Say the word “minstrel” and I have two connotations, one that is probably seered into your head if you are a Monty Python fan as well, and another that involves my best friend’s love of Jethro Tull. And while I could bloviate about ’70s Renaissance Rock for a 1,000-word post, I’d rather focus on the professional goofballs in Guanajuato who carry on a nearly 50-year-old tradition of dressing in pantaloons and puffy shirts, singing and drinking and joking their way through the cobbled streets of the old city at night.
On Saturday night, just as we were brushing our teeth in our hotel room, we could hear boisterous music crescendoing up the narrow street outside our window. Stepping out into the hotel’s courtyard, we could see 10 musicians, dressed in traditional Spanish Renaissance outfits, singing boldly and strumming their instruments. Three lute-players were at the forefront, strumming, singing, baiting the crowd down the street, then turning and charging a few steps at them like bulls, inspiring giggles and a collision of elbows and stepped-upon toes. We joined the fray, not knowing what the song was about (but assuming love) and walked with the group of 80 down toward Plazuela de San Fernando. Everyone had a drink but us, and we were soon weeded out of the crowd by the minstrels handlers at a narrow passageway. Turns out you need to drop 100 pesos each for the full show, your ticket stub being a small, ceramic, bong-like pitcher that they give you at the start of the tour. (This video shows what its like to come upon them, but I didn’t shoot the video).
So on our final night, Palm Sunday, we ponied up and joined the 10pm callejoneada, or musical walking tour of the city. The group had originated in the 1960s at the university, but had clearly morphed into a tourist-centric moneymaker. The drinks were far from plenty and tasted more like Tang than booze (a friend who had visited more than 10 years ago had relayed a more raucous version of events involving the group) and there were definite moments when I felt played. The group would round the corner and a dozen men selling roses would suddenly appear, right before the minstrels would serenade the ladies.
But I don’t kid myself. The group — in fact the whole concept — is brilliant, and they should be cashing in. Guanajuato is an even better city because of the merry music echoing in its alleys at night, and the men in their velvet, poofy sleeved shirts are genuine showmen. It was the first in a handful of instances in Mexico where I told myself its finally time to learn Spanish (the next was on Monday, when a Mexican clown would thoroughly embarrass me). Their jokes were totally lost on me, but in an odd way, I felt completely in the loop on what they were about: music, laughter, romancing the ladies and taking pride in your city. Not a bad way to spend the evening.