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.