Noisy Oaxaca: Cuetes and Bandas

Mexico is noisy. Not all of Mexico. I am sure some small traditional pueblos in the far countryside, without electricity for loud-speakers and without extra cash for cuetes, slumber peacefully for centuries. In these places, funerals and other special events march to the tune of small acoustic instruments. But in larger pueblos, towns and cities, noise prevails. I live in a small town outside of Oaxaca city, and it can be incredibly noisy at times. In Oaxaca, most of the noise of festivities comes from cuetas and bandas. Oaxacan days and nights are always filled with music, and often with fireworks. It is an expression of culture, joy and release.

Bandas in Oaxaca are sometimes called Tambora Oaxaqueña, music similar to Balkan music, but with a distinctively local indigenous sound often based on has a musical tradition/style known as Son Istmeño, coming from the Isthmus region of Oaxaca state.  (Sometimes the music is in fact European, as played by the youth band in the video below) It seems a lot of Austrians from the period of the Napoleonic Empire and the rule of Maximilian I in Mexico came to and remained in the Oaxaca valley, along with their European instruments. Bandas are requisite for most festivals. The brass bands, from 10 to about 15 people with tubas and other brass, and drums of course, come out for all occasions. You have to know the tune to decide if it is a funeral, wedding or saint’s day event. Or christening, or godmothering or quinceniera (15th birthday), or anniversary, or death day, and so on.


Fireworks are to Mexican villages what tea is to British towns. Anytime is a good time for them, but some times just don’t exist without them. Cuetes are like bottle rockets or cherry bombs, as well as other flashy fireworks. Getting startled awake from an afternoon doze on the verandah by explosions is the most expected unexpected thing of the day. Or waking at 6 AM, from the depths of a dream, realizing that it must be a fiesta day because the bombas have been lit, and the banda will soon follow. On fiesta days, cuetas have to be expected, anytime anywhere, usually accompanying a banda  and a calenda (very particular kind of parade in Oaxaca), but sometimes they can simply be a gang of borachos gathered in the yard, punctuating their historias.

I’ve been told that the cuetas that accompany and interrupt mass are believed to take the prayers to heaven. Here it can often be a volley to announce the beginning of mass, another set of blasts in the middle, and at the end. I’ve read that some of the priests that come to Mexico don’t really like the somewhat pagan practice of cuetas, but today’s Catholic Church had better be happy its parishioners come at all, so the clergy, in the traditional Catholic practice of syncretism, abide.

In the evening of big fiestas men and women with light wooden bulls and other figures with spinning wheels dance as the figures explode with spinning fireworks, running through the crowd. We gringos cringe at the danger of it, while the locals watch and dance along.



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