Thursday, January 29, 2009


I was listening to a radio program on churches recently and heard that in many Canadian cities it has become illegal to ring the bells of churches in city centres – the neighbors had complained. Everything in these neighborhoods has become “noise”. Modern urban dwellers are accustomed to noise - traffic, construction, garden equipment – all of which is treated as a distraction or something to complain about. Indeed many of our communities have noise bylaws. In Mexico one has a very different experience of noise. There may well be more noise, but more importantly it takes on a different significance as it signals community life and involves you in that community of hearers
As the day begins, usually at 6:30, but often much earlier, church bells begin to ring. These bells don’t just signal that mass is in progress, but they serve as an alarm and the pattern of the bells gives a sense of how long you have to get to church. Throughout the day the bells ring and you begin to recognize that some of these bells depict funerals, weddings or celebratory events. You become involved in the social life of the imagined community. Both religious and secular events are preceded by rounds of fireworks (not the colourful kind, but the noisy kind) which tell you where an event is located and the frequency of the explosions signals the amount or time until the event.

At 7:30 each morning the gas trucks begin to ply their product with a loudspeaker announcing their presence on your street and usually giving a phone number as well as few bars of the William Tell overture. About the same time each morning major stores have vehicles with loudspeakers addressing the women of the house to reveal the specials of the day. Throughout the day you will also hear the hand-rung bells of the garbage collectors or you will hear shouts of “santorini” announcing the presence of water delivery in your neighborhood. Put your jug (garafon) out, along with some money, and a fresh jug will be provided. There is the constant sound of the ice cream wagon, usually around school let out time. Then there is the loooong sound of a truck horn announcing the arrival of the milk truck providing fresh, unpasturized milk. Take your jug to the street and the vendor will fill it from a series of milk cans. With less frequency is a whistle, which sounds like a duck, telling you that the postman is at your door or another more musical whistle telling you that the knife sharpener is walking on your street. Another frequent sound is that of the high school band practicing their marching music. At other times the music indicates a procession of some kind, perhaps a funeral or a procession taking the virgin from one church to another. At election time there are never-ending loudspeakers roaming the city asking for your support and involvement. Once a year you also hear the announcement that the circus is in town or you may well encounter the elephants walking through the plaza to draw attention to the event. The sound of hooves on the cobblestones indicates young people in need are selling firewood, or a type of compost, on your street.

There are of course the noises of an irritating manner – the honks of a local traffic jam, neighbors playing their music too loudly (for you), the hammering of construction, and with growing frequency the sound of an airplane flying too low. Sometimes this is the sound of the army helicopter and everyone looks up and no doubt worries about what this might signal. You may also be awakened by the early rising rooster in your neighbor’s back yard, or, neighborhood dogs may keep you awake as barks rise and fade like the sounds a hockey audience. If you told Mexican people that in Canada you could call the police to deal with a barking dog or loud music they simply would not understand what you were talking about.

The other noises however, are sounds of real community life and these are your gateway to involvement. All of these noises are generated on the assumption that people (usually women or maids) are in their houses listening and are available to engage. These community sounds may be necessary because not everyone buys the local newspaper, has a telephone or a vehicle. Smaller communities may have a communal loudspeaker system which will announce the arrival of electric bills and provide information on when and where to pay them. All types of communal information can be distributed in this manner. People are engaged much more directly in their neighborhoods and community and what could be the sounds of a consumer culture become the sounds of an authentic community. All of this reminds us what has happened to the western community as stores have become larger and thus drive local businesses away from neighborhoods, people travel further to work, noise bylaws and soliciting bylaws keep strangers from the door and eliminate the sounds of real community life. We come to see ourselves as isolated individuals and not as community members.

PS I mentioned the sound announcing the knife sharpener. I recently watched the movie "La historia de Lisboa" by Wim Wenders recently and was shocked to hear that the whistle of the knife sharpener in Lisbon is exactly the same as that used in Patzcuaro. Was this sound transported to Mexico? Is it a universal call?

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