Want to know what a triple threat looks like? It looks like Alec Dempster.
The Mexico City-born musician, artist and author moved to Canada as a child, but his work has always been infused by the culture of his birthplace. After moving back to Mexico and settling in Xalapa, Veracruz in the mid-90s, he became enamored with the local musical tradition of son jarocho. He was inspired to create thirty linoleum-block portraits, publishing them alongside his conversations with rural musicians as Faces and Voices of Son Jarocho. His art has since been featured in solo exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Mexico, France and Spain.
Not surprisingly, his musical talents also flourished, and he has produced six CDs of son jarocho recorded in the field. His band, Café Con Pan, has recorded two CDs, the most recent being Nuevos Caminos a Santiago.
Alec is perhaps best known for Lotería Jarocha, and Lotería Huasteca. Created around the concept of the popular household game of lotería, a form of Mexican bingo, the books include over a hundred prints as well as a wealth of cultural information and insight.
Alec now lives in Toronto, and continues to travel North America to entertain, educate and inspire others in the cultural traditions of Mexico. Read on to learn more about the process behind the creation of his latest book, Lotería Huasteca.
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The Porcupine’s Quill: Who or what got you interested in the Huasteca region of Mexico?
Alec Dempster: For a long time I had a very vague notion of where and what the Huasteca was. I began to imagine the region about 15 years ago at la “La Sopa,” a legendary restaurant up a cobblestone street that runs off of one of Xalapa’s main thoroughfares. It no longer exists, which is sad as it was the preferred meeting place for the city’s artistic community for many years. Friday nights featured live son huasteco with no microphones. In fact there no one ever thought of using amplification there so the contact with the music and musicians was intimate. Ideally, I would grab a table close to the trio and order a plate of enchiladas verdes or a tostada daringly assembled with more ingredients than the crunchy tortilla could support. There I got to know a number of people from the tight-knit Huasteca community and was privy to information regarding other cultural events in town. I went mainly to hear Don Victor Ramírez, the revered violinist that usually presided over the weekly session with his trio. He hails from a Xoxocapa, a remote community in the lush mountain area of northern Veracruz and luckily our paths crossed several times last year.
PQL: Some of our readers might already be familiar with your previous book, Lotería Jarocha. Can you tell us how this new book, Lotería Huasteca, might be different?
AD: It is very different indeed. While the premise of creating a series of images for a lotería game was the same, that was simply an excuse to read more about the Huasteca, spend more time there and do a large series of woodblock prints. Lotería Jarocha explores a repertoire of folk songs and the new book isn’t limited to discussing music. A wide range of topics are covered such as food, mythology, religion, dance and history. The process of choosing 54 topics to illustrate was done in consultation with a number of experts who helped me to compile a list. The writing involved a lot more research than the first book which relied more on my own experience immersed in the renewal of the tradition. In tandem the books are intended to provide some insight into Mexican cultural diversity.
PQL: Lotería Jarocha was made up of linoleum prints, while Lotería Huasteca presents a series of woodblock prints. How did these media change your artistic process? Why did you decide to use one over the other?
AD: There is something more uniform about the Lotería Jarocha prints because linoleum is predictable. The material does not offer more resistance from certain angles like wood. For the woodblock prints I used about five different kinds of wood from soft Spanish cedar to hard walnut. As a result there are images with fine crisp lines and abundant detail that contrast with others that are somewhat roughly hewn.
PQL: You appear to have wide variety of cultural inspirations to draw upon as subject matter. How did you decide which image-text pairings to include and which to leave out?
AD: Given the complexity of the region it was a daunting task to reduce that diversity to 54 images. I began with multiple lists of topics to illustrate, provided to me by a few scholars specializing in the Huasteca that I used to create my own list. Based on that I started creating the images. Over the course of a year I “whittled away” with several trips to the Huasteca and as much reading material as I could get my hands on.
PQL: Has your musical background with Café Con Pan affected the shape of this book? How so?
AD: Until recently the musical focus of Café Con Pan had always been the son jarocho music described in detail in Lotería Jarocha. This book is about another journey north with very different musical traditions. While still living in Xalapa I attempted to learn to play huasteco music without success in spite of having a number of people I could learn from at hand and I started attending son huasteco festivals here and there. I managed to slip in the occasional verse during the informal sessions I cherish at those encounters but did not further my abilities to play the music. Eventually I lost hope that I would ever learn and made the drastic decision of selling the instrument that had been specially made for me. It was about five years later during the writing of Lotería Huasteca that I was motivated to give it another shot and spent four months in the Huasteca last year learning to play the jarana huasteca. With a sore shoulder (from so much strumming) and some notions of the music, I returned Toronto and began integrating huasteco music into the Café Con Pan repertoire.
PQL: What are you working on next?
AD: At the moment I am finishing the illustrations for a book of interviews with Heraclio Alvarado, a legendary violinist from Colatlán, Veracruz. The papercuts I am doing for that represent different stages in his life and a variety of ritual occasions during which he played such as the music played to receive the first crop of corn, music played during rain invocation ceremonies, weddings, the day of the dead, and carnival. I’m also busy as a music promoter and will be bringing Tlacuatzin, a son huasteco trio, to Toronto for the first time. I studied with all three of these musicians while I was in Mexico. They will be performing at the launch of Lotería Huasteca on November 2 at the Gladstone Hotel, as well as the traditional celebration of the Day of the Dead at Artscape Wychwood Barns.
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Thanks so much to Alec for sharing his creative journey with us. We hope you enjoyed this small glimpse inside the process of this multifaceted work. Don’t forget to check out Lotería Jarocha, available now in print and digital formats, and of course, Lotería Huasteca. The digital edition of this latest book is on sale now, and print copies are coming soon.