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Last Friday night, in a massive show of respect and appreciation, more than thirty thousand Costa Ricans gathered to remember the musical legacy of the late Fidel Gamboa. Fidel died suddenly of a heart attack in August at the frightfully young age of 50. His brother Jaime and the group of talented musicians who, together with Fidel, formed the group Malpaís were overcome by his loss and recently announced that they would disband. As Jaime explained, they have been on a wonderful road together for these last twelve years, but there is no doubt that Fidel was their musical leader and visionary and the others were following him down that road. Without him, the way isn’t so clear and the going too difficult. Malpaís decided to hold one last gathering for fans and friends at the Estadio Nacional, a venue big enough to hold as many as could come. Drawn together by Fidel’s music that evokes the richness of the history, landscape and culture of Costa Rica, it was an intimate family affair of mourning Ticos – and at least one Canadian cousin, a huge admirer of Fidel Gamboa’s music since I first heard it about seventeen years ago.
In the early 90s, violinists Iván Rodríguez (who is now the Costa Rican Vice-Minister of Culture) and Gerardo Ramírez, percussionist Tapado, along with a cellist and a vocalist, came to play at the Monteverde Music Festival as the Probus String Ensamble. They played an eerily breathtaking music composed by Fidel Gamboa. It was emotionally captivating and, just like life, at times discordant, for the most part intricately instrumental except for the moments of ecstasy when the female voice soared out of the comfort of the strings to send shivers along your spine right to your soul. It was reminiscent of a group I loved from northern Quebec in the 70s called Conventum but nothing like I had heard since. I was broken-hearted when the musicians stopped performing as Probus because I thought I would never hear anything so beautiful again.
I soon realized that almost every Costa Rican group I listened to during the years of the Monteverde Music Festival was playing at least one of Fidel’s compositions and it was usually the piece that touched me the most, unique melodies with sweet names like Barco y Alma (Boat and Soul) and Viento y Madera (Wind and Wood). According to Costa Rican musical lore, the phenomenally talented Fidel was very shy and it took his brother Jaime, their friend Iván, and other musical accomplices – pianist and now Minister of Culture, Manuel Obregon (in this pic), and percussionist Carlos “Tapado” Vargas (also including drummer, Gilberto Jarquín, and Iván’s daughter, singer Daniela Rodríguez) – a long time to convince Fidel to join them on stage to sing his many compositions as only he could do. It seems he prefered to compose behind-the-scenes for orchestras and soundtracks (Se quemo el ciel, Of Love and Other Demons etc.) In 1999, the ‘supergroup’ Malpaís washed across the country like a rainstorm after a drought and Ticos raised their faces to the sky and drank in Fidel’s stories celebrating the simplicity of their collective past and rejoicing in the unique bounty of the Costa Rican landscape.
Though rain threatened earlier on Friday evening, not one drop fell on the sea of the Fidel faithful. Instead we were intermittently dampened by our own tears, brought on by the finale of Malpaís, the tragedy of Fidel’s passing and by the powerful sentiment of his music. It was clear to the members of Malpaís, to the Philharmonic Orchestra who accompanied them, to the musical friends who performed his songs as well as to those of us who were pressed together as one in front of the stage, that Fidel’s spirit was there, magically represented by a single bright star that shone directly above us in an otherwise cloudy sky. The emotion of the evening was overwhelming, as seen in the glistening eyes of people in the crowd and heard in the broken voices of those on stage.
Costa Ricans Marta Fonseca, Arnoldo Castillo, Bernardo Quesada, Humberto Vargas and others provided the voices, constantly accompanied by a chorus from the audience who knew the lyrics and sang along with the same reverence with which they would recite prayers at a funeral. An audible gasp, followed by cheers and more tears erupted from the audience when a video of Fidel singing Más el norte de recuerdo joined the others on stage.
Fidel’s uncle, Max Goldenberg, sang a number of the more traditional Guanacasteco numbers like La Coyolera. Argentinean Adrián Goizueta powerfully performed Presagio, tempting the gods to bring on the rain – “una gota de agua, una gota de agua” – an anthem of brewing storms, hope and renewal. In a grand show of solidarity and respect, Panamanian Rubén Blades took the stage and sang Paisaje, a song that Rubén recorded with Editus’ on their CD Decado Uno.
Edín Solis, the guitarist of Editus, was on stage all night with his beautiful guitar-playing, helping to fill the void of Fidel’s musical absence. At times overcome by emotion, Marvin Araya conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra. All of the musicians on stage shared the depth of their loss in the pain etched across their faces, in the few words they were able to speak, in the passion of their playing.
Brilliant music both touches and teaches us. Fidel and his brother Jaime, who co-wrote many of the songs, remembered the lessons of their abuelos, understood the experiences unique to this tiny nation squeezed between two oceans and two powerful continents, and captured the glory of the natural biodiversity that flies, crawls, grows, climbs and swims across the many eco-systems here. Their music arises out of the arid plains of the northwestern lands of the Chorotega and Pamperos, where the distinctive umbrella-like Guanacaste tree provides shelter from the searing sun and pounding rains, drops their curly ear-shaped seed pods obviously designed as percussive instruments for humble musicians, and spreading their roots in an attempt to hold back the shifting sands of time.
Perhaps in the eastern province of Limon, where the Afro-Caribbean culture, landscape, and history are quite different, there isn’t an appreciation for the Gamboa musical story, much like in Canada where there is a cultural division between French-speaking Quebec and the rest of the English-speaking country. I expect that many Limonense have not even heard the music of Malpaís. For one thing, the Caribbean has its own wealth of calypso, soca and reggae music, but for another the local radio stations don’t generally support national music. Here in Cahuita, we listen daily to the radio stations that we can receive (including Radio Dos and Radio Columbia) and it is very rare to hear any of the great music that is being composed and performed by Costa Ricans around the country although, in fairness, there is a new crop of radio stations – Radio U, Radio Malpaís, and Radio Monteverde – dedicated to sharing national music. It often takes a commitment on the part of a country’s government to support its national artists before the wealth and excellence of their work will be truly appreciated and distributed.
It is ironic that Malpaís never played at the Estadio Nacional until this final concert. Last March, in the week of inaugural celebrations for the new soccer stadium, they refused to play as part of the concert that featured national Costa Rican music. They wrote a public letter explaining that they didn’t agree with the organizer’s proposition to pay the national performers less than they would usually get for a performance while at the same time paying a huge amount of money for the international star, Shakira – a plan that eventually backfired when the amount of spectators that they had hoped for the Columbian superstar didn’t materialize.
Apparently Malpaís was considering playing at the stadium in 2012 but, alas, this is not to be. Instead, as a way to say farewell to Fidel, they brought together one of the biggest audiences ever assembled in Costa Rica – charging an affordable admission – and proved that a national band playing original music could accomplish such a feat. I doubt that there is anyone who was there on Friday night who went away disappointed. Instead I expect that most went away feeling great pride in the musical heritance that exists in their humble country and joy in having been part of this family-like gathering even with the sadness that surrounded the night.
Fidel’s music is referred to as “Nueva Cancion”. It is quite amazing that Malpaís, a group of mostly older classically-trained musicians, playing rhythms that mix jazz and folkloric, classical with traditional, Latin and indigenous, campesino with urban, could touch so many so profoundly – particularly such a very young audience. The lyrics are steeped in a respect for the past, for family and community – a much more innocent and peaceful time in this exploding country- as well as hope for the future, with a consciousness of environmental responsibility and appreciation for the wonders of the natural world. Despite the immense changes that have come with development in this country, these remain the values that Ticos recognize as the roots of their family tree.
Long before Guanacaste became a tourist destination, there existed the natural rhythm of the winds and the rains and country folk raised on corn tortillas cooked on an open fire – Fidel reminds people of that beauty and simplicity. He understood that you must look back to know where you come from and only then will you know where you should be going. Rubén Blades remarked that death comes only when one is forgotten and with Fidel Gamboa, this will never happen. He has left behind a nation of loyal followers who will continue, in times of spiritual or patriotic drought, to absorb nourishment from his extraordinary, truly Costa Rican music.
Rain is pounding down on the zinc roof of Wolf and Lucky’s house, making conversation difficult, but finally giving me a chance to write from Monteverde. Aah yes, the cloud forest in the rainy season – not for the faint of heart but paradise for those with webbed feet. Actually it has been so dry here that water was being rationed in the community up until the rains started in earnest about a week ago. Looks like I got here right on time. The humidity has cranked up the clamminess, the landscape is a collage of intense greens, and the dirt roads are slowly becoming water-filled ditches supporting small gravel islands.
I was so busy with getting the book ready and preparing to leave my home and garden for a couple of months, that I wasn’t thinking so much about where I was going, other than to Wolf’s house to present him with his book. But in very short order, upon my arrival in Costa Rica, my heart has filled with the warmth of the Guindon family, the anticipation in the community for Walking with Wolf, and the enchantment of the place. The last time I was here in this particular season, the beginning of the rainy season, was 1990, my first year here. I had forgotten how the view from up on the mountain in May, looking over the Nicoya peninsula to the Pacific, is this magical world of clouds, mountains, water, and sky - these elements merge and mingle and seem to get turned upside down, in a way that even Stephen Spielberg couldn’t capture with an arsenal of special effects. When I woke up on Thursday morning, just as day was breaking, and looked out the windows to the west, my breath was taken away by the layers of color and shadow suspended on the shifting horizon. I grabbed my camera and went out to try to capture it (a picture here isn’t worth the thousand words it would take to describe the scene) – I startled two masked tityras, beautiful white birds with pink and black facial markings, who were feeding in a guayaba tree and didn’t notice me right away. They fluttered about grabbing the small fruit, only five feet from me, until they realized that I was there and flew off.
Welcome back to Monteverde…
The flight down was fast (those individual TV screens on the planes are great – two movies of your choice and you’re here); the books arrived safe and sound (did I mention how expensive they were as extra baggage? – Kaching); customs didn’t look once at me that alone twice; and as soon as I got through to the wall of windows at the exit, there were Lucky and Wolf, smiling and waving. As promised, the Reserve’s four-wheel drive, army-fatigue-green, Toyota crew cab truck-limo, complete with Beto the chauffeur, had come to pick me and the books up. We waited until we were in a restaurant to unveil the books – and, as hoped, Wolf and Lucky were very excited and pleased. We had our first moment of celebrity – the waitress saw the cover and looked at Wolf and asked if that was him – and then saw my photo on the back – and was thrilled to be serving two such important people! HA! Not like we got a free meal or anything, but it was fun for all of us nonetheless.
We didn’t make it up the mountain to Monteverde, normally about a three to four hour trip from the airport, until 9 that night. They were putting in a culvert on the highway and there was only one lane open and they were letting the traffic going to the city pass much more frequently than those of us heading to the country. We spent close to three hours inching forward in fits and starts, Lucky playing old tunes on the harmonica, Beto and I getting out to tempt fate with the oncoming traffic, Wolf picking up the book from time to time, checking to see if it was real. By the time we got up the mountain, there was nothing left but sleep. But we were very, very happy.
On Thursday morning we took the book up to Carlos Hernandez, the director at the Reserve. He insists that the Tropical Science Center (who owns and administers the Reserve) is serious about wanting to finance a Spanish translation. I told him that although I think this is wonderful, I don’t want to give up the rights to the book and also want to control the translating process (new little control freak that I’ve become – makes me wonder just what kind of parent I might have been after all…). I believe he is on Wolf’s and my side in this – he took copies to give to the members of the board of the TSC. I suggested that he have someone who is fluent in English read the book first and make sure they are still interested. He suggested that I check out how much the translation itself might cost and who we might employ to do it. We will proceed from there. But my immediate feeling was a good one, that he understands how personal the project is for Wolf and I, and that he will represent us well to the board.
We made our rounds showing off the book (one last baby comparison – the book’s cover really is soft like a baby’s bum, I swear). Our friends Mercedes Diaz and Luis Angel Obando, who show up in the last chapter of Walking with Wolf, were thrilled to finally get their copy – immediately plans were started for the fiesta, la presentacion del libro, and we started selling books. Lucky began reading and her reaction has been wonderful (although she did find an error deep in the book – a factual one, not just a difference of memory from her husband – I think I will leave it ambiguous and see how many people catch this error….hopefully not too many more will be found).
Leaving Wolf and Lucky with the book safely in hand, I jumped on a bus on Friday morning and returned to the big city of San José to meet up with my friend Patricia Maynard. She was taking a group of Latin American literature students from the University of Georgia around town to a variety of cultural events. I sat in on talks by our musician friends Edin Solis of Editus and Jaime Gamboa of Malpais on the historical context and present day reality of Costa Rican music. They both tried to convince the American students, who listed reggaeton as one of their favorite genres of music, that songwriting which includes poetry and composition that is more than three chords is of more value than easy, commercial music – I’m not sure if they convinced the students, but Edin and Jaime spoke with such passion that I would hope they at least made them think. We had a great meal at the Café Arco Iris and watched Alejandro Toceti – now a kind of Cultural Attache with the government, but who we’ve known as a beautiful dancer, whose every muscle speaks even when he stands still – tell stories with his body. We finished our day with a night of hot dancing at Jazz Café in San Pedro – Manuel Monestel and his ever-changing Afro-Caribbean band, Cantoamerica, kept us jumping to salsa, calypso and reggae. Since my years involved in the music festival in Monteverde, all these musicians have remained great friends and a night of hearing them play only whets my appetite for more.
The next day we had the great privilege of a visit with Daniel Villegas, one of the top authors and playwrights in Costa Rica. He studied years ago in Europe as well as Los Angeles and New York City at The Artists Studio. Not only was his conversation colorful and informative, but for me, the new young author that I be, it was very touching. When he spoke about how he found inspiration, how stories can be told, and the most important thing being to write honestly and about what is real in your life – well, I like to think that I have tried to do that with Walking with Wolf. I humbly gave him a copy of our book. He accepted it graciously, though who knows if he will ever read it. But it was the first instance where I presented myself as an author with a book I am proud of and wasn’t embarrassed to share it with such a distinguished writer.
I came back up the mountain in time for the Quaker meeting on Sunday. After the hour of silence, when it came time for introductions by visitors and announcements, I confirmed the rumors to those present, that I had indeed returned with the book in hand (I had left last May stating I wouldn’t return until the book was truly a book). I invited everyone to the celebration to be held later this week at Bromelias Café, on Thursday, May 29th at 5 p.m. I then presented Jean Stuckey, the head of the Monteverde library committee, with a signed copy of Walking with Wolf. The dedication reads:
“For the Monteverde Friends Library, my favorite library in the world. It is with the greatest pleasure that we give you our book to be placed on your musty shelves. With love, Kay and the Wolf”.
I’m on my way there now to help catalogue it and place it on the shelf!