For many people living in Mexico City, spending an evening at a nightclub is out of reach. There’s no clubs in their neighborhood, or maybe they’re too expensive to begin with. Enter the sonideros, traveling sound systems that are the focus of an exhibition that runs through May 8 in the Tepito neighborhood’s Galería José María Velasco.
“The sonideros are like mini-cities,” the exhibition’s curator, Ernesto Rivera of the the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) told The News. “It’s a truly Mexico City kind of phenomenon.”
He said that small economic systems can build up around the events — the neighbor who charges five pesos for partygoers to use their bathroom, the cooks that set up chicharron or quesadilla stands for hungry dancers. Within the sonidero crew itself one finds the drivers, the office secretary, sound equipment and repairmen.
In the 1980s, the Mexico City government started limiting the amount that sonideros could play in the street, but even when they take place in private venues, the vibe is all inclusive.
“The party becomes a point of meeting for many people,” Rivera said. “It becomes important, sociologically. You can compare to other cultural institutions like soccer, film.”
Sonideros can attract thousands of partygoers, who dance in groups or in pairs. The events can cost an affordable 20 pesos ($1.60 U.S. dollars) in Mexico City. Their popularity has also spread to the United States, where traveling crews can fill stadiums. Rivera says he estimates that there are between 30 and 35 thousand sonideros in the world.
He said that the LGBT community has traditionally been welcomed in the sonideros.
“A really macho guy can dance with a gay man, a transexual, and in the sonidero it’s fine,” he said.
These cities were founded awhile ago. “Los Sonideros” trace their lineage back to the 1930s, when the sonideros would play largely Cuban music for the neighborhood. Even today, the sonideros largely play tropical music recorded outside of Mexico.
Tropical sonideros have been joined by rock and disco-oriented crews like the legendary Patrick Miller (which now resides in its own airplane hanger-like club in the Roma neighborhood that opens every Friday) and Polymarchs, whose provocative black and white flyers are hanging in frames on the wall at “Los Sonideros.”
The exhibit features jackets worn by sonidero crew members, records that were pressed that immortalized certain events, photos of key players and business card-sized flyers advertising parties from long ago. Artifacts have been lent by members of the sonidero community.
The collection debuted in Ecatepec community center Casa de Morelos and also showed in Texcoco, but has roots at its third, current exhibition site: Tepito is at the center of sonidero culture.
Rivera came to sonideros through a childhood friend who grew up to operate a successful sonidero. He was fascinated by the popularity of the events, and began to accompany his friend on tour to the United States to document the scene through photos.
The exhibition that resulted partly through these explanations will be on display at Galería José María Velasco through May 8.