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The music of Mexico is the cry of a land whipsawed by change

By Christopher SwanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 1984

Mexico City

Julio Estrada flips on the stereo among the packing crates in his Mexico City home, and a lone violin cries in a strange new musical language. It tells a tale of human suffering and desire.

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Mr. Estrada - a slender man with dark, troubled eyes - is a Mexican composer. But he does not compose in Mexico.

''This country has a huge history of culture, one of the most vivid in the world,'' Estrada argues passionately. But he asserts that Mexican music has been reduced to ''depending on outside musicians'' to set its compositional standards. Now, he says, ''We need to create our own dreams.''

Right now, however, this country heaves and pulls under a burden that leaves little room for dreaming.

In the music of Mexican composers, you can hear the cry of a land whipsawed by modern economic travail and ancient social wrongs. And in the music world they inhabit, you can see a microcosm of almost everything that has gone wrong with the life of this diverse country.

Julio Estrada, for instance, composes and teaches in the United States, as he cannot find the technology in financially ravaged Mexico to develop his advanced theories - and because, he says, such ideas are not well received by Mexico's powerful musical oligarchy.

There are those who would dispute Estrada's view of himself as an artist-in-forced-exile. ''Julio likes to see himself as an exile,'' says Mario Lavista, a fellow composer. But few would disagree that Mexico no longer charts the independent musical course it once followed.

As long ago as the 1910 post-Mexican Revolution era, composer Carlos Chavez forged a Mexican idiom and a musical life to nourish it. The onrushing change that poured out of the revolution bore Chavez - as it did the poets, thinkers, and painters of Mexico - pell-mell into the heart of the nation's confrontation with the future. Chavez, and such contemporaries as Silvestre Revueltas, helped create a Mexican appetite for contemporary music that survives to this day.

By third-world standards, Mexico still has a thriving symphonic and chamber-music life. But there is little to sing about in the outlook for the country's musical culture. The reason: The compositional mainstream here has been both supported and strangled by what many feel is a hidebound cultural bureaucracy.

With the nationalization of the banks in September of 1982, the last independent source of funding for cultural enterprises disappeared. Mexican composers and musicians now work for the state, or they work for no one.

Until the collapse of world oil prices in '82, the flood of Mexican oil expectations fueled a boom in orchestra building, helped in large part by former President Jose Lopez Portillo's wife, Carmen Romano. But there was more enthusiasm than planning behind this expansion.

''At one point, we had more orchestras than musicians,'' quips Manuel Enriquez, the country's leading composer. ''We had to bring in European players. And we had to bring up students from the schools before they were ready.''

Composers here despair of raising the level of performance in these ensembles. ''We are a poor country now,'' Mario Lavista laments.