Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cantoamerica Celebrates 25 Years

A Quarter Century of Cantoamerica

   When a band has been together for as long as Cantoamerica has, its influence tends to stretch out and embrace a community much larger than just the guys in the group. Twenty-five years and twelve recordings into their collective career, that is exactly what has occurred with Cantoamerica. Fronted by musicologist Manuel Monestel, the band recently released the self-explanatory CD, “Cantoameric 25 Anos”, a live recording of some of the band’s most recognizable songs. On hand to partake in the celebration are a number of major players in the current Costa Rica music scene. 

Manuel Monestel
   The band itself is comprised of Monestel on guitar and lead vocals, a horn section that includes two trombones and a flute, bass and keyboards, and three percussionists. One of these, Rafael Vargas, is the younger brother of Carlos “Tapas” Vargas, the drummer for both Malpais and Editus, two renowned Costa Rican bands. Not unlike the recent Cantoamerica show hosted by Night Life Tamarindo, the guys start off the CD with a nod to Manuel’s mentor, legendary Calypsonian, Walter Ferguson, singing “Cabin in the Water”. And just like that, the fun these guys generate at their live shows is immediately translated to the listener. The disc closes with “Carnaval Day”, also by Water Ferguson and “Next Creation” by Herbeth ‘Lenki’ Glinton, another cornerstone of Costa Rican Calypso music. These tributes to the forefathers of local Calypso music frame the CD very well. All the rest of the tunes on the disc are penned by Monestel.
   Vocalist Maria Pretiz shows up to sing “Espejo” with the band, turning in a tasty vocal duet with Monestel on the ballad. Editus sits in with Cantoamerica for their rendition of “Seguira el Amor”, one of the more impressive numbers on this disc. The chorus, led by Elena Zuniga, lends itself well to the song, too. On “Oficio”, the band is ably accompanied by Amarillo, Cian y Magenta, who add their bent of “nu jazz” to the song. “Merry Woman” finds the Cantoamerica performing with Frutos de Acki, a Caribbean Costa Rican female vocal quartet.

The Calypsonian at Work
   Of course, Monestel’s longtime friend Manuel Obregon, the founder of Papaya Music, makes his contribution on piano all over the CD. His style is unmistakable and his ability to change stylistically between various songs is indicative of the entire gamut of Cantoamerica’s playbook. While the CD could be viewed a Cantoamerica as the house band for all their friends in the house, this really isn’t true. The guest appearances are nice and very complimentary, the music and the performances are unilaterally Cantoamerica’s. The enthusiastic crowd responses are a testament to the band’s legacy. It’s a little reminiscent of the latest Malpais live CD, “En Vivo” in that respect.
   The encore cut is, appropriately, Manuel Monestel’s most popular song, “Give My People a Chance”. It is also obvious that the group is well rehearsed but they also leave enough room for improvisation, which, when done properly, makes for an enjoyable live performance. It was definitely done properly on this recording, which were taken from two live shows at Teatro Popular Melico Salazar in San Jose on October 21 & 22 last year. Monestel also produced the CD and oversaw the artistic direction. It’s definitely his baby and he should be very proud of it.
    “Cantoamerica 25 Anos” is available at Jaime Peligro, where they will gladly sample the music for customers. Any comments concerning this article are welcome.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Adrian Goizueta & Luis Enrique Mejira Godoy on Papaya Label

New Papaya Artists

   Papaya Music, Costa Rica’s premier music label, recently announced the release of two new CDs by seasoned Central American musicians Adrian Goizueta and Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy. It is the first release on Papaya for both artists. The two celebrated the tandem release with a live concert at La Vereda Terramall in San Jose.

   Goizueta was born in Argentina but has spent more than half his life in Costa Rica and has a sizeable following in Western Europe. He has put out a plethora of albums with his band, Grupo Experimental. Adrian decided to release a solo project that, “speaks of the past with the sounds of the present”. To do so, he enlisted players from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Argentina, and Costa Rica, including violinist Ricardo Ramirez of Editus. To put the package together, Dutch producer Jos Haagman was brought on board. The final result, titled “Tangoizueta” proves that incorporating musicians from various cultures was not just a gesture. Goizueta wrote or co-wrote all the songs but plenty of room was given to all the participants, which is brought out by the slick production on this thirteen song, sixty-five minute disc.
   The music comes across as a fusion of son, milongas, samba and a jazz influence, especially in the bass lines. One of the songs, “Tangouito Prohibito” has been included in another recent Papaya release, “Guanacaste al Atardecer”, which I thought was a nice marketing touch by the parent company. If I have one knock on the CD, it is that I thought some of the lettering was hard to read in the booklet included in the CD jacket.

   One of the songs on “Tangoizueta” was co-written by Luis Enrique Mejira Godoy, whose own solo Papaya release, “Mis Boleros”, came out at the same time. Born outside Leon, Nicaragua in 1945, Mejira moved to Costa Rica after graduating high school. His father, Carlos, was a popular local musician who also built marimbas. Luis returned to Nicaragua in 1979 to participate in the Sandinista revolution there. With his brother Charles, he established the Nicaragua Company of Cultural Recordings, producing over one hundred discs. In 1999, he received an honorary doctorate from the Nicaragua government.

Godoy performing live
   While Mejira also has many of his own albums under his belt, “Mis Boleros” is his first recording in more than ten years. He was recently quoted as saying, “The bolero is a mirror of all hearts, an inventory of sorrows and the melodies of the soul”. The CD is a project he has been working on for the past three years. He penned every song on the album, some of them as much as twenty years ago. All the songs are previously unreleased. Mejira dedicated the work to Ray Tico, a Costa Rican bolerista who recently passed away. Unlike Tico’s work, “Mis Boleros” has the full accompaniment of acoustic and electric piano and bass, second guitars and percussion and, at times, even strings, horns and woodwinds. The entire disc is a real tribute to Mejira’s versatility and attention to detail. I think it is safe to say that this project is a labor of compassion that comes through on every song.

   The packaging for both CDs are purely Papayan, complete with booklets, perhaps demonstrating their passion for music as well. “Mis Boleros” and “Tangoizueta” have a limited pressing and distribution. In Guanacaste they are available only at Jaime Peligro in Tamarindo, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers. Any comments concerning this article are welcome.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Editus Stretches Out

Editus Stretches Out
Two Very Different Projects Unveiled by Popular Costa Rican Band

   When the non-profit foundation Mar Viva decided to film a documentary for PBS London about the unique wonders of the Panamanian island Coiba, they knew they needed a director who was well-versed in the genre. They selected American Emmy winner, Rick Rosenthal, who had already filmed (and won awards for) “Blue Planet” and “Paths of Life”. And when Rosenthal surveyed Coiba, with its coral reef, the second largest in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, he knew he would need a soundtrack to compliment the wonders above and below the sea that he would be documenting on film. He looked no farther than Editus, a three-time Grammy Award winning band from Costa Rica. The band was his first and only call.

      Located in Golfo de Chiriqui, Coiba and its surrounding waters, approximately 430,000 square kilometers, are one of Panama’s prize preserves. The documentary depicts the unique and abundant wildlife on the island itself and in the ocean that embraces it. Editus undertook the task by recording and overlaying indigenous sound to compliment the trio’s instrumental soundtrack. The resulting music, like the area, is one of a kind. Standout pieces include “Sea, Land and Air” and “The Color of Coral”. I’m not sure if some of the musical passages are synthesized or “squeezed”, but the music definitely sounds airy when needed, and aquatic when that is appropriate. All three members of Editus are master musicians and with this disc they demonstrate their capability to broaden their collective scope.

     With the Coiba project completed, the band returned to the studio to wrap up their highly anticipated new album, “Editus 360”. I don’t know if the title is a reference to coming full circle, but if Coiba is an example of communing with Nature, then 360 demonstrates the band’s Metro side, as alluded to in the cover art. If Editus was worried about being pigeon-holed as being strictly New Age, this album buries that theory, cleans the shovel and puts it back in the toolshed. Dancing to an Editus CD? Believe it. The trio has pulled out all the stops, using cool, sexy female voice-overs, a synthesizer board, and guitarist Edin Solis applying a heavy bottom on his guitar work to create a big, upbeat and yes, very danceable sound.
     Make no mistake: this is still an Editus album, still the same three musicians weaving their musical tapestries as they have for nearly two decades. And maybe it is this familiarity with each other, this compatibility that makes their new direction so seemingly easy for the trio. The band employed Fernan “Zurdo” Castro for the synthesized, electronica effect. In fact, the entire band was plugged in, with Carlos “Tapado” Vargas even utilizing electronic percussive devices. The result is a new sound that somehow sounds very familiar. Together, these two new albums seem to present the new Yin and Yang of Editus.
     In Tamarindo, Quepos and Tilaran, all Editus CDs are available exclusively at Jaime Peligro, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers.

  All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Before Guanacaste

Before Guanacaste

     Fred Lange was twenty years old in 1965 when he first visited Guanacaste; he did that on a twelve-hour bus ride from San Jose’ to Nicoya. As he recalls the trip, the highway from Liberia was just being built and there were no hotels at all in Playa Tamarindo or on the Bay of Culebra. Mr. Lange, author of “Before Guanacaste”, has worked in most of the countries in Central America, studying, among other things, the social aspects of the pre-Colombian indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, including Canada, his home state of Wisconsin, New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico. He holds a doctorate in Archaeology and taught at the University of Colorado for more than fifteen years. He has studied the ruins and artifacts in Panama Viejo and Managrillo in Panama, Leon Viejo, Los Placerers, Acahualinca and many other important sites in Nicaragua, as well as “all the important sites in Costa Rica,” as he explained to me recently.
     Through the new book, Lange explores the pre-Colombian area of northwest Costa Rica, dating back more than five thousand years. “There are a few sites that date back even farther than that,” he observed, “we have evidence that people went through Costa Rica enroute to South America some fifteen thousand years ago,” he explained.

     Fred is also the author of “Paths to Central American Prehistory”, “Cultura Naturaleza Sin Fronteras” (Natural History without Borders), “Archaeology of Pacific Nicaragua” and “Archaeology of Lower Central America”. In addition, from 1975 to 1979, he worked on the restoration of both the National Museum of Costa Rica and the National Museum of Nicaragua, following its destruction resulting from the 1972 earthquake. To add to his resume, Fred was also a consultant in 1997, working on the installation of the archaeological halls at the National Museum of Nicaragua at both sites, in Granada and Managua. You could say he is a man of diverse interests in his passion.

     In “Before Guanacaste”, Mr. Lange explains in lay, easy to understand terms to the reader, the development of civilization in that area starting, literally, with man’s arrival as a hunter and gatherer, and following his development to having communities, cultivating, and protecting their surroundings. As Lange points out, there were other, more dominant civilizations, i.e., Mayas to the north and Incas to the south, developing around Guanacaste, but that “these bigger and more powerful civilizations never controlled Guanacaste of Costa Rica and the main evidence of their presence or contacts here is in the occasional artifact or asymbolism present on artifacts made in Guanacaste.” Little is known about Costa Rica’s early civilization because, as Lange concedes, “throughout the world, non-architectural cultures play second fiddle to cultures that built architectural remains”. With his new book, Fred allows the reader to view a common village of indigenous Costa Rican people, to watch them as they pass through the toils of a normal day: hunting and fishing, gathering food and constructing their habitats, practicing their religious observations and their social patterns. It is remarkable to learn just how peaceful these indigenous people were. It is also interesting to watch the development of the societies as they hone their skills, literally through millennia. Fred Lange has turned out a great hands-on view of the dawn of man in this area.
     All comments concerning this article are gladly welcomed.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Coyote and the Firefly

The Coyote and the Firefly

   A solitary coyote sleeping in his cave is awakened by a firefly that entered his home. So he eats the poor firefly. The only problem is that now, when he sings, the coyote’s voice lights up the nightsky. People come from all over to witness this amazing event, and the poor coyote can never be alone in his cave again.

   This is the premise for a lullaby by Guanacastecan Max Goldenberg that Pachanga Kids decided to use for their new children’s book, “The Coyote and the Firefly”. The story used in the book was written by noted Mexican authoress (“The Black Fleet”) and longtime Papaya Music participant Yazmin Ross. The English translation was handled by poet Elliot Greenspan, who also writes Frommer’s travel guides for Costa Rica, Belize, Venezuela and Panama. Updating each of these guides every year has made Elliot a little crazy…
      The storyline changes a bit from the song to the story and I don’t want to give anything away, so let’s just say that the firefly doesn’t die. The fairytale is presented in Spanish and English concurrently, a real asset for the book. All the illustrations are done by acclaimed Costa Rican artist Ruth Angulo. A nice touch in the graphics comes in the naming in Spanish of each of the various plants and animals below its illustration. Typical of Papaya and Pachanga Kids productions, it is a true collaboration done with attention to detail. Even the paper on which the book is printed is of excellent stock.

   A great added bonus is the CD that comes in the package attached to the back of the hardbound jacket. It contains three versions of the original Max Goldenberg lullaby/waltz. The first rendition is in Spanish; while the second is done in English by Elliot Greenspan, a recognized poet and musician on his own, whose voice seems to have been born to sing this lullaby. The last version is instrumental, Karaoke style, complete with a bilingual lyric sheet. By the way, Max Goldenberg is an uncle of Fidel and Jaime Gamboa, the brothers who founded Malpais. They perform (guitar and bass) on the songs, along with Ivan and Giovanni Rodriguez (violin and guitar), also of Malpais fame, and William Ramos on marimbas. Why not get the kids started with quality music, after all? The recording is actually very clean, not some throw-away backdrop tune.
   Pachanga Kids is a new publishing house in Costa Rica that works closely with Papaya Music. And “El Mar Azucarado (Sea Sweet Sea)” was their first title, released in 2006. Upcoming projects include “The Monkey Paparazzi in the Rain Forest” and “In Search of the Golden Toad” and my favorite, La Danta Amaranta (The Loveable Tapir). Pachanga Kids is a Costa Rican venture whose goal is to have fun as they instruct children about the advantageous of being bilingual, while teaching them about the wildlife that inhabits the tropics. It is a collective, team effort of authors, illustrators, musicians, composers along with a variety of other kids who never really completely grew up. And I mean that in a very good way.

   All Papaya CDs and Pachanga Kids books are available at Jaime Peligro in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Nuevo Arenal.All comments concerning this article are gladly welcomed.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


The Cantoamerica-Papaya Connection

   The history of the Costa Rican band Cantoamerica spans a quarter of a century.  And this country’s most popular music label, Papaya Music, has been around for about half that time. Both of their stories have been chronicled in previous articles in this column, so I’ll keep the synopsis brief. There won’t be a quiz.

   Classically trained pianist Manuel Obregon founded Papaya with the intent of preserving as much what remains of Costa Rica’s musical past as possible, before it disappears. He also wanted to generate an outlet for an upcoming generation of musicians to help put them on the global musical map. He is to be commended for his intent, his foresight and his success.

   Manuel Monestel grew bored with the music scene in San Jose in the early 1970s and embarked on a trip down the Caribbean that changed his musical tastes for the rest of his career. He soon founded Cantoamerica and became a modern protégé for the likes of Walter Ferguson, as Monestel carried the Calypso torch into the Twenty-First Century.

     The musical scene in Costa Rica has always had a strong element of camaraderie, so it makes sense that these two local pioneers would meet and work together. In fact, Monestel worked with Papaya on one of their first projects, Orquestra de Papaya, a CD showcasing a collaboration of musicians from five different Central American countries. Monestel also released “Songs of a One Pant Man”, a solo effort on Papaya, as well as appearing on the Calypso Legends CD on that label. In addition, he traveled with Obregon to New Orleans in 2003 to participate in a world music festival with him there.

   Meanwhile, Manuel Monestel continued to work with his own band, Cantoamerica, releasing a total of twelve independently produced CDs with them. The newest chapter in this musical relationship has been for Papaya to release a compilation of those albums. The concept is not new for Papaya. They extended the same courtesy to Honduran legacy Guillermo Anderson and to the modern Nicaraguan rock band Perrozompopo. The idea has been to give a condensed sampling of these artists to a much broader listening base. Once again, Obregon appears to have hit a musical home run.

   The new Cantoamerica CD, “Vientos Del Caribe”, has just been released in Costa Rica. Papaya has culled through a treasure trove of songs and come up with thirteen nuggets to represent this fabled band’s achievements over the past twenty-five years. The sixty minute disc has done a commendable job of displaying Cantoamerica’s mastery in the musical styles of calypso, salsa, son and bolero. Along the way, it presents a nice chronology of the development of the band through the years. This is the kind of stuff that music geeks like me revel in.

   Highlights on the new CD include “Maria Calypso”, “Tacuma and Ananasi’s Party” and “El Espejo”. I enjoyed listening to the development of the band’s rich horn arrangements and its unique style of layering their percussion section. I think this kind of exposure for Cantoamerica will give them the recognition they deserve.
   Papaya Music CDs are available at the Jaime Peligro book stores in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Nuevo Arenal. Where they will gladly sample the music for their customers .  All comments concerning thhis article are welcome.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dawn of Punta Rock

The Dawn of Punta Rock
   In the late 1970s, in the little town of Dengriga, Belize, Pen Cayetano hatched his new creation. He named it Punta Rock. Pen explained later that the music was initially played solely at celebrations and holidays. In fact, it was originally intended to only be played annually, on November 19th, for Beluria, or Ninth Night, a Garifuna holiday celebrating their ancestors’ landing in Belize nearly three hundred years ago. But the new music caught on very quickly with the locals and in a short time, Cayetano formed the Turtle Shell Band, the first Punta Rock band ever. And the first official turtle shell player in that band was a young man by the name of Mohobub Flores.  
   Mohobub was born into a musical family: his mother and sisters are performing vocalists. He started his career as a percussionist at an early age, “banging on the pots and pans and practically anything in sight,” according to his patient mother. He had been living in Guatemala for a short stint but returned to his hometown specifically to play in the Turtle Shell Band. Then, in the mid 1980s, the group made a big leap, going electric. A decade later, Mohobub ventured into a solo career, veering toward a style of music that displayed more Latin and Garifuna influence. According to Flores, he wanted to play music that was, “more laid-back than mainstream Punta”. So he assembled a band and for the next five years, he wrote new music and toured, refining his group. Ultimately, he was invited into the Stonetree recording studio and given the opportunity to show off his accomplishments.
   The resulting CD is simply titled, “Mohobub”, released as a part of the Belizean Punta Rockers Series. Every song on the disc is very danceable, opening with “Ital Food”, an overt celebration of life. “Ital food, I like it, I like it, I love it!” Flores sings with a conviction that can only come from the heart. Even “message” songs on the CD, such as “Your Lova” and “We Will Return” have a contagious sound that begs for a dance floor. The music itself has a strong, up-tempo bass and percussion backbone, provided by Tyron Hernandez and “Laruni” Flores, respectively. Dale Davis on tenor sax, and Jimmy Lee on keyboards provide the bulk of solos, with Roberto Palacio filling in the gaps on electric guitar.
   All the songs, save two, are written by Mohobub on this forty-five minute CD. In the studio, they also use snatches of a variety of traditional Garifuna songs, which are sung in group refrain on a few of the songs. Again, the slick production of Ivan Duran and Stonetree Records shines through. The sound is always clean and bright, with a distinct separation of each of the instruments and vocal parts.
   Akin to a festival atmosphere, the songs build to a crescendo about three-quarters of the way through the disc, and hold that energy. The final song, “V.A.T.” is an excellent closer, leaving the listener hoping for an encore. Let’s hope it is in the works.
   Mohobub and all Stonetree CDs are available at Jaime Peligro book store in Playa Tamarindo, where they will gladly sample the music for its customers. All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ray Tico - Solo Para Recordar

Ray Tico

   Born Ramon Jacinto Herrera in Limon, Costa Rica in 1928, he received his first guitar at the age of seven years. Later, he worked as a fisherman in Colombia, where he also launched his career as a professional musician. But it was after he moved to Cuba in 1953 that he was dubbed Ray Tico, a stage nickname that has stayed with him throughout the decades. And it was in Cuba in 1956 that he penned the bolero “Eso Es Imposible,” easily the most popular of the fifty-plus songs he has written. With this newfound notoriety, Ray relocated to the United States, performing often at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City as well as spending considerable time in Hollywood. In 1969, Ray Tico returned to Costa Rica, the hometown boy back from conquering America. He was forty-one years old.

  Ray Tico has spent the following thirty-eight years of his life writing songs and performing them virtually everywhere and anywhere (including presidential inaugurations here), and basically doing all the things that have gained him a word-of-mouth legacy. In true form, Costa Rica’s premier music label, Papaya Music, has stepped up to the plate. One of their broad-reaching goals has been to preserve the country’s musical heritage, as they have recently done with the Walter Ferguson and Limon Legends CDs. The next logical move has been to capture the Ray Tico legacy on CD. The disc has been appropriately titled “Solo Para Recorder”. It begins and ends poignantly with live songs, the first being “Delirio”, complete with an enthusiastic audience. The CD then moves into the studio for Ray Tico classics, such as “Bienvenido” and a studio version of “Eso Es Imposible”.  This song is a turning point on the CD. Whereas the first few songs are delivered in straight-ahead folkloric style, Ray seems to loosen up with his signature song. “Romance en Habana” follows and Sr. Tico lets it all cut loose as he accompanies himself on percussion, using his feet and even his fingers on the box of the guitar while he is also finger-picking the strings. Don’t ask me how he does that. Other highlights on the CD include “Cristo, Rio y Yo”, “Besame Amor” and the title track, “Solo Para Recordar”. 

   The final song, also a live recording, is actually a cuplet, starting out with the standard “Besame Mucho” and progressing into the disc’s second version of “Eso Es Imposible,” Ray’s signature song. The advance copy of the disc that I received from Papaya contains no liner notes, but I’m pretty sure that’s Manuel Obregon’s piano accompaniment on the song. It’s a nice duet and, unfortunately, the only one on the CD. It would have been nice to hear a few more songs with that arrangement.  With over an hour of music on the disc, the listener definitely gets his money’s worth, and Ray is given a lot of room to display his amazing guitar work. While this disc may not be for everyone, it is nice to see Papaya Music give the nod to Ray Tico and the concept of preserving Costa Rican folklore. The Ray Tico and all Papaya CDs are available at Jaime Peligro in Tamarindo, where they will gladly sample the music for the customers.All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Perrozompopo Breaks the Silence

Perrozompopo Breaks the Silence

   Perrozompopo is a Nicaraguan term for a gecko with a black tail, white stomach, and a red, triangular head, known for its scrappy character. In local nica folklore, the lizard was unwittingly transplanted from Cuba during the Sandino Resistance in the 1930s. Perrozompopo is also the name of a new Nicaraguan rock band with a unique and yes, scrappy sound. The quartet is comprised of Jacko on bass guitar, Juan on drums and percussion, Gabriel on electric guitar and Ramon Mejia on Spanish guitar. Ramon is also the singer and songwriter of the group. Their new CD, “Romper el Silencio” (Break the Silence) does not sound anything like an inaugural project.

   The twelve songs, recorded in the capitol city of Managua, carry a grassroots political message. A booklet inside the package even contains an introduction, dedicating the disc to the children of the streets in Managua as well as all exploited children and women in Nicaragua. The manifest continues with a wish for liberty, change and new opportunities for the country through peaceful means.

   The first song on the disc, “Quiere a Tu Pais” (Love Your Country) is an appropriate for these sentiments. In the lyrics, Ramon notes that life is rough, but that if Nicaraguans stay together, a positive change will come for everyone. The next song, “Perrozompopo,” is the band’s namesake. The song comments on the strength and stamina of the gecko, their astute drive to survive, and that nicas could learn a lesson in survival from them. The CD’s title song, “Romper el Silencio” (Break the Silence) reminds the audience that silence is also a form of participation.

   It is refreshing to hear a new, positive voice, so full of sincerity and hopefulness, coming from Nicaragua. Perrozompopo draws on many musical influences, including traditional Nicaraguan folk, to create a style they have dubbed, “Nica-urbana”, which is theirs alone. There are some great crossovers and segues from a traditional acoustic sound into an electric arrangement, complimenting the lyrical changes in the songs. The transitions in tempo and the placement of pauses all work together to produce a tight-knit finished product, a fine collage of sounds and styles.

   The production by Enrique Mavilla on this fifty-two minute disc is sterling. And the recording and mastering by Carlos Estella is, well, masterful. The tiny Nicaraguan label Delicias Discograficas has released a professional, impeccably polished package. The CD has been picked up and distributed in Costa Rica by the revered Papaya Music label in an attempt to give Perrozompopo more exposure. Romper el Silencio proves that they certainly deserve the chance. The CD is available at the Jaime Peligro book store in Playa Tamarindo, where they will sample the music for their customers. All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Uptown for Perrozompopo

Uptown for Perrozompopo

   A lot of rock & roll bands have one good album in them. The problem crops up when they continue to release more. A legion of examples comes to mind but for once, I’ll keep my sarcastic, observational humor to myself. The Nicaraguan band Perrozompopo came out of the chute last year with their inaugural CD, “Romper el Silencio”. Papaya Music was impressed enough with the project that they took the Managua band under wing and distributed their disc throughout Costa Rica, to very positive reviews, including my own. The band is basically the brainchild of singer/songwriter/guitarist Ramon Mejia.
   For his sophomore effort, “Quiero Que Sepas”, Ramon has nearly reconstructed the entire band, keeping only his brother, Augusto, on bass guitar. The project is divided into two distinct groupings: one recorded by a Nicaraguan band in Managua and the second recorded in Costa Rica, where the entire result was mastered. Manuel Obregon, Papaya’s CEO, called on some of his friends and big guns for the Costa Rica cuts, including Carlos Delgado on guitar and Marta Fonseca, adding background vocals. From the popular band Malpais, violinist Ivan Rodriguez and percussionist Carlos Vargas make notable contributions and the entire Editus band appears on the last cut of the CD.
   The final result is commendable. Majia has retained enough of the sound of the original band to make the new disc identifiable, while adding enough new pathways for his current project to keep it from sounding repetitive. The thirteen-song, fifty minute set starts off with the title track, a ballad warning about the dangers of border crossing. The second song, “Mujeres del Centro del Rio,” concentrates on the plight of women in society in Nicaragua. In fact, the somewhat over-dedicated disc goes out at one point to his mother, at another to his daughter, Taina, with yet another dedication to “all those women who have failed themselves, having been accomplices to so many men who, through politics and religion, have tried to push women to the margins of society”. Aside from the wordiness, the intentions seem to ring true to form the thematic structure of the CD. Other highlights include “Las Hijas del Sol”, (with additional vocals by Marta Fonseca), and “Muchacha de Arenas”, written this year in San Juan del Sur. It’s also a nice touch closing the project with three-time Grammy winners Editus backing Mejia on “Cuando Tardas y Demoras”. The entire production, in fact, is a lot more tempered and polished than the first album, probably owing to the Papaya connection. 

   There is a certain irony or dichotomy that arises here. Perrozompopo has built its reputation as a scrappy, street-wise band that has assumed the role of being the voice of the common people in Nicaragua. That’s a hard image to maintain while being wined, dined and recorded in San Jose’, Costa Rica. But this is not a new problem in the history of rock & roll, ala the rich hippie, the popular punk, and the well-fed, successful grunge star. In the case of Perrozompopo, it appears to be working, as they seem to be able to transcend this split personality. Toward the end of recording “Quiero Que Sepas”, the band took it to the streets, performing live on several occasions in San Jose, always to responsive crowds and positive reviews. The same thing happened upon returning to Managua and showcasing the material live at cafes and night spots there. One can only hope that by walking this thin line, the band does not open a chasm between themselves and their fans.
   Both Perrozompopo CDs are available at Jaime Peligro in Playa Tamarindo, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers.All commetns concerning this article are welcome.

Ska Cubano

Ska Cubano

   Everybody wants to make a good first impression. So, when Jacob Edgar left his position as vice-president in charge of A&R at Putumayo Records to found his own label, the old adage must certainly have been on his mind. The initial offering from fledgling Cumbancha Records is “Ay Caramba!” from Ska Cubano and it definitely has blown the doors open for the new label, with its foot-tapping, dare-you-not-to-start-dancing music. An eleven piece band, Ska Cubano is the brainchild of Peter Scott, whose love for classical Jamaican ska and Cuban mambo and cumbia led him to assemble these musicians and reunite these long lost musical relatives. He enlisted Natty Bo, a U.K. ska veteran and fan of all things retro to oversee the production of the disc. Together they traveled to Santiago, Cuba, where they discovered Benny Billy strumming and singing in an old bar there. They both knew immediately that they had found their frontman for the band. And I concur: hey, anyone who appears in public with one lens missing in his sunglasses is alright by me. They flanked him with legendary seventy-four year old trumpeter Eddy “Tan Tan” Thornton, ska saxist Megumi Mesaku and bassist Ray Crespo.

   The CD’s first song, “Soy Campesino” sets the tempo for the entire disc, with its playfulness and danceability. To be sure, there is not a single tearjerker or torch song on the album. The whole mood is fifty-two minutes of fun, at times more than a little tongue-in-cheek, without ever being condescending. The title song, “Ay Caramba” is a good example, extolling and celebrating the scandalous irresponsibility in the lives of musicians everywhere. The band also covers a few gems, including “Jezebal” and “Tabu” and possibly the first ska arrangement ever of the risqué mento song “Big Bamboo”, which has nothing to do whatsoever with bamboo.

Ska Cubano in action

   Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Trinidadian calypso was popular all over the island, and early ska bands regularly infused Cuban beats into their songs. By the 60s, these two tangential styles separated into different musical directions, as Cuban music develop0ed into salsa, while ska led to the worldwide phenomenon called reggae. It’s nice to see these two closely related musical brothers discover a new commonality. As Edgar Jacob said, “Ska Cubano is a perfect example of a group that needs to be heard by a wider audience. I’m certain that people of any age and background will find this upbeat music irresistible” This infectious CD is available at Jaime Peligro book store in Playa Tamarindo, where they will sample the music for their customers.All commetns concerning this article are welcome.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mekatelyu - The Little Band that Could

The Little Band That Could

      In 2001, Mekatelyu made their debut in their Caribbean hometown of Limon. They joined the ranks of literally hundreds of Costa Rican reggae bands. Six years later, on the eve of the release of Sensi, their third CD, Mekatelyu stands out as probably the most popular, and certainly the most recognizable reggae group in the country. The group has matured as a band in the studio, as is evident in the lush production, with layers of tightly orchestrated keyboards, vocal harmonies and horn section. A fan can hear the progression of this maturity with each new release. Sensi also has a lot more songs sung in Spanish than its predecessors, in an apparent attempt to reach back to the band’s collective heritage, and as lead singer/songwriter Johnnyman seems to be reaching out to more Latin Americans.
Johnnyman testifying
      But the band has retained their trademark musical riffs throughout this maturation, still sounding fresh and upbeat, with that unmistakable voice of Johnnyman. It is nice to see a contemporary band retain its originality, its identity and all its band members as it rises in popularity, a true curio in the modern music scene.

      The CD itself feels like a training ground in the School of Tempo Changes, as the band playfully skips from one beat to another during a number of their songs. Standouts among the eleven songs include Subele (Join Us) and Clamando Justica (Pray for Justice), with its catchy bass run and horn riffs. Johnnyman’s ramblings appear frequently throughout the disc. It’s all fun and danceable, yet very serious. Even the title song straddles this fence. Johnnyman told me that the song was a call for people to use sensibility in dealing with each other and the planet. But it is all tongue in cheek as well, because the song is also about the effects of sensimillon, or high grade pot.
      Curiously, the band is called Johnnyman & Mekatelyu on the new disc. The artwork on the jacket is nice, using the colors of the Jamaican flag to water paint over two photos of Johnny and one of the rest of the band. But the separation there seems a bit odd. And tickets for a recent Mekatelyu festival were available at Burger King. One can only hope that these are coincidences and not indicative of a new trend for the band.
      In Tamarindo, Mekatelyu CDs are available exclusively at Jaime Peligro, Tamarindo’s oldest book store. All commetns concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Gospel Music in Costa Rica

Gospel Music in Costa Rica

   Religious hymns and spiritual music have played a role in Costa Rican culture for more than two centuries. Traditionally, however, the practice of organized groups celebrating and singing these songs has been confined to within their respective church walls, primarily in Limon and San Jose. Enter music historian Manuel Obregon, who is also the president and founder of Papaya Music, Costa Rica’s premier music label. Obregon felt this musical legacy deserved to be shared with the general public. So he enlisted more than thirty participants from a variety of denominations to perform live for two nights for an audience at National Theater in San Jose, which is truly how gospel music should be heard: alive rather than canned, studio work. Appropriately, a recording of this event, “Wade in the Water” has recently been released.
   The disc opens with the Reverend Phil Jones singing the title track. He also sings the lead vocals for “We Shall Overcome” and the closing song, “Amazing Grace”. Other standouts on the song list include Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and the traditional Gospel tune, “Fly Away”. Two Kirk Franklin original songs and a Caribbean Gospel medley help round out the song selections. A variety of vocal ensembles grace the performances on this CD, including a backing chorus of ten voices. In addition, Obregon spotlights Masterkey, a six-man singing group from Limon who formed their sextet in 1998, singing a combination of traditional and original spiritual songs in a bilingual style they call “Tico Gospel”. Their counterpart, T4, is comprised of the four Tucker sisters, singing a style of music that has Afro-American Gospel style enmeshed with a Jamaican/Caribbean influence. Harline Tucker claims that their style of music can be played “only on the black keys of the piano”.
   The music leaves a lot of room for instrumental solos, which are handled by Obregon on piano and organ, while fellow Malpais band member Fidel Gamboa plays flute and saxophone, with the guitar work performed by veteran session man Carlos Delgado. The house band for this project is comprised of self-admitted “non-believers”, who expressed delight in being able to participate in the event. The music tends to transcend traditional gospel, adding elements of soul, rhythm & blues and even jazz to the mix.
  The packaging has the unmistakable Papaya Music attention to detail. Obregon, a bit of a music perfectionist, also did all the arranging, producing and art direction. The disc comes with a booklet with its liner notes and lyrics in both Spanish and English. The eco-friendly jacket is a double fold-out that opens to reveal a clever photographic collage. In short, Manuel Obregon and Papaya Music have done it again, presenting a comprehensive package that preserves Costa Rican heritage by putting it on the map while adding a current spin to it that keeps it modern at the same time. 
   “Wade in the Water” and all Papaya Music CDs are available in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Tilaran at Jaime Peligro, where they will gladly sample the music for the customer. All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Zoraida Diaz: Life Portraits of Guanacaste

Life Portraits of Guanacaste

     On September 11, 2001, the world changed for every person inhabiting it. When the Twin Towers collapsed, Zoraida Diaz was in New York City. At that time, she had been a worldwide photographic journalist for Reuters for thirteen years, but on that day, she wasn’t “on the clock” at the Big Apple; on the contrary, she was giving birth to her son in the hospital at NYU. It’s ironic that she was at the epicenter of this infamous day in history, yet unable to capture it through her cameras. Nonetheless, the events permanently changed her life, too. In search of a kinder, gentler habitation, she gave up her job with one of the biggest news agencies in the world and moved with her family to Costa Rica, where she quickly became enamored by Sugar Beach and Playa Portrero. In a relatively short amount of time, she teamed up with Ralph Nicholson to form the weekly newspaper The Beach Times.
     Thus began a love affair between Ms. Diaz and, in her words, “all things Guanacastecan”. As this passion blossomed, Zoraida realized that it needed a home, too. From this inspiration, Ms. Diaz culled through nearly a thousand photos to choose the ones that best represented the unique culture of this area. The result is her new book, entitled “Guanacaste: Retratos de Vida / Life Portraits”. 

     There are currently several popular, quality photo journals with Guanacaste as their subject matter. What sets Ms. Diaz’ project apart from these is that while the earlier books deal almost exclusively in landscapes, Zoraida allows the lens of the camera to focus on the people here. Make no mistake: there are spectacular Guanacaste landscape photos in “Life Portraits”, but the heart of this project is the inhabitants, the pulse of this area.
     Working with a group of editor/friends, Diaz was able to whittle her choices down to about “only” four hundred. She then applied a little family mojo by getting her seven year old son’s input and reduced the number by a hundred. At this point, she turned to Horatio Villalobos, director of the European Photo Agency in Paris, who helped her establish the one hundred eighty shots that made the final cut. The result is a stunning collection, a wonderful montage of color and black & white photos that embraces the personality of Guanacaste. I also want to mention how much I enjoy the photos done in rapid time sequence.

Zoraida Diaz
     And then there is the writing. Ms. Diaz displayed her talent as a producer when she turned to her circle of friends who are scribes for their contributions. “Life Portraits” is divided into four segments, with simpatico introductions by folklorist Jose Manuel Pena and Carlos Arauz for the Plains section, marine biologist Giovanni Bassey describing the Pacific shoreline, songwriter Balo Gomez reflecting on the people and songwriter Guadalupe Urbina with her thoughts on Guanacaste traditions. The forward by the poet Miguel Fajardo Korea is a touching introduction, a nice opening to segue into the project.
     I asked Ms. Diaz about the difference between taking these kinds of photos and the ones she took for Reuters. She explained that she had never met a good photographer who could divorce themselves from the subject matter. She told me that, “Robert Capa used to say that if a picture wasn’t good enough, it was because the photographer hadn’t gotten close enough”. Of course, Capa was speaking about getting close both physically and emotionally.
     Looking again at her photographs in “Guanacaste: Retratos de Vida / Life Portraits”, it is clear that Zoraida Diaz has gotten close enough to her subjects. You can almost touch them. Or let them touch you.
    The book is available at all three Jaime Peligro books stores in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Tilaran.
     All comments concerning this article are welcome. 

Friday, March 9, 2007

Blues Devils

Devil of a Blues Band in San Jose

   The live music scene has been a vital part of San Jose for some time now. Until recently, finding a schedule for all the nightclubs and an updated calendar with the names of bands and where and when they are playing was a job worthy of a member of a detective agency. Not any more. Mauricio Ledezma, an enterprising San Jose musician has taken it upon himself to publish En Tarima, a magazine devoted exclusively to the Costa Rica music scene, mainly in San Jose. The publication can be picked up at a variety of cafes and nightclubs in the capitol city or can be viewed online at and clicking on En Tarima. Mauricio has been at it for eight months and the response, he told me, “has been great for musicians and concertgoers.”  He admits that at first it was “not so terrific from potential advertisers, although it is getting better.”
   Born in Chicago, Mauricio moved to Houston with his parents, who are Costa Ricans. He started his first paper at the age of eleven, while he was in school in Houston. In fact, he explained to me that he fashioned En Tarima after “Music News”, a music publication out of Houston. “I noticed the amount of gigs that musicians have in the San Jose area,” he explained, “and a lot of people never find out about them.”

   But En Tarima is not Mauricio’s whole story.  He is also the frontman and harmonica player for the Blues Devils, a band that plays the San Jose music circuit regularly. The band formed loosely in 2001 as a project for the band members to play when Lezdezma was visiting from Texas twice a year. Mauricio moved to Costa Rica permanently in 2003, which established the band as a concrete entity. He learned to play harp twenty years ago in Houston and was a sideman for Big Robert Smith and Joe Guitar Hughes. He is also quick to point out that he is an afecianado of all kinds of music, not just the blues. Among his broad variety of musical influences, he cites Miles Davis, Little Walter, Ian Anderson (from Jethro Tull) Brian Setzer of The Stray Cats, Otis Redding and Muddy Waters.
   The other members of The Blues Devils are: Fernando Alvarado on drums, Franco Torterol on bass and Edgar Sequiera and Lucho Aguilar on guitars. The music is a blend of Chicago blues, ala Muddy Waters, with a touch of Albert Collins’ Texas blues, sprinkled in with a dash of West Coast swing, in the style of Little Charlie and the Nightcats. All the musicians in the Blues Devils contribute original songs. They also cover songs by all the aforementioned musicians, as well as songs by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jeff Healey, Otis Rush and Junior Wells. The band had a successful showing at both 2006 and 2007 Vida Loca Blues Fest. Local saxophonist “Bad” Brad Schmidt told me recently that he has jammed several times and that hey are a lot of fun to play with. I have found that one of the real indicators of a good band is when another musician gives them an unsolicited compliment, as Brad did.
This band is definitely worth checking out. They are available for bookings at a very reasonable price. And the next time you plan to visit San Jose, check out En Tarima to see what shows you might catch. All comments concerning this article are glady welcomed.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Radio Latino

Radio Latino

   When Rock & Roll was in its infancy, Latin rock was represented only by gimmick songs, ala “Little Latin Lupe Lou”. Along came Richie (Valenzuela) Valens in 1959, putting Latinos on the Rock and Roll map, giving them a lot more credibility, with hits like, “La Bamba”. His early, untimely death closed that chapter and Latin rock fell back into hibernation for nearly a decade.
   On an April night in 1968, I was at a concert at Bill Graham’s fabled Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, California to see the band The Youngloods. The unknown, opening band’s guitarist played their entire first set behind his amplifier. No one could see him but he certainly had everyone’s attention with his innovative, blazing guitar work. There is really no other way to describe his style. As it turned out, this shy guitarist was also the band’s leader and namesake and for their second set later that night for the Carlos Santana Blues Band, he graced us with his presence on stage. Over the course of the next year, Santana (the band) would shorten their name, release their first album and play at my high school. Twice. I actually got to talk with Carlos and bassist Joe Brown between sets at one of these shows. With their performance the next year at Woodstock, the floodgate would open for a river of Latin artists, all the way to the present, for artists like Shakira and Mana. Every one of these musicians has Carlos Santana to thank for that.
   Over the past ten years, Putumayo Records has set the trend for World Music, basically inventing the term. They recently released a new CD titled, “Radio Latino” comprised of eleven Latin artists from all over the globe, including Spain, Cuba, Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina and even the U.S.A. The result is a compilation of radio-friendly songs of contemporary Latin pop music.
Sacha Nairobi
   The first song, “Princesa”, by Sacha Nairobi of Venezuela sets the pace: up-tempo, fun Latin songs with a danceable beat. Other notable tunes include Cuba’s Kevin Ochoa doing “Viento y Tiempo” and Los Pinguinos from Argentina performing the snappy, “Cielo de Scarlata”. The offering of “Mulatica Mia”, by the U.S.A.’s The Toa of Groove is a great example of what happens when Lounge meets Latino. And Cubano music is well represented by Raul Paz with his rendition of “Mama” and Jorge Moreno closing out the disc with a stirring version of “Candelita”. Uruguay checks in with “Vagabundo” by Martin Buscaglia. Throughout the disc, in fact, the use of horns has done well to represent the lush Latin rhythm sections, which are an integral part of the Latin Rock genre. The packaging for the CD is done in true Putumayo style, complete with a booklet in Spanish, English and French that includes a blurb on each performer. All told, Radio Latino is an indicator of how Latin music has carved a niche for itself in the Pop mainstream.
     Radio Latino is available at the Jaime Peligro bookstores in Playa Tamarindo, Nuevo Arenal and Quepos.All commetns concerning this article are gladly welcomed.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Al Pie del Balcon: Serenading in Guanacaste

Serenading in Guanacaste
Papaya Music Offers a Glimpse of a Fading Art

   Entering the Twenty-First Century, the Latin American practice of serenading a “sleeping heart” has nearly become a lost art. Recently, however, four well-versed musicians from the province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica gathered themselves in the Papaya Music Studio in San Jose to share songs and stories, reminisce and record their folkloric songs together and to chronicle, embrace and preserve this cultural tradition. The practice of the wandering minstrel has markedly declined in Central America in the past few decades, but one can still catch a glimpse of these musicians plying their trade in Playa Tamarindo and its surrounding beach areas. At one point in time not so very long ago, this practice was so prominent that local authorities actually levied a Serenading Tax.  

A young Odilon Juarez
   The result of the recent meeting of the four musicians in San Jose has been the release on Papaya Records of “Al Pie del Balcon, Guanacaste Serenades”. The four prominent vocalists are the seasoned troubadours Jose “Papi” Everado, the brothers Odilon and Santos Juarez, and Max Goldenberg, all who once strolled the streets of the small towns in Guanacaste, singing their love letters. Fidel Gamboa, the founder of the popular Costa Rican band Malpais, brought the singers together to record this disc. In fact, the musicians accompanying the four vocalists on this project are basically the rhythm section of Malpais with the addition of the renowned Costa Rican classical guitarist Mario Ulloa.
Fidel in the studio
    The recording is obviously Gamboa’s baby, as he produced it as well as appearing everywhere on the album, playing a variety of guitars, as well as marimbas, piano, mandolin and the four-string requinto. He even employed a small town marching band for one of the sixteen recordings. Five other songs on this disc employ the credible use of a male chorus and a horn section that includes a deep, resonating tuba. But it is primarily the acoustic guitar, along with a variety of other wooden, mobile stringed instruments played by Ulloa and Gamboa, that highlight the romantic portraits and frame the mood for the vocalists and their torch songs. The fifty minute disc opens appropriately with “Serenata Romatica”, a classic serenade of Grand Passion.
   In typical, impeccable fashion, Papaya Music has packaged the CD in an eco-friendly, cardboard jacket with an insert booklet of lyrics and photos that have a nice touch: old black and white, dated snapshots with red, highlighted flowers, enhancing the romantic mood of the CD. Not to be lost in the ribbons and bows, it should be noted that Papaya once again has done a comprehensive, commendable job at preserving a rapidly fading facet of Costa Rican culture. There is also a deluxe box set that makes a great Valentine gift.
     “Al Pie del Balcon” and all Papaya Music CDs are available at Jaime Peligro Book Shops in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Tilaran, where they will gladly play the music for their customers. All comments concerning this article are welcome.