The Roses


Diego Rivera's murals at the Palacio de Gobierno in the center of the Mexican capital describe the cruelty of exploitation. Salutary monks, that's how they called themselves in a self-ironic way, priests and bishops of the Christian church and other profit-orientated immigrants rape and butcher this rich country and their defenseless inhabitants. Rivera's warm colors suggest a paradise, but the details show the real brutality. The scenes remind me of Taddeo di Bartolo's fresco "The last judgment" at the dome in San Gimignano, Tuscany. In March 2004 I travelled to Mexico to discover the land where Concha Michel, Tina Modotti, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo lived and worked, to search for the music of their world, to hear the sounds and to record the musical travelogue "Cuardernos de Mexico". Frida Kahlo's original and very personal paintings about pain, love and her country Mexico drew my attention. Over ten years ago Mariko Takahashi introduced me to her works and I fell in love with these images although I was not familiar at all with naive art. Through Frida Kahlo I discovered Tina Modotti's art and her portrait of the singer Concha Michel. Books, diaries, documentaries, feature films, biographies and exhibitions about all these artists are available but the traces of Concha Michel have almost disappeared. There are a few chapters about her in Margret Hooks' biography of Tina Modotti. My conversations with the famous Mexican singer Chavela Vargas who must have known Concha Michel did not bring any new information; other Mexican artists knew only her name. It seemed to be impossible to find anything about this artist. In Lisbon the communist party organized an exhibition with the works of Tina Modotti, but again: no sign, no information about Concha Michel. In Paris, an exhibition with paintings by Frida Kahlo was shown, but here, too, nobody knew Concha Michel. The singer Susanna Harp, in whose house the movie "Frida Kahlo" was shot, had only heard her name, but had no further knowledge, no recording, no scores, nothing. A photography from the year 1928 shows Concha Michel with her hair in a bun, wearing a simple dress, looking at her guitar as she plays. She is strong and full of quiet energy. On December 3, 1929, Concha Michel performed at Biblioteca Nacional de Mexico for the opening of Tina Modotti's show. This exhibition turned into a revolutionary event. The student leader Baltasar Dromundo and the communist mural painter David Alfaro Siqueiro, an important figure of Mexican society in the 20s and 30s, made speeches at the end of the show. I was certain that I would find something about Concha Michel in Mexico, but my travel didn't bring any new facts, and so I gave up. On the flight back home I decided that Concha Michel should remain an inaccessible mystery. Miguel Sáenz, a friend from Spain, the translator of Thomas Bernhard, Günter Grass and Elfriede Jelinek, invited Mariko Takahashi and me for dinner. Once again Concha Michel came up and, completely unexpectedly, Miguel Sáenz seemed to know a path leading to her. Dr. Alfredo Michel Modenessi, like Miguel Sáenz a literature specialist, lived in Mexico; Miguel Sáenz believed that he had a connection with Concha Michel. That hope became reality after Sáenz contacted Modenessi. Information and scores like the book "Corridos Revolucionarios" (including the songs "El Niño Proletario", "Los Agraristas" and "Únion") and the photocopy of the collection of songs by Concha Michel "Mexico en sus Cantares" (with the songs "Delgadina", "Arrullo", "La Adelita", "La Valentina" and "Las Golondrinas") and further material was sent to Winter & Winter in Munich. Concha Michel came from a wealthy family. As a young girl, she was expelled from her boarding school after she burned a holy statue in the chapel. Her sympathy for the poor and underprivileged convinced her to change her life and she decided to fight against the establishment of the rich and powerful. She was attracted by Diego Rivera's works. Lupe Marín, Rivera's second wife, introduced her to him. Through him, she learned to know Frida Kahlo. A photo from 1953 shows the 54-year-old Concha Michel behind Frida Kahlo who lies on the bed on which she was carried to her last exhibition. Their friendship stayed alive throughout the years. Concha Michel also developed a deep friendship with Tina Modotti. Both worked as models for Diego Rivera's painting "Creation", and in 1932 the two women were in Moscow. Concha Michel was a women's rights activist who studied the situation of women and worked to support and to strengthen the role of women within society. She also sympathized with the workers' movement and fought against the exploiters of poor people. In her eyes changes in society could only be brought about globally. The subjects of her songs are women, workers, the revolutionary movement, farmers and her country. Tina Modotti studied photography technique with her partner Edward Weston and was also his model. Modotti's and Michel's works have similar roots and reflect similar subjects. This explains the strong spiritual connection between these two extraordinary women. They lived in an exciting time in a special location where André Breton visited Leo Trotzki at Diego Rivera's house and wrote the manifest "For an independent revolutionary art". Today the house and desk of Leo Trotzki, the double house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the market hall painted by Isamu Noguchi and Rivera's murals in the government palace are places of cult, where the well-educated society goes to experience a bit of the spirit of what was a home to the intellectual and artistic elite of Mexico. Salvador "El Negro" Ojeda received the whole package with the scores and books of Concha Michel from Winter & Winter. During my stay in Mexico I learned to know him and his art. "El Negro" embodies the voice of Mexico. He performed together with guitar player José Luis Santiago on the album "Cuadernos de Mexico". The group "Al Golpe del Guatimé" with Teresita de Jesús Islas de Gutiérrez and José Ángel Gutiérrez were part of "Cuadernos de Mexico". Mariko Takahashi knew that "El Negro" and José Ángel Gutiérrez had worked together in the past, so she decided to send the material of Concha Michel also to this group. Patrick Duval from the culture organization "Musiques de Nuit" from Bordeaux knew the Concha Michel project from my initial, unsuccessful search, and it was a great honor for him to invite "El Negro", José Luis Santiago and the group "Al Golpe del Guatimé" to Bordeaux to perform songs dedicated to the memory of Concha Michel and Tina Modotti. The musicians were enthusiastic to discover Concha Michel's music although they did not know any details about her. They felt connected to the spirit of Concha Michel. This incited all the musicians and a small recording team of Winter & Winter to come together in Bordeaux to work on the album "The Roses" in July 2005. On the second day of the recording session José Ángel Gutiérrez received the message that his father had died in Mexico. It seemed that the project had found an abrupt end, but José Ángel Gutiérrez wanted to stay, he wanted to play Concha Michel's music together with his wife, the warmhearted singer Teresita, José Luis Santiago and especially "El Negro". To my surprise, I learned that José Ángel Gutiérrez was actually raised by "El Negro" because there was no place for him in his father's house. In other words, his real father was with him in Bordeaux. The songs tell stories about Mexico. The love of the motherland and the belief in the fight for justice united all artists from Frida Kahlo to Tina Modotti and Concha Michel, and from Salvador "El Negro" Ojeda and José Luis Santiago to "Al Golpe del Guatimé". And it seems to be almost normal that José Ángel Gutiérrez' main profession is to be a special lawyer to support the underprivileged people – the people who can be seen in Diego Rivera's murals at Palacio de Gobierno, those who need help to survive in a dirty world.

 

- Stefan Winter

 


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