Mexican Juan Avila talks about the Blues, Robert Johnson, local scene, revolution songs and Aztecs

"There are many similitudes between the blues and the Mexican 'Norteña' music, particularly the music that resulted from the Mexican Revolution. They both surge from the people, from peasants, and they are hymns to freedom and love."

Juan Avila: Tengo El Blues Para Ti

Juan Avila is a college graduate from the Law University in Mexico with a specialty in Systems Theory Applied to Human Development at the Institute Tarsus in Buenos Aires, Argentina under the direction of Dr. Roberto Valle. Juan is the director of Tarsus de Mexico and the musical director of the blues group, Omniblues. He has given conferences to postgraduate students in various universities, and also to multinational business executives. He has written numerous articles about music and other topics which have been published in Mexico, Spain, Argentina and online; these articles have been read or downloaded over one hundred times. His article about Robert Johnson suggesting a new and interesting explanation about the myth has caused controversy in the Blues circles. A book with a compilation of some of these articles was published this year under the name of: “Variaciones y Exégesis Sobre Temas Musicales - Lo que nunca se había escrito sobre Blues y Rock”.

"Like any good music, blues affects our mood in a very powerful way. It fights stress and exerts a positive effect deep in the in our personality; it helps develop you intelligence, especially to those that practice the blues." 

A fussion of blues, ska, jazz and rock — Omniblues band is more than a common blues band. It is a non-profit cultural project, as well as 100% Mexican manufacture proposal, which offers a new way to convey joy and optimism through refined musical structure. Juan Avila founded in 1985 the pop music band, Omnibus, only to added two letters to become Omniblues. Omniblues has a sound all its own that has been obtained by the combination of blues with beats and musical currents like northern redoba, ska, reggae, rock and jazz. Omniblues was formed in 2003 with a group of friends who shared the passion to perform and to develop the regeneration of primary ideas. Being highly energetic, and endowed with untiring perseverance as well as perpetual optimism the band has sustained the necessary drive to perfect its concept. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?
I have learned so many things from the Blues.

Team work: team work is fundamental when playing the blues.

Punctuality: an ill-timed played note risks the whole piece. An appropriate and timely note played, can make a thousand hearts vibrate and can generate a whole river of emotions. It can change a life. If you ever play a bad note, you should make sure that the next one is correct. In life, it’s ok to take little deviations from the road, as long as one knows how to return to the right one. Sometimes you look for a note and by mistake you get another one but the result if great and you like it. Same thing happens in life, you may find a different result, but it’s beautiful.
For me, blues is not only music or the root of most of the music played nowadays.  Like any good music, blues affects our mood in a very powerful way. It fights stress and exerts a positive effect deep in the in our personality; it helps develop you intelligence, especially to those that practice the blues.
This is why inclination and love for music should be implemented in schools. Once this interest is manifested in children, it must be strengthen and developed by teaching kids the basic fundaments of music and specifically of blues.

When was your first desire to become involved with Robert Johnson's life? How started the thought of Variaciones y Exégesis? 

Long time ago I read an interview to Eric Clapton where he talked about his favorite guitar players. He said that, in his opinion, Robert Johnson was the best blues guitar player of all times. That’s exactly when my interest for Robert Johnson started.
Later, with time, I realized that history has not been fair with Robert Johnson. Thousands of pages have been written about Johnson, but they all seem to be based in a simple and erroneous phrase: “the man sold his soul in a crossroads to the devil”.
Now, 75 years after Johnson’s death, it’s time to stop considering Johnson a selfish and greedy person, capable of selling his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming the best blues guitar player ever. It’s time to recognize him for what he was, a genius, and in my point of view, a genius autistic person, we must stop remembering him as selfish and satanic.
Autism has different levels of severity. They go from low (functional) to high (severe). The low levels can be almost imperceptible and are usually mistaken for shyness, eccentricity and inattention. In 1961, Don Law, who produced Johnson’s only recording, described this smart musician as “a quite shy young man”.
There have been other cases of autist musicians.
Derek Paravicini now in his thirties was born premature at 25 weeks and weighing just over half a kilogram. As a result of the oxygen therapy required to save his life, Derek lost his sight, and his development was affected too. It later became apparent that he had severe learning difficulties. However, he soon acquired a fascination for music and sound, and by the age of four, had taught himself to play a large number of pieces on the piano of some melodic and harmonic complexity (such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyed”). You'll read the full article that I wrote about Robert Johnson in Facebook.
In regards to the book, Variaciones y Exégesis Sobre Temas Musicales, I started writing articles a few years ago for Bluespain, a Spanish site dedicated to Blues. Eventually I realized that my articles had been read over 75,000 times, so I decided to make a compilation and editing of all articles and make them into an e-book with beautiful art by ML Studio.

Why did you think that the Robert Johnson’s story continues to generate such a devoted following?

The border which limits myth from reality is very thin; myth and reality are interwoven in space and time: they confuse themselves, they mix and mutually feedback; eventually the crash is unavoidable and when this happens, generally and at least in concept, reality is the great loser.
His life is as mysterious as is his death and a lot has been said about both; very little is known in reality.
From his first launch, Johnson’s recordings were admired and recognized by blues as well as jazz record collectors which pushed many to search for his biography without being too successful.
The Johnson and the Devil legend rose from the ignorance towards the unknown.
How did ROBERT JOHNSON die? Who killed him and why? His death is a mystery! Was he poisoned? Was he shot or was he stabbed?  Who was the murderer? There are many stories, versions and tales on the subject but which one is the truth?

"My hopes lay with the fact that the Blues stopped being exclusively from USA and became universal music. There is a very important Blues presence in European and Canadian communities, and significant presence in Latin America and countries in Asia and Africa."

How do you describe Juan Avila’s sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

My philosophy on music is very simple:
In music, there are no fixed rules. The rules are being determined in accordance with the circumstances and they change continuously so you always have to be prepared to react. Therefore, to say that you must follow the music rules is like waiting to receive orders to extinguish a fire. Most likely, before those orders are received, everything will be consumed away into smoke and ashes.
My own sound is fundamentally based in 3 things:
I use heavy gauge strings, bass amplifiers, and bass speakers. Finally, I prefer clean sound.
For slide, I use a 70’s Fender Stratocaster equipped with a Wilkinson/gotoh vsvg vintage tremolo, shaller locking guitar machines, a pick up hs/3 dimarzio in the neck, a pick up lipstick Seymour Duncan in the middle and pickup fender American special in the bridge, and Daddario xl .013/.056 strings.
My favorite guitar is a Fender Stratocaster Highway, equipped with Wilkinson/gotoh vsvg vintage tremolo, Schaller locking guitar machines, a pick up Seymour Duncan- Quarter Pound Flat SSL-4 in the middle, a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails for Strat SHR-1 in the neck, a Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound Staggered SSL-7 in the bridge and fender nickel-plated steel super bullets .012/.052 strings.
My guitars are serviced by maestro Carlos Carbajal who is what I call a “guitar surgeon”. He worked for many years at Fender and we’re extremely lucky to have him in Mexico City.
As far as amplifiers, a combination that I enjoy when playing live is: a pair of Gallien-Krueger MB200. One connected to a Crate V212 (Celestion speakers) and one connected to a SWR Workingpro 1X15.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio which you’d like to share with us?
October, 2011. When we found out that we would share stage with famous French trumpet player, Alain Brunet, we were elated!  It’s not every day that you live an experience like this with a huge European Blues personality.

To our luck, they told us we had to share a pretty large dressing room with Mr. Brunet and his musicians. When we got there, Alain Brunet was playing on stage with his characteristic mastery.
The 4 or 5 thousand people in the audience surrender in fascination to each interpretation that Mr. Burnet delivered, who in spite of exhaustion (probably due to the Mexico City altitude) continued amazing everyone with those extraordinary sounds emanating from his trumpet.
Later in the dressing room, I had the opportunity to talk to him. Alain being French spoke also English, and I as a good Mexican, spoke my Spanglish, so we had no problems in carrying a conversation.
I gave him an Omniblues t-shirt and a copy of our last CD “Blues de la Sierra, Vol. 2”. All of a sudden, just as we were saying our goodbyes, Alain tells me: “would you like me to play with your band?” I immediately say yes, it would be an honor and a privilege for Omniblues. He said, “Call me when you’re ready”.
When we were into our 5th or 6th number, someone gave me a note saying that Alain was backstage and ready. I couldn’t believe it. I immediately announced our next song and that Alain Brunet would come to the stage to play with us. When the public heard this, they roared with applause.
Alain came to the stage, showed his talent and skills, he looked more rested, relaxed and refreshed than 2 hours prior. He owned the stage! The trumpet became an extension of his whole body and each note flew into the audience and captivated so much that everyone was in a fascination, bewitched and hypnotized by Alain Brunet.
At the end of the concert, the audience was intoxicated and addicted to the music and they kept asking for more and more.
Finally, we had to finish and we received a standing ovation, a long standing ovation as farewell to Alain Brunet and Omniblues.
Back in the dressing room, the party continued, you could hear people speaking in French, English or Spanish. Everyone wanted a picture with Alain and he was extremely happy.

"In my opinion, the blues in Mexico has not weakened nor revived. It hasn’t had a specific period of brilliance; rather, I would say that the birth is not complete. It’s still in labor, long and painful labor, however, we can talk about key moments in the history of blues in Mexico."

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What I miss (and admire) from the past is the raw form of creating blues: in the streets, out in the country in rural towns, at the front porch of the houses, with family, friends, free of any commercial interests that exist today, no big contracts, no legal representation, no lawsuits or trials, no author copyrights.
As far as my fears about the future of blues, I think that BB King was very lucky, he quickly found someone to pass the torch as the leader of world blues. Eric Clapton has not been so lucky.
As unbelievable as it sounds, in 40 years, a successor to Eric Clapton has not emerged.
In the 70’s it appeared that the successor could be John Dawson "Johnny" Winter (Beaumont/USA, February 23, 1944-Zúrich/Switzerland, July 17, 2014).
In the 80’s they thought it could be Stephen "Stevie" Ray Vaughan (October 3, 1954 – August 27, 1990).
In the 90’s Kenny Wayne Shepherd .
In the first decade of the new century, John Mayer.
But each one of these hopes fell down at some time for different reasons. There just hasn’t been a guitar player that can be considered a worthy candidate to succeed Clapton.
Other disciplines and musical styles like the Movies or Jazz or R&B, are continuously refreshed with new faces and new talent that bring renovated vitality each year. The blues has not been that lucky.
Eric Clapton is tired, the warrior has suffered through many battles that left scars: the battle against heroin, his son’s tragic death, disappointments in love matters, the deaths of some of his good friends (Hendrix, Jones, Harrison, Preston), tours, overindulgences. “SlowHand” is tired and cannot find someone to pass the torch to.
My hopes lay with the fact that the Blues stopped being exclusively from USA and became universal music. There is a very important Blues presence in European and Canadian communities, and significant presence in Latin America and countries in Asia and Africa. In fact, many Blues figures from the last century, in the actuality are playing more in Europe and Latin America than within the United States.

If you could change one thing in the blues world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
I would change slavery and segregation, which without these, the history of Blues would not be understood.

Mississippi Burning is a 1988 American movie, directed by Alan Parker. This story happened in 1964 when Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were assassinated in a time where the issue of black being allowed to vote divided opinions and fired the spirits in racial hate.
At one moment, the main character in the movie portrayed by Frances McDormand says: “They teach us to hate, one isn’t born hating, and they teach us that segregation is in the Bible”.
Slavery responds to elements of greed, not religion. With the arrival and conquest of America by the Europeans, plans of expansion surged that required cheap labor. At the beginning the native Americans became slaves, but the Spanish legislation was soon questioned of this practice (thanks to the writings of Bartolome de las Casas and to the School of Salamanca), and this resulted in importation of slaves from Africa, which by the way were stronger and had better resistance to hard work and illness, especially tropical illnesses. And so started a great deal of commerce of African slaves. The black commerce.
Segregation responds one more time to elements of economic greed and not to religious elements like the colonizers arriving from England claimed. Racism was utilized to ease and legalize slavery.
This is how repression, racism, oppression and segregation gave birth to the Blues.
I would change segregation for tolerance.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Mexico. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?
In my opinion, the blues in Mexico has not weakened nor revived. It hasn’t had a specific period of brilliance; rather, I would say that the birth is not complete. It’s still in labor, long and painful labor, however, we can talk about key moments in the history of blues in Mexico. These are the key moments:

I. 1961: The group Los OVNIS emerge. Los OVNIS started in 1961 under the name: Los Teddy Bears. In 1964 they change the name to Los OVNIS. Just like many other groups of that decade, Los OVNIS recorded ballads and rock, but OVNIS was greatly influenced by blues.
II. 1968: Javier Batiz becomes famous playing blues and rock and acquires fame and recognition playing at Bar Terraza Casino.
III. 1970: Hangar Ambulante band emerges.
IV. 1981: The blues band Banda Follaje is formed, they are a very important piece of the Mexican blues movement then, and continue active to this day.
V: 1994: Launching of Betsy Pecanins’s disc: “Nada Que Perder” (Betsy Pecanins and Guillermo Briseno).
VI: 1994: Launching of Betsy Pecanins’s disc: “El Efecto Tequila”.
VII: 1995: First year of the international blues festival: Festival Internacional Aguasblues
VIII: 1997: Launching of Real de Catorce CD: “Azul”
IX: 2008: Launching of the book “El Camino Triste de una Música: El Blues en Mexico y Otros Textos de Blues” by Jorge Garcia
X: 2009: International fest, Festival Internacional Tamaulipas closes with the participation of Omniblues.

"The mixture of culture and basically the music from the south of United States, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and especially Texas, and the culture and music of the north of Mexico, is historic, documented, inevitable, compulsory and traditional."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from United States to Central and South America?

During the slavery years and after the emancipation  in the 19th century in the United States, people of color in the south, specially Texas, began to emigrate to the north (Chicago, for instance), and looking for less oppression and less racism, and some of them basically running away from the law, migrated to Mexico.
It’s then that a mixture of the blues that the slaves brought with them, and the folk music from the north of Mexico, basically the Mexican revolution music, begin to fuse. 
A great example of this fusion is the Mascogos.
In 1843 a group of Seminoles from the Sabina river banks, went to the government offices in Coahuila to propose a peace treaty. They were accompanied by various indigenous tribes: Cherokee, Caddo, Chickasaw, Kikapoo, and others.
To date, the Mascogos are still based in Coahuila, a state in northern Mexico.
With the arrival of the Mascogos, Mexico was probably the first foreign country to receive direct blues influence from United States.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?
I am a very happy person and I think that one day without a smile is a day lost.

As far as the music circles of blues in Mexico, here are my comments:
First, we need to note that a circuit of blues festivals does not exist in Mexico. Locally, within the capital city or nationally.
Exclusive circuits of blues festivals like the ones in USA, Canada or Europe, do not exist in Mexico. Neither do we have a circle of blues bars.
Never the less, there are more than 600 multidisciplinary cultural festivals in the areas of theatre, dancing, music, etcetera, of very high cultural level. Festivals with budgets ranging from 10 thousand to 10 million dollars.
It’s in these festivals that my group, Omniblues, has performed, sharing the stage with top artists from around the world like Placido Domingo, Glenn Miller Orchestra and many others.

"My philosophy on music is very simple: In music, there are no fixed rules. The rules are being determined in accordance with the circumstances and they change continuously so you always have to be prepared to react."

Are there any similarities between the blues form and lyrics with genres of Mexican folk music?

There are many similitudes between the blues and the Mexican “norteña” music, particularly the music that resulted from the Mexican Revolution. 
They both surge from the people, from peasants, and they are hymns to freedom and love.
They rise from oppressed people, generally sad, but on occasions happy and full of hope.
They don’t have a strong technical base, but a lot of feeling.
They utilize similar musical scale and tempo.
They have a pattern of call and response both in the music as in the lyrics.
They use string instruments such as guitar, violin and banjo.
The lyrics follow patterns that are more like a conversation, not a melody.
The take the form of a narrative, which is transmitted through the voice of the singer, their personal sorrows in a crude reality, a lost or impossible love, the cruelty of the powers that be, the oppression from the white people- the bosses- or the landlords; the difficult times of hunger and cold.
There is similarity between B.B. King and Cuco Sanchez. They are singer-songwriter countrymen, raised out in the country, made and molded by peasants; and they sing equally to freedom or love with the exact same feeling, utilizing the same jargon of the people: clear, simple and rustic vs. poetic.
There is a debate amongst blues enthusiasts about the origin of Charlie Patton. Although he is considered African-American just like all the original blues artist from that period, due to his slim complexion and other characteristics, it has been speculated that he could be Mexican or Cherokee.
The mixture of culture and basically the music from the south of United States, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and especially Texas, and the culture and music of the north of Mexico, is historic, documented, inevitable, compulsory and traditional.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
A whole day with the Aztecs.

The Aztec empire was an entity of territorial, political and economic control that existed before the Spanish conquest where now Mexico is based.

Omniblues - Official website

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