Communing with saints in the Guatemalan highlands

A visit to the shrine of Maximon

A shrine to Maximon | Wikicommons

Forty quetzales for an audience with a saint: it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

I practise looking pious and respectful as Francisco leads the way, past the mango sellers in their shawls of handwoven cloth, over the cobblestones of Santiago Atitilán’s central square and into the network of alleyways beyond. Ill-kept dogs with the weary look of strays patrol a courtyard that smells faintly of incense and rotting fruit. My newly appointed guide grins and motions to the doorway ahead of us.

I don’t know what I was expecting, a church perhaps, but not this low room with its breeze block walls or the trestle tables with their detritus of soft-drinks bottles and dried flowers. In the far corner, an elderly man with a stoop is conversing with the plastic statues of apostles, while another lies dozing on a bench, his chin on his chest and the brim of his hat pulled down low over his eyes. Most surprising of all are the Christmas jingles that play through crackly, consumptive old speakers. This is no ordinary shrine. But then Maximon, the wooden figure who stands before me in studded leather boots and robes of coloured silk, is no ordinary Saint.

His cult has its origins in the 16th century, or so they say, a fusion of the militarised Catholicism of the Conquistadors and the religious practices of the Maya which continue to thrive here, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. The Saint’s power is legendary. He can cure disease, bring rain and make the waters teem with fish and, despite the best efforts of the modern-day Catholic Church, he is still both respected and feared by many within Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan population. “There are people here who say that Maximon is the Devil,” Francisco tells me, “but as soon as they become ill, they run to him and beg for his forgiveness.”

As if on cue, a thickset man with a neatly clipped moustache enters the shrine and kneels before the Saint. I watch as he lays out his gifts – a dog-eared packet of cigarettes, a bottle of rum, a twenty quetzal note – placing them on the floor at Maximon‘s feet.

His prayer sounds odd in the cold acoustic of the room, a strident monotone devoid of emotion. “He’s asking Maximon to protect him from a woman,” Francisco whispers, “a temptress.”

For a moment, I feel as if I’m intruding, but then the worshipper breaks off to offer Maximon a cigarette. Francisco seems to have lost interest and is talking loudly on his mobile phone, topping-up his credit. The sleeping attendant is yet to stir.

I glance over my shoulder as I slip out into the sunshine, savouring my last image of this curious backstreet saint. Maximon remains inscrutable behind his mask of dun-coloured wood, the butt of a cigarette dangling from his lips.

– Thomas Rees

– Photo credit: A shrine to Maximon | Wikicommons

You’ll find Maximon in the backstreets of Santiago, on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán. The shrine moves on a regular basis. Ask around at the jetty for a guide and be prepared to haggle. 

Review: Jazz for Labour, Barbican

A celebration of diversity and a historic addition to jazz’s political back catalogue

Jazz for Labour

Jazz and politics go way back. Throughout its history the music has been involved with underground resistance movements in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. It was inextricably entwined with civil rights campaigns in the United States and it played a part in the struggle against South African apartheid. In 2012, a host of jazz heavyweights (among them Roy Haynes and Joe Lovano) came out in support of Barack Obama in the run up to the US elections and it was that event that provided the inspiration for last night’s Barbican spectacular, Jazz For Labour: A Concert For Fairness and Diversity, the latest chapter in the politico-jazz story.

Andy Sheppard kicked things off, cheeks bulging as he circular breathed his way onto the stage and set up a shimmering reel, before indulging in some microphone trickery and juxtaposing a jaunt through Jerome Kern’s “Look for the Silver Lining” with steel drum-like multiphonics. A rousing welcome from parliamentary candidate Bob Blizzard gave way to short sets from Juliet Kelly and a hyperactive Tim Garland, appearing with Phil Meadows on alto saxophone and venerable drummer John Marshall, who livened-up a rendition of “Afro Blue”, his hi-hat ticking like a turbo-charged pacemaker.

Christine Tobin and Phil Robson slowed the pace before a run of first-set highlights. Soweto Kinch freestyled on audience suggestions of “liberty”, “ambition”, “beer”, “organised”, “unity” and “revolution”, derived from the letters of the word “Labour”. Liane Carroll delivered a punchy, gospel-inflected rendition of “Take Me Home” by Tom Waits, and a set of Anglo-Bengali fusion from willowy clarinettist Arun Ghosh – throughout which he bobbed and weaved like a cobra – brought the house down.

A babbling address from Rachel Reeves and John Prescott, who seemed scarcely in control of his enthusiasm, got things going again and the diversity continued with Darius Brubeck providing transatlantic support and a supremely polished set. Saxophonist Dave O’Higgins’s quicksilver solo on “Ravely Street” was one of the best of the night and Brubeck’s blues lines on “I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of Chance With You” (dedicated to the Tories) were deliciously lazy.

Alex Webb’s Cafe Society Swing made for a fine follow-up and vocalist Vimara Rowe provoked a scattered standing ovation with an electric performance of “Strange Fruit”.Ian Shaw took the stage in the name of gay rights and Claire Martin and Liane Carroll came to join him for a rendition of “You’ve Got A Friend” that revelled in charity benefit camp.

A bleary-eyed take on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by a loop pedal-toting John Etheridge was both sublime and understated and provided a moment of calm before a Courtney Pine shred fest, complete with YMCA-esque audience arm-waving and a bizarre episode of unison jumping that brought things to a close.

Musically speaking, Jazz For Labour was far from flawless, but then you wouldn’t expect that from a show full of last-minute collaborations and fleeting turns, one with an agenda and a purpose beyond music-making. What matters is that it felt historic, and, as a worthy addition to jazz’s political back catalogue and a rare snapshot of the diversity of the British scene, it certainly achieved that. Here’s hoping it was swingin’ enough to swing the vote.

– Thomas Rees

Photo Credit: Tim Dickeson/Courtesy of Jazz For Labour

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