Carlos Rodriguez, who started using it about seven years ago.
“Us tamaleros owe a lot to the recording; it’s what feed us,” Rodríguez said. He says sales dramatically increased with it and even claims to know the author of it: a former tamalero turned into taquero from his town in the state of Veracruz.
But the looped chant also came with more competitors.
“The city is saturated with tamales now,” Rodríguez said. But he said he still makes good money, as chilangos (inhabitants of Mexico City) love tamales.
According to Rodríguez, he crosses the city every day pedaling his tricycle packed with tamales. And as a Catholic devote to Our Lady of Guadalupe, that has helped him on his processions.
“I can pedal on a bike from my hometown in Veracruz to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City in just two days, while most of my friends need to take breaks and more time,” he said, as he smiled proudly.
Los Huapangueros, The Huapango Musicians
In another barrio, a smiley street violin player tells me the streets are congested — but with musicians.
Manuel Torres leads a traditional music trio of Huapango, folk music mainly from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The band’s name is El Trío Desterrado Huasteco, and they come from the state of Hidalgo.
The trio plays on the streets expecting listeners to come out and tip them or hunt for small restaurants, patios and squares to play.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, we are going with this little song that we hope you like; ¡Buen provechito!” Torres says in from of a dozen of people eating in a small restaurant before starting to play "La azucena bella."
Torres says contemporary music tastes and an excess of street musicians make it hard for them to make a living.
“There’s a lot of musicians everywhere, and this job has its ups and downs, but that’s like any other job I guess, right?” said Torres, whose smile seems eternal.
And like the other street vendors, he said he would not change it for anything else.