Music Tuesday: Beirut Goes to Mexico

Text by Mary Anne Potts; Photographs courtesy of Rahav Segev / Brooklyn Academy of Music

Beirut can find its way around a map. The indie rock band known for its gypsy-inspired tunes has explored the music of Eastern Europe (Balkan beats in Gulag Orkestra) and Paris (French pop of The Flying Club Cup). Their latest project brings their signature sound a new continent.

On a double EP officially released yesterday, March of the Zapotec/Holland begins with songs from frontman Zach Condon's travels in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he linked up with a 19-piece Mexican funeral band in Teotitlan del Valle. The remote town was the Zapotec capital during the 11th and 12th centuries. Condon resurrected the second half of the album—infectious electronic pop released under the name Realpeople—from songs he wrote as teen in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Keep in mind that Condon, who plays the piano, trumpet, coronet, ukulele, and sings, just turned 23 last Friday.

We saw Beirut perform a sold-out show last week at the Howard Gilman Opera House the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They were joined in the second half by the 32-member Vassar Orkestar. The huge sound, overflowing with layers of strings and horns, left everyone in earshot lost in euphoria. (Preview the music: "La Llorona" from March and "My Night With a Prostitute From Marseille" from Holland.)

ADVENTURE caught up with Condon to learn about how his work is fueled by his penchant for travel (lucky guy).

While in Oaxaca, did you make time to look around? What sites did you like the most?
I spent a lot of time wondering around the zocalo, the center square. Its just like the plaza in Santa Fe where I grew up except….lively. I remember being slightly shocked that the locals use it more than the tourists do, and that made me happy, or maybe sad, for Santa Fe. We had a guide in Teotitlan del Valle, the weaver village where we recorded, who would take us around the little village markets and ruins nearby, if we could get ourselves out of bed early enough. Monte Alban left a huge impression on me. Something so sadly peaceful about ruins.

How did you immerse yourself in Zapotec culture? What impressed you so much to do an album inspired by their music?
I was originally going to do the soundtrack of a film based in Mexico by a young, new director named Cary Fukunaga. He was on site near Oaxaca and started sending me these field recordings of the local, church-sponsored brass bands, and I guess I fell in love with the choppy, mournful tunes they were playing. And the kind of martial seriousness to them. I decided to just buy a ticket and go down there with my own scores to see if I could get my music filtered through their lens. The name of the album comes from our wake up call in the village: Everyday around noon the school would blast this hilarious march tune loudly up the hills to call the children back from lunch break…the March of the Zapotec.

Do you think of yourself as a music tourist?
Not exactly. Sometimes I set out on a mission like this to record a very specific sound or to play a show with a very specific group I've been talking to. But most of the time I'm traveling for the sake of traveling, and often I'm pleasantly surprised by the music. I think it's the discussion of authenticity that gets to people. It's not authentic. It's pop music done with a wide variety of sounds that I love. 

Have you established any "rituals" for how you get to know a new place?
No, I usually end up hitting the ground running. I guess I'm a really bad planner.

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What's next for you? We heard a rumor of Africa?
I do love what I heard in Morocco and the music from the Tuareg. But I can't see myself doing that. Maybe doo-wop?

What's your motivation to go to all these places? Is cultural curiosity? Or avoiding the boredom of being stuck at home?
I can't really put my finger on it.  I'm a restless guy, and I liked to be shocked into place at least once a year.

The Realpeople pop tracks on the new album are surprising and fantastic. Do you think we'll hear more electronic music from you in the future?
Probably not. Those songs are actually my past. I started doing synth ditties as a fifteen-year-old, as it was the only equipment I had at the time. I thought people might be curious to see a very different
side of my musical personality. I'll always love electronic music though.

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