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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.
A few days ago, Wolf was released from Intensive Care and put back in a ward at the Hospital Blanco Cervantes in San José. This is hopefully the first step toward his release to go back to his home on the green mountain.
There are some conditions that have to be met before he can go: the most important being that he must be eating on his own. He has had the feeding tube stuck up his nose for over a week. It is uncomfortable and restrictive. Wolf is very aware that he’s gotta eat if they are to remove this miserable snake, even though he doesn’t have an appetite nor any desire for food.
So a couple of days ago, resigned to the reality, he opened his mouth and let the nurse shovel in “puree” – whipped potatoes. We remind him to swallow or he ends up with a mouth full of potatoey goop. Even though he took it well yesterday at lunch (with cheerleader Kay doing “yes you can’s” at his side), by night time, when his son Benito was there, he had run out of patience with the mash diet and was gagging and choking again. So today we will ask for soup and hopefully he’ll continue eating. Even though we all appreciate the necessity of eating, we also realize how miserable it is to be forced to eat when you don’t want anything.
Once we break him loose from the hospital, if he wants to stop eating, that is his prerogative. And it will be respected.
Wolf’s mental health is also a concern. He has now been without any anti-depressants for about twelve days and is quite calm and coherent (well, we actually don’t understand much of what he says, but that has to do with the difficulty of us understanding his speech, not him understanding us). His extreme talkative mania in December was the result of being given the wrong drugs. It is possible that once his system is cleared out of all these anti-psychotic medications, perhaps it won’t be necessary to give him anything. It is said that for older people, their manias and depressions aren’t as severe as when they were younger. It is also possible that Wolf’s confusion has been caused by strokes, infections, and age, so it is now important to move slowly while accessing his mental condition.
Another very important result of his return to the ward is that we can be there for ten hours of the day with him, and so we are back on a rotation, the Guindons, his nurse Stefany and I, along with the occasional surprise visitor. Each of us spend a few hours with Wolf, helping him be comfortable, talking to him and trying to understand his toothless-mumbles.
Wolf has perfected the art of rolling-the-eyes. Since he knows that we can’t decipher what he is trying to say most of the time, he uses his eyes and his forehead to great effect. He lets us know through the eye-rolling technique that something is either bothersome or of no importance. He also lets us know through lovely little squints and winks, that he is appreciative. The other day, this sloth gave me a nice little double-eyed blink, and I couldn’t help but think of Wolf.
The most celebratory aspect of the change is that because we are with him, they have untied his arms. Imagine being in a bed with your wrists tied to the bedrails for three weeks! He spent that purgatory mostly on his back, forced to sleep in a position that isn’t natural for him. Finally the nurses have let his arms loose and unwrapped the bandages from his hands.
That restriction was the cruelest and most frustrating reality of his life in the ICU. He couldn’t even scratch himself. When I arrived back from a few days away and found him back in the ward, he was curled up on his side, his arms tucked up close to him like he was holding something precious close to his heart. He was – his freedom.
That first day, he hardly woke up, and resisted any attempt to pull his arms away even from a dream state. He must have been so happy to be free to make himself comfortable in whatever way he wanted. Although they were still tying him at night when we left, I think the nurses finally decided yesterday that he isn’t going to commit hari-kari and sabotage the feeding tube. Wolf is aware of the consequences and resigned to following the rules if he wants to get out of there.
When I couldn’t take anymore of Wolf’s ICU imprisonment, I escaped for a few days up near Arenal Volcano with my good friends Zulay and Keith. Over my twenty years in Costa Rica, Zulay has nursed me back to health on numerous occasions and provided a respite in the days when I was working day and night with groups or on the Monteverde Music Festival. Once again, she fed my body and nurtured my mind with her wisdom and friendship. We spent two hours fertilizing orchids throughout their large garden and the pictures blooming throughout this blog are from that morning of floral splendor.
Now I’m back in the city, staying with Lorena and Edin, who is the hugely talented and extremely sweet guitarist of Editus, a grammy-winning band here in Costa Rica. Last night, the Ministry of Culture and Youth held a large outdoor concert at the Museum of Costa Rican Art to inaugurate a new logo and renewed spirit for the ministry. There were thousands of people out on a gorgeous evening in front of the stunning dame of a building, with an array of the best of Costa Rican music, dance, art and poetry, old and new. For the first time I heard Percance, a super high energy ska band, who I loved and will definitely go and find again.
The starry night sky was a perfect backdrop to an enthusiastic crowd and an exotic light show reflecting patterns on this lovely old building that provided at least four different stages. From one of the balconies, Edin, pianist Luis Monge, and Tapado – Editus’ phenomenal percussionist – accompanied vocalist Arnoldo Castillo as the crowd sang along to Costa Rica’s campesino anthem, Caña Dulce . I saw a number of old friends, including the Minister of Culture, Manuel Obregon, who I’ve known for years from his many performances in Monteverde (and a couple concerts in Toronto as well). I also met up with other musicians who I don’t run into often but who I spent great times with back in the days of the Monteverde Music Festival.
The flowers, the friends, the music and the joy have all renewed me to continue accompanying Wolf and his family on what has so often been such a difficult path. Who knows where we will end up next, but at least our friend has tasted a bit of freedom, and for that, we are all truly thankful.
It is now September and, totally off my usual migratory schedule, I’m back in the north. Home in the Hammer, enjoying brilliant blue skies – even Hamilton Bay, the maligned body of water that shares its shores with steel companies and suburbia, has an aqua shine to it these days. I couldn’t ask for a better homecoming. My buddy with a bosom, Cocky, was at the airport to meet me, after her own month of travels. A treat to come home to, but now she’s gone too. I may get a chance to go for a sail on that same water if this weather holds for the Labour Day weekend which it is supposed to.
My last two weeks in Costa Rica were spent down in sweet calypsolandia, Cahuita. Although it rained lots in July on the Caribbean coast just as it had been up in Monteverde, I ended up being followed by beautiful weather from the green mountain to the seashore. There were some casual showers of course, and maybe one night of insistent rain, but the month of September in Cahuita means dry weather. Hard to fathom how, when it is hurricane season just to north, but I stopped trying to figure out weather a long time ago.
We got a lot of hot sunny days that sent us to the beach, but we mostly stayed at home. It was glorious to be back basking under those big trees, bathing in the cool water, being serenaded by the howlers and bailando with Roberto. I was amazed at how much the papaya seedlings we had planted in July had grown in the four or so weeks I was away. But then the growth of vegetation in Costa Rica always unnerves me a bit – you just don’t want to sit in one place too long if there is a vigorous-looking vine nearby.
One afternoon we went up to the Port of Limon, a place I really only have known as a bus-changing town. We walked around the ‘malecon’, the boardwalk that follows the seaside. Limon is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, having been visited by Christopher Columbus in 1502, so if it seems a little worn that should be understandable.
Development in Costa Rica by the Spaniards took place from the Pacific side, and so the Atlantic coast was left to fend for itself against all that crazy rainforest vegetation. In the mid-1800s the government decided to build a railroad and connect Limon (particularly its port) to the rest of the country. They brought in Chinese and Jamaican workers to build the tracks and thus the Caribbean coast is very much an extension of Afro-Caribbean culture with lots of chop suey houses around.
There is no denying racist elements that existed (and unfortunately still do.) When the railroad was finished and the banana plantations became a major employer, the black population provided the workforce. They weren’t encouraged to travel throughout the country, couldn’t afford it anyway, and the fact that they were foreigners themselves made it able to control their movements through their documents. Eventually they went to work in other parts of Costa Rica as laborers were needed and Afro-Caribbean families settled elsewhere in the country. But the heart of the calypso-blooded community will always be Limon.
The city developed once the railroad took off, but government money was never pouring their way. In the last year or two, there has been a move by the Costa Rican government to bring economic development to the area although people are waiting to see the proof. There was an attempt at revitalizing the waterfront of Limon several years ago, but earthquakes and storms destroyed much of the expanded boardwalk as well as what must have been a great little outdoor concert theatre in its short life. As Limon grows into a bigger cruise ship port (it is already a large commercial harbor and a popular cruise ship stop) hopefully some of the wealth that visits its shores will be spread in the area. Although Limon is known for its poverty, its richness of spirit and culture is as much a part of life there. The biggest threat to that, after poverty, is the drug trade which feeds on the poverty and changes the spirit.
The city has a funky flair to it and lots of local color, from the bright hues of the buildings to the cacao skin of the residents. When you take the highway east of San José, over the mountains of Braulio Carillo National Park, and through the miles of flat banana and pineapple fields, over the wide rivers coming out of the mountains and arrive in Limon province, you know you are in a different culture than in the rest of Costa Rica. The food changes – instead of arroz y frijoles, you are now eating rice and beans cooked in coconut milk; the music changes – from salsa and merengue to calypso, soca and reggae; and the language is English-based Limonense-Creole rather than Spanish. It seems that most people are fluently tri-lingual – speaking Tico Spanish and British English as well as their own Caribbean-tongue. It is a disappearing language as are many of the indigenous languages that are being used by less and less natives of Costa Rica. My experience being there with Roberto is that every plant, bird and insect has a different name in Limon than elsewhere in the country. The words are English-based, but the names are distinct to this region. I can get very lost trying to follow the lilt and tilt of the language used in Cahuita.
We had some beautiful days and were out on the ocean as often as we could force ourselves to go for the walk through the forest to the beach. There was another hot night spent in Puerto Viejo, which has a number of bars that cater to different crowds – we go to Maritza’s, which has a live band on Saturday nights and always plays a great variety of music for dancing from soca to salsa.
In the middle of all this it was my birthday and Roberto promised to go out in the sea and get me lobster for dinner. So we spent two fine mornings on the beach under a big sun, the sea a calm shiny turquoise stone. Roberto used to be a diver (snorkeler) and caught and sold octopus, fish and lobster, but quit a number of years ago as he saw the population of these sea creatures diminish. The banana plantations in the area have caused lots of pollution – from their chemical effluent to the silt run-off to the plastic bluebags that they put over the banana bunches – all this stuff ends up in the ocean and, along with a bad earthquake or two, things have never been the same.
But it didn’t take him long to get four nice-sized lobster for dinner and we were thankful for the bounty. We were blessed with the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the sea and took advantage to walk through Cahuita National Park’s shady trails, sharing our time with the monkeys.
Cahuita’s beaches are stunning and the National Park is one of the most beautiful in the country. Between the white sand beach, the reef off the point, the hours of hiking, the constant presence of birds, insects and animals, and the fact that you can enter for a small donation from the town access point, it makes for one of the nicest parks to visit in Costa Rica. They have built bridges over some of the swampier areas (where before there were submerged wooden walkways), using the same recycled-plastic material that the Monteverde Reserve has been using on its trails and signage for a few years now. It was interesting that we could smell the plastic off-gassing in the very hot sun – something that I’ve never noticed up in the cooler cloud forest.
We also continued taking care of Roberto’s little farm. We seeded corn and within three days it was two inches out of the ground – when I head back there in November I should be eating elotes, the young corncobs.
Roberto climbed up his castaña tree, the glamorous cousin of the breadfruit, to chop off the top limbs before it gets too tall and he won’t be able to harvest the fruit.
This tree is also growing on the bank of his stream and, knowing that it will fall one day, he has been concerned that if it is too tall it will fall on his casita. So I took pictures as he shimmied up the trunk and took his machete to the big elegant leaves and chopped off the top.
Afterward he said he was getting too old to do this stuff – between the possibility of falling, wasps, snakes, and other risks he felt lucky to get the job done in one piece – but my guess is he’ll keep climbing and chopping as long as he needs to, for as long as he is truly able. His age is just making him realize how vulnerable he is and that when it hurts, it hurts harder.
We went back through the mountains to San José for my last two days in the country. There was a full day of music awaiting us and we took advantage.
Wandering around the city, we caught the Lubin Barahona orchestra outside of the National Museum. It was big band music and boleros being sung by old timers.
The crowd was mostly older couples who were happy to be dancing on the street while the music played on and the rain held off. Like in most cities, there is live music playing for free to be found most weekends.
We then caught a gospel concert in the Melico Salazar Theatre at night – a contest between three local gospel choirs (won by the University choir) with Master Key (a five man acapella group from Costa Rica now working in the US)
with Manuel Obregon, a musician I’ve known for years in Monteverde (and seen him play here in Toronto twice). He’s one of the most experimental composers in the country – here he was playing gospel with our friend Tapado, the country’s top percussionist, at his side. Manuel never fails to amaze me with where his music takes him and he takes alot of other musicians along for his musical rides. The Let It Shine concert was presented by a gospel choir group and held to celebrate Black Culture Day, August 31. It was a great way to extend my time in the cultural richness of the Afro-Caribbean community.
The inevitableness of leaving woke me up early on the last day of August and when it is time to go, it is time. It makes saying goodbye easier when you know you are going to return within a couple of months (si dios quiere.) Heading to my happy home in the Hammer also makes things easier. I can still feel the Caribbean sun on my skin and if I listen hard enough, the gentle arrival of the waves lapping the beach and gently rocking my soul.
The mellowness of life in the jungle and on the sea exists in stark contrast to the busyness of my life back here in the city as I prepare for a trip to the northeastern US, continue overseeing the Spanish translation of Walking with Wolf, work on the historical record of Bosqueeterno S.A., and catch up with my northern friends.
Stay calm, Kay, stay calm – but keep that ball rolling, there is lots to do.