April 25, 2003

MACUILXOCHITL: “Five Flower”, the Aztec god of music and dance

A Conversation With Chucho Merchán

By Francisco Ciriza

The following is the second in a series of writings based upon a personal interview with Chucho Merchán an accomplished Latino musician and wonderful human being. He is currently the bassist in Mexico’s rock outfit Jaguares.

Chucho Merchán began studying at the university level in California before eventually arriving in London, England. There, he gained entry into Cambridge University and began his study of classical guitar and subsequently, opening vistas to ample opportunities for the aspiring musician.

“One day I asked the orchestra director, ‘Hey, how come every time the orchestra goes to perform, I get left here alone?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you learn to play the bass? If you learn, I’ll give you a spot in the orchestra.’ At that point, I set myself to the task of learning to play the double bass and quite frankly, I fell in love with the instrument. Learning and playing it came with relative ease and I soon realized I’d found another instrument for myself. From then on I was a double bass player and, at last, a member of Cambridge University’s orchestra.”

Studying during the day and by night playing in a local jazz band, Merchán sat in with others whenever he was invited. “One night, I was playing with, pianist, Mose Allison. After the gig, Pete Townsend comes up and introduces himself to me and tells me he’s in an English band called The Who. Just like that, right! And I was saying to myself, ‘what?’ You see, because he was a hero of mine. I knew how to play all of his songs. So he goes on to say that he’s recording an album and that he’d like for me to play bass on it. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I can’t do this,’ then I remember taking on this real professional air, but as soon as he left, I ran around the place screaming, ‘Pete Townsend!’”

Those antics illustrate the same sort of bond that exists between Jaguares and its fans. It also mirrors the relationships developed within the band. A sense of belonging and renewed inspiration are complimented by the band’s popularity.

“I’ve never toured South America in all my years of performing. With the Eurythmics we did Rock in Río’, but that was it. There’s something very special about Latino audiences. Mexican fans especially. The race, the culture, I love it. I am happy to be a part of this movement. I think Latino’s are in a great period of transition and discovery. The Latino is finding his/her voice.”

Jaguares, a reincarnation of Rock en Español pioneers, Caifanes, is already legendary in Latin America. The latter being commonly credited with having given birth to Mexico’s rock movement of the late 80’s. Still very true to form, the band delivers the Tijuana audience an impressive 120-minute set that consists of songs from their most recent release, 2002’s CD, El Primer Instinto [BMG Latin]  back to Caifanes’ first recordings in 1988.

Officially, Merchán is considered an invited guest musician of a core group of musicians that make up Jaguares. Saul Hernández has chosen, the stylish, Alfonso André, on drums, and lead guitarist, Cesar ‘Vampiro’ López, perhaps rock’s most underrated (because he’s most ignored) guitarist. Merchán has toured with the band and recorded the majority of bass parts on the group’s two most recent CD releases for the BMG label since joining up in 2000.

Left to right: Francisco Ciriza, Leo Muñoz, Saul Hernández, Gonzalo López (Director of Marketing, BMG, Spain), Alfonso André, Jaime 'Jimmy Z' Zavala, (couching in front: Chucho Merchán) César 'Vampiro' López (the gentleman between Jimmy Z and Vampiro is not identified...he was another guest from Spain)

Merchán recalls, “I was in Colombia producing a record and a friend of mine who is also a friend of Saul’s called me up and told me he thought I should meet Saul. He said he was in a very famous group, at that time known as Caifanes, and that he was a person who seemed to be watched over by a guardian angel.

Immediately, I was intrigued. I was curious to find out what this guy was all about. So one evening we went out for dinner and we just hit it off. We parted ways for the time being, but about a year later, Saul called me one night. He’d known a little about my work and asked me to come and try out for Jaguares.”

“My first show with the band was in Monterrey, Mexico. It was purely incredible. The way the audience acts at a Jaguares show is very impressive. The experience is more a celebration of Saul’s songs than just a concert. It transcends music.”

Merchán has held on steadily to his position which has seen other accomplished players, most notably Stuart Hamm, come and go. Hernández once described his idea for Jaguares as a ‘workshop’ of sorts with players having the freedom to come and go as they please. Early on, the concept of a workshop type of atmosphere seemed appealing to us,” says André.

Ironically, the man whose career is essentially a continuum of mini-careers, has, in this case, brought stability to the band. “We’d been seeking this type of equilibrium and stability within the band for some time,” André explains, “the experiences we’ve had working with the various musicians that have walked through Jaguares’ doors have served to help us grow and discover new ways of making and perceiving music.

“However, working with the same people for an extended period of time allows for deeper musical relationships and promotes playing less as individuals, but more so as a part of a larger body. The language within each of us blends together and our creativity becomes strongly connected and very effective. I believe holding on to this particular line-up for a few years has provided us great understanding and we’re really playing together.

“Chucho’s extended stay in the band and playing its music has allowed him to continue his assimilation and find new approaches to playing and interacting with us musically. We’ve worked with many different bassists with diverse styles. His experience working with all those great artists and excellent drummers is irreplaceable. Playing with him has been an incredible learning experience for me,” explains André.

André adds, “Chucho is an outstanding human being. He has brought an incredibly powerful and positive vibe into this band. He’s always happy and energetic, ready to work and to put his all toward lifting Jaguares’ music to new heights. In addition to being a great musician, he’s a very dear friend, and a good, good person. We feel very comfortable and connected. On a personal level, there is complete harmony, which, in turn, has a very positive effect on the music.”

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