The Ghost Train (El Tren Fantasma): a case study of the geography of sound in Mexico
Geography is not only about things that can be seen, touched and measured. Many branches of geography consider how people think, how communities make decisions and how nations interact.
At a local scale, one of the characteristics that is often overlooked is sound. We often ignore the soundscapes of places, either because we are “too busy” to listen and take in the local sounds, or because we are “too busy” tuning any distinctive local sounds out while using our cell phones or listening to favorite music.
Soundscapes vary greatly from rural areas to urban areas, and from one region to another; Mexico’s urban soundscapes are among the most distinctive on the planet.
In previous posts, we listened to The distinctive sounds of Mexico’s towns and cities; covered our ears as we analysed Noise pollution in Mexico; and also described the amazing Whistled language of the Chinantec people in Oaxaca.
In this post, we take a look at Chris Watson’s intriguing 2011 album “El Tren Fantasma”:
U.K.-based Chris Watson is a preeminent freelance recordist of wildlife and natural phenomena, whose work has been featured in many BBC programs including David Attenborough’s series, The Life Of Birds. As Watson has remarked, sound recording allows you to put a microphone where you can’t put your ears, to enable you to listen to sounds such as the groaning ice of a moving glacier. His work for the BBC was audio vérité but more recently, including in El Tren Fantasma, Watson has experimented with post production techniques to meld field recordings into a narrative.
The result is strangely compelling, dramatic and in some respects, awesome!
The soundscapes of El Tren Fantasma (the title is identical to that of a 1927 Mexican movie) offer a trip from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast of Mexico condensed into little more than an hour.
The first six tracks cover the section of railway best known as the Copper Canyon line, one of the few remaining routes in Mexico with regular passenger service.
El Tren Fantasma has 10 tracks (pun intended):
- La Anunciante
- Los Mochis
- Sierra Tarahumara
- El Divisadero
- Crucero La Joya
- Mexico D.F.
- El Tajin; El dia y La noche
If you don’t have time to listen to all 10 tracks, the most interesting, from a geographical point of view, are probably the following:
The trip was nicknamed the ghost train by Watson because there are no longer any passenger trains connecting the two coasts. Several years ago, Watson was the sound recordist for a film crew making a program in the BBC TV series Great Railway Journeys. Even then, part of the line was freight only, but in earlier times, there had been regular scheduled passenger trains across the country.
The promotional material asks potential listeners to, “Take the ghost train from Los Mochis to Veracruz and travel cross country, coast to coast, Pacific to Atlantic. Ride the rhythm of the rails on board the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FNM) and the music of a journey that has now passed into history.”
“In this album, the journey of the ‘ghost train’ is recreated, evoking memories of a recent past, capturing the atmosphere, rhythms and sounds of human life, wildlife and the journey itself along the tracks of one of Mexico’s greatest engineering projects.”
Reviews were almost universally positive.
Several reviewers recognized the connection between the soundscapes of El Tren Fantasma and geography, in some cases also attributing reasons for the decline of passenger train services in Mexico. For example Martin Hoyle, writing in The Financial Times, described how “From desert to rainforest, hummingbirds’ wings to the boom of heat rising from the Copper Canyon, it recalls a beloved passenger train system abandoned by privatisation.”
Pete Naughton in The Daily Telegraph wrote that the sound portrait painted by Watson “jostles with human, animal and mechanical life, filling the room with an atmosphere that is more richly evocative of Central America than any TV travel show I’ve seen. Diesel engines thrum, cicadas chirrup and passengers chatter, sing and argue.”
A reviewer in The Milk Factory (UK) drew attention to the “tremor of excitement as the sound of a diesel engine temporarily swallows the clunking noise of metal on metal and the strident hisses as wheels grind again rails and breaks against wheels”, before adding that, “Watson doesn’t aim to recreate the journey in any consistent chronology. Instead, he gives a taste of what this journey actually was by using nature and wildlife sounds to hint at the landscapes passed on the way.”
Spencer Grady, reviewing El Tren Fantasma for BBCi (UK), wrote that: “While Chris Watson’s previous sets – such as 2003’s critically acclaimed Weather Report – have generally concerned themselves with this planet’s myriad beasts and habitats, this narrative inevitably bears an anthropological mark. Indeed, the first voice we hear doesn’t belong to a cuckoo or coyote, but station announcer Ana Gonzalez Bello putting out one “last call for the ghost train”. It’s an unusually contrived opening gambit, from which point the listener is jettisoned into a collision of screeching breaks, rolling stock rattle and hot hydraulic huff. Over half of El Tren Fantasma’s tracks (pun definitely intended) are given over to locomotive sound – gears shifting, hoots, bells and whistles – climaxing with El Divisadero, where Watson manipulates the monolithic machinations into a surging, phantasmal bellow, like a choir of angels struggling to be heard over the rumbling thrum of running gear.”
For an academic geographer’s perspective on El Tren Fantasma, a good place to start (for those with academic library access) is a recent issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (Vol 39, No 3, 2014). In “El tren fantasma : arcs of sound and the acoustic spaces of landscapes”, George Revill, of the Open University, draws on Chris Watson’s soundwork “El tren fantasma” to consider “how sound participates in the production of the railway corridor as a complex, animate and deeply contoured historically and geographically specific experience of landscape.”
El Tren Fantasma offers an extraordinarily evocative sound summary of a trip across Mexico; what a shame that there are now so few passenger services left on Mexican railways!
- The seven main canyons in the Copper Canyon region
- Mexico’s Copper Canyon train is one of the world’s great railway trips
- Mexico’s Copper Canyon is one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders
- Cultural and eco-tourism in the Copper Canyon region of Mexico
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