You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Ruben Blades’ tag.
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.
Well, I finally got off the rainy mountain top and went to the beach. The rainforest is a beautiful place, as is Monteverde in general, but I left my home in southern Ontario in the middle of summer and was definitely in need of some summer sunshine. It has been doled out in small portions since I got here – when the sun does shine, it is always gorgeous, but too much rain was dampening my spirits. From up here on the Pacific side of the Tilaran Mountains, the view west over the Nicoya is incredible and the storms that have been whipping around the skies have provided a great light show. So I decided to go to Montezuma, where I’ve seen some of the best thunderstorms in my life – that alone done some great hiking, beaching and dancing.
Before leaving we had a celebratory sushi night – real great new sushi restaurant here in Santa Elena. Our good friend Marc Egger, who used to live here and owns the House in the Hole where I sometimes stay but who now lives in Brazil, surprised us and came into town. With my friend Patricia Maynard, her ex Mark Wainwright, their son Kyle, another friend Jim Wolfe, and Marc, we went and feasted. A good omen about seaside things to come.
Patri and I then drove down to the coast last Saturday to see the group Editus playing at Jaco beach also on the Pacific. Editus started out close to twenty years ago as a duo – Ricardo Ramirez, virtuoso violinist, with Edin Solis, classical guitarist. They were known for playing classical pieces and soft sophisticated covers of well-known songs with a latin edge. In the early nineties, they brought in ‘Tapado’, Carlos Vargas, one of the best percussionists I’ve seen in my life. Watching him play his large collection of percussive devices is like watching a stream flow over multi-colored rocks – he is so fluid that he barely moves yet the rhythm and strength of his playing is fierce. The three of them, Editus, have performed steadily and their music moved from classical to original jazz-flavored, interpretive, atmospheric swelling vistas of composition. All three of these musicians are extremely talented. In the late 90s, they played with Panamanian salsero and politician, Ruben Blades (also known in North America as an actor in movies), for which they won three Grammies for two separate CD recordings. A few years ago they opened a music academy in San Jose where they teach music and bring together musicians for a variety of projects. They also have held concerts with a large number of their musical friends and influences – great shows where Editus plays behind well-known singers, songwriters and rockers – always touching and dynamic shows.
Well, in the last year they have joined forces with a bassist (forget his name) and Zurdo, a great rock-style keyboardist and now they call this new configuration Editus 360, since they have moved 360 degrees from where they started. They have upped the light show and the tone of the music and now play a variety of world music with synthetized backdrops and recorded vocals on some pieces. I hadn’t seen this new version of Editus but have always loved the group and know the guys and truly appreciate their talents. Editus 360 is a rocking show, with lights and smoke and a mosaic of rhythms – I know that many of their original fans who loved the quiet classical content of their work will not enjoy this but for those of us who do, wow. And as importantly, you can tell that they are enjoying playing the music themselves – they needed a change and are all excited about this new version of themselves. They have a 33-concert, 2 month tour in Japan planned for August & September. As Tapado told me, all the years he’s been drumming with Editus, he never broke a sweat – as I said, he is as fluid as water and it all seems so effortless – but now he is sweating in each show as he rocks out on the drums. He’s as skinny as a weed tree, that boy, and will no doubt melt away to a toothpick in Japan. It was a great show in Jaco last Saturday night and great to see these guys having fun – and for the first time, I think, I danced at an Editus show.
My friend Patri’s son Machillo had his first gig helping the sound guys at this show – one of the reasons we went to check it out and support him. Machillo grew up helping out at the music festival in Monteverde when his mother ran the concert series which I also worked on. I always knew I could trust on Machillo to do whatever you asked him – he’s always been a great kid and now he’s getting the chance to move into being part of the very accomplished sound and light team behind Editus. Looks good on ya, Mark. I think nothing will make Patri happier than having a son who can do the backstage production of the shows she’ll always continue to produce here in Monteverde and elsewhere. A very talented, music-loving family.
I left them on Sunday and went off to Montezuma, a beach where I spent a lot of time in 1990. I return every few years to check up on the folks I know there and to indulge in the beautiful landscape that exists on the south end of the Nicoya Peninsula. You get there from the main part of Costa Rica by going to the port city of Puntarenas – a much maligned dirty seaside city that I’ve always found very interesting. And I have to say that they have been working at cleaning it up. There is much evidence of growth and progress and the funky old hotels and buildings that sit along the 11-mile long, half-mile wide sandspit that the city is built on were all looking more quaint than debilitated. Places change drastically here in Costa Rica, sometimes for the better tho not necessarily. I’m giving poor little Puntarenas a thumbs up on effort.
From Puntarenas you take an hour long ferry ride across the Gulf of Nicoya (part of the Pacific) to the town of Paquera on the Nicoya Peninsula. I’ve taken this ride dozens of times and always love it – the waters are tranquil and the sun is hot and on the boat you can find shade or get sun, or even go inside the air-conditioned lounge on the newer ferry. That little boat ride makes you feel like you’ve gone somewhere special. From Paquera it’s a one to two hour bus ride to Montezuma. The road has finally been paved most of the way so the trip is very smooth up until the last few kilometers into town.
Montezuma itself continues to change – very European, but with a strong environmentally-concerned community. But growth doesn’t always feel like progress and the change in the soul of this community always bothers me. I suppose it is providing economic well-being for many, but I visit my old friends there who have been negatively affected by the constant fiesta and the high price of everything. That is what I tend to find in most of the beach communities in Costa Rica – those beaches which have grown radically, become very popular, changed drastically are maybe great destinations for tourists but the change of the lives of the local people is incredible. In 1990, this little town was a sleepy fishing village with a good nightlife – now it runs day and night on tourist dollars. The local families are in competition with each other and many of the locals either stay hidden in their homes away from the crowds and the scene or are very messed up in the middle of it. To be fair, many make a living and no doubt love their lives, but it is questionable as to how many people have truly fallen into a better life in Montezuma.
The long stretches of sandy beaches and the rocky outcrops that separate each beach, along with the fresh water streams that flow down through the forest (including the famous Montezuma waterfalls) is what continues to make Montezuma a stunning place. I spent each morning going about a twenty minute walk down the beach to the Quebrada Colorada, where there is a soaking pool of cool fresh water. The coloured pebbles shine in the sun and the ocean waves crash in just fifty feet away. I passed this soaking time with a friendly and interesting couple, Russell and Margaret, from Asheville, North Carolina who live in nearby Cobano. On any trip, it is always nice to come away with at least one special meeting with new friends. We met each morning and talked about the world as we soaked up the sun while floating in the stream.
One of the most bizarre things of this time in Montezuma was the super high tides that rose to the top of the beaches. It meant that our little fresh water pool was salty half of the time. But more shocking was the amount of refuse that the ocean kicked out with each tide. Montezuma’s beaches are basically white sand and clean. Even back in 1990, the tides would bring in garbage that the locals claimed came from nearby Puntarenas, and you would find strange plastic toys and, of a less innocent nature, medical supplies, washed up with the tide. But this week, with the extremely strong sea, the amount of garbage – plastic baubles, metal cans, broken glass, pieces of trash – that littered the “pristine” beaches was mind-boggling. I saw a guy with a large trash can out there trying to clean up in front of one of the beachside hotels – I wished him well, as his can was already half full and he had barely made a dent in the pock-marked sands. Russell told me that friends have told him that this is the nature of oceans and beaches around the world now – that the angry seas are throwing back the trash everywhere in the world. I’m sure that proximity to large populations and the direction of currents has alot to do with which beaches receive what, but it was truly impossible not to gasp at the amount of garbage that was on that beach – and unfortunately not hard to imagine that many other beaches would also be getting their fill. There is just way too much garbage out there in the world and it only makes sense that it will fill even paradise if we aren’t more diligent in reducing packaging, handling our trash, and minimizing our social addiction to junk.
So I got sun, met nice people, danced at Chico’s Bar a couple nights, broke a toe (well, maybe just bruised it bad), ate great food, left a couple of books at Topsy’s Bookstore, and came back up the mountain. Fortunately, the rains have subsided to a reasonable mist by day and some rainfall by night. Thursday night, when I arrived around 8 p.m., was gorgeous – a quadrillion stars were in the sky, clouds went floating by in the light of the new slice of moon, and it was a warm temperature. Happy to be back in Monteverde, thankful that the weather has changed. Back to work.