Friday, December 10, 2010

Malpais - Hay Ninos Aqui

Hay Niños Aqui!

     In a career that is approaching a decade, Malpais has become one of the most popular bands in Costa Rica. Their appeal, like the band, kept growing. And I think this is one thing that adds to their popularity: they continually expand the realm of their influences. Malpais has gained the affection of their continually growing audience because they never forgot their roots. Their songs are snapshots, histories, reflections and all human and tangible. The new album “Hay Niños Aqui” keeps them on both roads of staying grounded, while spreading out.
     The project began when Jaime Gamboa began writing lyrics for his friends at Vision Mundial, who are celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary of aiding the victims of poverty, especially children. He came to a juncture in his compositions: he and his brother, composer/guitarist Fidel Gamboa had written five songs and basically completed the initial goal for the project. Still, Jaime felt inspired by the families who strive to improve the lives of their children. In a short time, they had collaborated on five more songs and the project took on a new dimension.  When they took their work to the rest of the Malpais bandmembers, a twelfth song, “Rio Grande” was added and the fifth album (seventh, if like me, you include Tierra Seca and La Cancion de Adan) by Malpais was created.
     The album begins with the title track, “Hay Niños Aqui”, and flows into the other four initial compositions. The songs are portraits, vignettes of young people in precarious situations, not of their own doing. I think it is appropriate that “Rio Grande”, the instrumental track, separates the first set of songs and the second group, not unlike an interlude. And Malpais sounds wonderful, a group of musicians very familiar and comfortable with each other. The violin playing of Ivan Rodriguez sounds like another voice and Manuel Obregon’s piano accompaniment is impeccable. For this album, they have insightfully added a children’s chorus, along with electric guitar accompaniment by Ricardo Alfaro on a few cuts.
     Upon its release last month, Malpais announced that proceeds from the first two thousand CDs would be donated to Vision Mundial, who have aided in improving the lives of more than twelve thousand children throughout Costa Rica. It is a true demonstration of the band’s commitment not only raising public awareness of the situation with their album, along with being role models in doing something about it as well. They followed this announcement with an autograph campaign, the entire band present to sign copies of the album, inspiring their fans to help in the contribution, too.
     Malpais has acquired a good reputation for giving back to the community. Radio Malpais is a good example of how they are trying to employ students while exposing new musical talent and providing entertainment to the public. They are also a band steeped in a kind of new folkloric storytelling. The message is clear in “Hay Niños Aqui”. It is a story that needs to be told and to be listened to.
     All the Malpais CDs are available at the Jaime Peligro bookstores in Playa Tamarindo, Tilaran and Quepos, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers. All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Women's Garifuna Project


   Among other Central American music label owners, Ivan Duran is regarded as an infamous perfectionist. He is also recognized by these same people as passionate, self-motivated and visionary. In 1997, when Duran launched Stonetree Records in Belize, he immediately set about the task of recording and chronicling the music of the vanishing, indigenous Garifuna culture. Five years later, he had completed the rough field tapes – over one hundred songs by more than fifty artists from Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador. It was then time for Ivan to embark upon the second phase of his project: mixing, mastering and generally polishing up the final project. And here is where his meticulous nature again came into play.

   Almost all the songs of the Garifuna culture are composed by women. Their songs generally chronicle events in their community and private lives, be it a devastating hurricane, a difficult childbirth or the return of a wayward daughter. Ivan Duran’s ten year goal has been to preserve and present this unique expression of art which has culminated in Stonetree’s nineteenth offering, “Umalali: The Garifuna Women’s Project”. Generally, Garifuna songs are sung by women as they go about their daily business and are performed in public by the men of the community. Part of Duran’s vision was to have the composers sing their own songs, hence the name: Umalali, which means “voices”. And it is the women’s voices and their compositions that take center stage in this production. The second half of Duran’s project was to supply the accompaniment to the women’s songs. He did so using a combination of traditional and “modern” instruments, applying layer upon layer, a texture to the songs, and then mixing and mastering the music so that it all had a cohesive final result. Make no mistake, this was a true labor of love. In the included booklet there are many nice photos of the women who participated on this CD. There is another that I found revealing: Ivan Duran sitting, crouched in a chair, his chin cupped in his hand. He and two of the women from the project are listening to the guitarist Chichiman rehearsing a track. Ivan looks a little tired, yet absorbed and happy, a man near the end of a ten year journey. It is as if he planted a seed, watered it and watched it sprout and grow. And now, more than a decade later, it is about to bloom.

   Duran’s first Garifuna release was “Watina”, the highly acclaimed, award winning CD by Andy Palacio, who was known as “the voice of Garifuna”. Palacio shared Ivan’s desire to preserve the culture and supplied the English translations of the lyrics provided in the CD package. Sadly, Andy Palacio passed away just six months ago at the age of forty-nine. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to see the completion of this historic album.

   An introduction is provided by Jacob Edgar, the president of Cumbancha Records, who picked up the CD for distribution. But Edgar’s participation goes beyond that, as he is a long-time friend of Duran, who has followed the travails of his almost overly-meticulous friend who is now ready to share “The Garifuna Women’s Project”. In Guanacaste, Stonetree CDs are available exclusively at Jaime Peligro in Tamarindo, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers. All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Brazilian Cafe

Brazilian Café

      As the world’s largest coffee producer, café scenes have become an integral part of Brazilian culture and landscape, as has its unique style of music, blending samba, Portuguese, bossa nova, Spanish and jazz into a unique indigenous blend. According to popular legend, Brazilian songwriters Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes were sitting in one of their favorite cafés in Ipanema, a fashionable district of Rio de Janeiro, watching all the pretty women walk by, especially the knockout from the neighborhood, Helo Pinheiro. Their ode to her has become a timeless, internationally recognized song, “The Girl from Ipanema”.
     I have already mightily extolled the virtues of the Putumayo label in previous editions of this column, so I will simply cut to the chase this time. Lately, they have been growing thematic titles, with their “lounge” and “groove” compilation albums from different regions of the world. The best of each of these, I believe, have been the “Brazilian Lounge” and “Brazilian Groove” CDs. Ditto, the “Acoustic Brasil”. Putumayo’s new vein has been a café series. I have heard the French and Cuba café albums and I like them, but I’ve been anticipating the Brazilian Café CD and last week, Putumayo released it in Costa Rica. 

Grupo Semente
     This collection of twelve songs is diverse and as with the other Putumayo Brazilian CDs, I think that with few exceptions the female vocalists best portray the sensuous side of Brazilian music. The Teresa Cristina offering, “Para Nao Contrariar Voce”, with her three piece band Grupo Semente, is a good example. Originally a manicurist and cosmetic salesperson, Teresa broke onto the Rio club scene at the age of twenty-six and never looked back. The song selected is one from the legendary samba singer/composer Paulinho Da Viola, a great choice, as the torch is passed to the next generation of Brazilian torch singers. Another great cut on this disc is the live track of “Feliz e Triste” by Ceumar, whose father was a well-known Brazilian singer, too. Ceumar’s pristine voice shines through on this acoustic bossa nova number.
     Rosa Passo’s contribution “Pequena Musica Nocturna” is another standout. Passos is also from a musical family and has performed with Yo Yo Ma, Ron Carter and Paquito D’Rivera, to name a few artists. In addition, Marcia Salomon contributes her rendition of “Quando o Carnaval Chegar”, by famed singer composer Chico Baurque, with her own stamp of style on the song. My personal favorite project on the disc is “Arranco de Varsovia” by the Brazilian samba band Forca da Imaginacao, formed by pianist Arranco de Varsovia. The band specializes in updating classic samba songs while putting their own spin on them at the same time. It’s a statement about the all-encompassing modernization and face lifts currently going on throughout Brazil, in lieu of hosting the upcoming World Cup there.
     All the Brazilian music on the Putumayo label that has been mentioned in this article can be purchased at the Jaime Peligro book stores in Playa Tamarindo, Nuevo Arenal and Quepos, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers. All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Best of What We Are

Best of What We Are

     More than one hundred thousand Nicaraguans died in the last years of the Somoza regime and during the U.S. sponsored war with the Contras, more than three percent of that countries entire population. It is a sobering statistic.
     John Brentilinger is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the author of “Villa Sin Miedo”, a book about a squatters’ village in Puerto Rico. He then published his second work, “The Best of What We Are”, chronicling his time spent in Nicaragua from 1983 to 1990, during Sandinista control there after they toppled the Samoza regime and won an open election. In his seven extended visits to Nicaragua, Brentilinger lived with families in Managua, the capital city, and in Leon, near the Honduran border. He lived in their houses, ate with them, participated in demonstrations, attended funerals, visited co-op farms and schools, community clinics, hospitals and cultural centers as well. He openly sided with the Sandinistas and was initially surprised by their candor and friendliness but quickly warmed to their ways. He was constantly assured by the people of Nicaragua that they have compassion for the people of the United States and it is only the political policies of that country that they take issue with.
      An interesting twist in the division of politics in Nicaragua is the way it seeped into Catholicism there. Of the clergy, about half the priests sided with the Sandinistas and the other half backed the Contras. Every single bishop, however, sided with the more affluent, U.S. backed Contras, a statement in itself.
     One section is of the book is divided into journals the author kept during his stays in the small villages of Condega, Las Colinas, Yali’ and Matagalpa and the capital of Managua. It lends to the personal, human aspect of the writings and the author’s simpatico. Equally impressive is the number of norteamericanos he encounters who are volunteering their time as teachers, nurses, doctors and technicians to aid this struggling cause. Another interesting aspect of the Sandinista movement was the elevation of the status of women, as reported by Brentilinger in his book. They assumed roles in the uprising that had been exclusively filled by men prior to that: everything from fighting in the fields to positions of authority and this had an effect of also liberating them in the social aspects of everyday life as well.
     John’s interviews are sobering, to say the least. It quickly becomes apparent that every single person in each of these small towns has at least one direct family member who has been killed by the Contras, and in many cases several loved ones. One of the most chilling was Maria Mendoza in Condega, whose husband was brutally executed when she was eight months pregnant with their second child.
     The participation by the U.S. in funding the Contra rebellion along with the import and export embargos placed against Nicaragua is evident everywhere. For example, there is a plethora of farming machinery and automobiles sold during the Samoza regime that can no longer be repaired be repaired and medical supplies are at a premium.
     What shines through in this account is the strength and sense of pride of the Nicaraguan people, something that can never be bought or revoked. All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mr. Peters - King of Brukdown

Boom and Chime of Mr. Peters

   Wilfred Peters began playing the accordion at the age of seven, instructed by his father, as they toiled in a logging camp near the Suburn River in Belize. The music was based in Creole, Jamaican Mento and Calypso, syncopated rhythms, and the Afrikaner style of phrase and response, refined through generations in the Mahogany camps. “We didn’t have radio back then,” Peters has joked. In fact, very much like Caribbean Calypso and Guanacaste folk music, Belizean Creole is a form of music with a lot of wit, as well as being a way to spread news and gossip.

A Young Wilfred
   In 1970, Mr. Peters was making five dollars a day as a construction worker in Belize City. He decided to form a trio and start playing at night in the clubs there. Within a short amount of time, The Mahogany Chips were performing for five dollars a show. They quickly changed their name to Mr. Peters and his Boom & Chime, a name used for a local percussion instrument that is struck on one side with a wooden mallet (the boom side), and the other (the chime side) with a drum sack. Many regional musicians, in fact, prefer playing “found” instruments, such as the jawbone of an ass or conch shells. The music has been dubbed “Brukown” and Wilfred Peters has been proclaimed its king. After sixty years of playing this Belizean music, Mr. Peters was recruited to record a CD with Stonetree Records, the quintessential recording company in Belize. The result is a continuous frolic through eleven Peter’s original songs, along with two traditional tunes, titled, “Weh Mi Lova Deh”.

    I asked Ivan Duran, Stonetree’s founder and president, what he remembered about recording the band for this disc. “A lot of fun recording them. And lots of rum,” he joked. “They never liked repeating songs more than a couple times. It kept the music fresh.” The band consists of Mr. Peters on vocals, accordion and banjo, Mr. Lenox Blades on electric guitar and backing vocals, with Mr. Egbert Beltran on jaw bone as well as backing vocals. Wilfred’s son, Mr. Wilfred Peters, Jr., plays the boom drum and ding-a-ling, while Mr. Francis “Swapy” Lewis is on the tumbas, known to the rest of us as congas. And that’s Mr. John Matura on the steady bass. The songs alternate between the Afrikaner/Mento styles of singing a line, with chorus refrain, such as the first song, “Llebam Bokotora”. Other songs follow the storyteller theme, such as “Man Wid No Uman” (Man with no Woman). There is definitely a barroom, zydeco influence in the music as well, something that encourages the listener to hoist another one and continue with the good times.

   In 1997, Wilfred Peters performed for Queen Elizabeth when she awarded him with an MBE for cultural contributions. He has toured Mexico, Spain, France, and North America. He was awarded the Meritorious Medal by the Governor General of Belize in 2005. And now, The King of Brukdown, Mr. Peters and his Boom & Chime have graced us with a CD of his recordings, allowing us all to participate in his legacy. Wilfred Peters passed away last month and to commemorate his legacy, Stonetree has reissued the CD, which is available at the Jaime Peligro book stores in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Nuevo Arenal.All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Crazy From the Heat

Crazy From the Heat

     Writing humor is a cruel, nasty and thankless endeavor more times than not. Trust me because I have tried. Telling a humorous story in person to a group of people is completely different because the speaker can control the pace, the cadence, the intonation and eventually, the punch line. Writing these same words onto a page, handing it to a complete stranger, walking away and allowing the writing to convey humor on its own takes a leap of faith and a unique storytelling talent for the humorist to succeed. And Matt Casseday has pulled it off.
     Sr. Casseday is a fifty-something ex-pat who has been calling Costa Rica home for more than two decades. He has been living in the Quepos area for about half that time and writing columns for Quepolandia, the local monthly magazine there, for more than five years. He recently culled through his collection of articles, selecting fifty-four of them to compile into a publication of his own, titled Crazy From the Heat. I think the operative word in that title is the first one, and I mean that in a good way. Matt takes a wry look at the trials and tribulations of living within another culture, specifically, being a “gringo in Ticolandia”, as he calls it. Sr. Casseday has lived and worked in a few different locales as well as owned a car and a business in Costa Rica, is married with a Costa Rican woman, and in short, has easily garnered enough material for his book with first-hand experience.
     I’ve lived in Costa Rica for nearly eight years now and I could recognize myself and relate to many of the situations he describes in his stories. At times I found myself literally laughing out loud at some of Matt’s stories. His use of tongue-in-cheek and dry observational humor hooked me in more than once or twice. Certainly, not all the stories tickled my funny bone to the same degree. Humor is an individual taste. But I really enjoyed his piece titled “Gringos in Paradise” which describes four classic ex-pat caricatures. Despite the disclaimer, I swore I had really met each of these exaggerated personalities. I also laughed heartily at his article about the lack of political correctness embraced by the local gentry.
     Matt Casseday could certainly never be labeled discriminatory; to the contrary, he appears to be more than willing to take a jab at everyone and anyone in this country (including himself) with equal verve. And it is this quality that for me lends to his credibility. The popular knock on satiric literature is that it lampoons the folly of existing situations without offering any viable solutions. I beg to differ. I think Matt has demonstrated a perfectly logical way to navigate contentedly through an illogical and at times frustrating scenario: with humor, and yes, compassion, the all-purpose salves to soothe your emotional wounds. Hey, maybe this gringo isn’t so crazy after all!

     Crazy From the Heat is available at the Jaime Peligro book shops in Quepos, Playa Tamarindo and Nuevo Arenal.All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Pachanga Kids: A Colorful Route to Becoming Bilingual

A Colorful Route
To Becoming Bilingual

     Learning a second language at an early age is a treasure and a tool that lasts a lifetime and opens many doors. Children are naturally inquisitive and absorbent to new information. They are also attracted to visual stimulation and learning hand-eye coordination. It is no surprise, then that Pachanga Kids has become so successful. Their line of bilingual children’s books are wonderful, beautiful learning tools that also deliver inspiring messages for the kids, and perhaps the children’s parents as well. For example, when a school of fish in “El Mar Azucarado” decides the ocean is too salty and they want to sweeten it with sugar, the idea is voted upon by all the fish so that the popular decision is made. Likewise, in “El Mono Paparazzi”, when a monkey in the neighborhood finds a camera in the jungle and starts photographing his neighbors, he learns a valuable lesson about respecting other people’s privacy. 

      Always on the lookout for new ways to present their ideas, Pachanga Kids has now unveiled Pintacuentos (literally “stories to paint”), a collection of children’s bilingual coloring books that are based on their hardback stories. Besides “El Mono Paparazzi”, they are offering “La Danta Amaranta”, the story about of a mother tapir and Amaranta, her young daughter who has the magical ability to change the color of the surrounding landscape. The new books enable the children to participate by drawing and coloring, while learning the names of objects in another language. And who else uses a tapir as a main character? Pachanga Kids has also taken on the mission of schooling the next generation about the not-so-common sites in Costa Rica, to heighten the children’s awareness about the ecosystem and biodiversity, without using those “boring” terms. “The Sweetened Sea” is the third book in this first series and it is an activity book that includes not only coloring, but stickers, mazes and other activities as well. Each of the three books, geared toward children three years of age and older, comes with twelve “ecologically colored” pencils and is composed of twenty-four pages, with illustrations by the notable San Jose painter/printmaker Maria Salas and painter/designer Priscilla Aguirre, illustrating the stories told by writers such as the poet Eliot Greenspan and famed author/collaborator Yazmin Ross. 

 The goal of Pachanga Kids appears to be to help create well-rounded children, exposing them to science, art, music, literature social skills, and let’s not forget learning a second language on that impressive list. Everything Pachanga does is top-drawer and this new Pintacuentos line of learning and play books is no exception. Ms. Ross has true vision and exceptional organizational skills. Team Pintacuentos are no strangers to each other, having worked together with Pachanga Kids and/or Papaya Music, which Yazmin Ross helped to create.
     Pintacuentos products are made in Costa Rica, offered at an affordable price and, along with the Pachanga Kids line, are readily available in Libreria Internacional, Café Britt and Wallmart stores throughout the country. In Playa Tamarindo, they are available at Jaime Peligro book store.  All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Jaime Gamboa and His New Costellation

Jaime Gamboa and His New Constellation

     The Guanacastecan band called Malpais is currently the most popular musical group in Costa Rica, and for a good reason: they are loaded with diversely talented musicians and there songs are contagious. A large majority of the band’s songs are written and sung by the guitarist Jaime Gamboa, who founded Malpais a decade ago with his brother Fidel, who plays bass guitar for the group. Early in the band’s history, they caught the attention of one of the founders of Papaya Music, the pianist Manuel Obregon, who now also plays in Malpais. Like Obregon, Jaime Gamboa likes to create new music that at times pays tribute to his musical roots. And like Obregon, Gamboa is also something of a music historian with a personal ambition to preserve in recordings some of the folkloric and regional music and musicians who are quickly fading into an irretrievable past. This interwoven combination of influence and motivation is what I consider being truly “true to your school”.
     A result of this combination of aspirations is that Jaime Gamboa is a many-faceted person. He has been involved in Tierra Seca with his uncle, Max Goldemberg. He was instrumental in recording Al Pie del Balcon, an album of traditional Guanacastecan love songs. He has written books for young readers, books of poetry and participates in La Orquestra Esporadico. Whew! The word “prolific” comes to mind, but I don’t think that one phrase says enough.
     Sr. Gamboa’s new venture has the appearance of a new horizon for him, a multi-media project that includes literature, music and the use of the internet. The physical part of this new project, the CD and book of short stories, come packaged together. The album is titled La Cancion de Adan and features Jaime at times solo, accompanied Malpais on other occasions and simply brother Fidel and Uncle Max on others. But this is not by any stretch of the imagination a continuation of Malpais or Tierra Seca; to the contrary, I believe it is the continuation of the vision or dreams of Jaime, at times with his friends along for the ride. The songs are a collection of “traditional” and original scores, but the entire project takes on the look of an invented character and universe, so I suspect all the songs are actually Jaime’s. The photography and graphic design by Luciano Capelli are impeccable in displaying the overall ethereal mood of the project.
     The collection of short stories, titled “La Orquestra Imposible” is other-worldly as well, in its own style, with stories about Jonas and the songs of Adam, characters who straddle the line between history and fiction. This work is divided into two parts, seven vignettes in total. I think it demonstrates Gamboa’s versatility (he’s a musician by trade, after all) and his full embrace of his vision. Jaime Gamboa is methodically becoming a spokesperson for his country and his generation.
     The new CD/book collection and all Papaya CDs are available at the Jaime Peligro book stores in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos, and Tilaran, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers.All comments concerning thihs article are welcome.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Evolution of Perrozompopo

                          The Evolution of Perrozompopo

     Charles Darwin had it right: the strong survive and adapt to their ever-changing surroundings while the weak ones become mere memories. And the Darwin Theory can be witnessed in action in Managua, Nicaragua with the rock star Perrozompopo. Even the stage name he chose is indicative of his tenacity. Loosely translated, perrozompopo is a colloqialism for "street smart" but the nickname was actually first given to a species of gecko who stowed onboard in crates of goods coming from Cuba to aid the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua in the 1970s. These non-indigenous lizards, easily identified by the red marking on their foreheads, quickly took over, running out all the local geckos, and a nickname was born.

     Now, in the Twenty-first Century, the musician Perrozompopo (aka Ramon Mejia) has delivered another classic example of evolution. His first album, "Romper el Silencio" established his voice and style as a rocker with a message. The music is straight-forward Rock and the lyrics are about being politically and socially active in working toward beneficial change. The album caught the attention of Papaya Music, Costa Rica's major music label, who signed on to distribute the disc. The second Perrozompopo CD, "Quiero Que Sepas" took on a varied look from the first. The lyrics kept his initial theme, concentrating on the plight of Central American women. For half of his new songs, he continued to employ his Nicaraguan urban rock band to accompany him. For the other half, Papaya brought him into their San Jose recording studios and surrounded him with talented, successful Costa Rican musicians, including members of the popular band Malpais and the three-time Grammy winners Editus. Another subtle change was printing the liner notes and lyrics in English as well as Spanish. The result was a more marketable, palatable product that allowed for a wider audience, further enhancing the evolution.
The new Perrozompopo album, "Canciones Populares Contestatarias" sees the artist reunited with his Managuan band, including new lead guitarist, Federico Miranda, who adds a little more punch and distinctive style than his predecessor. This entire album was recorded in Nicaragua and was funded by the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation for Development, another feather in the cap of the street-wise survivor, who is rapidly being portrayed as the voice of a Nicaraguan generation. The twelve song disc kicks off with "9 Dias", a song written a year ago about the trials and tribulations of living in a poverty-stricken country. In fact, four of the songs were written more than a year ago, as if the author was waiting for the right time to release them. Other standouts include "Cancion Toxica", "Mirando al Sur" and the final cut, "Angel del Cielo", a beautiful ballad and fitting close to the album. Perrozompopo seems more comfortable in his own urban setting, no matter how volatile it might be, since this is what the theme for the bulk of his songs is. And he always seems bent on positive change, and survival. Darwin (and Sandino) would be proud of him

     All of Perrozompopo's CDs are available at the Jaime Peligro bookstores in Playa Tamarindo, Tilaran and Quepos, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers. All comments concerning this areticle are welcome.          

Friday, May 7, 2010

Manuel Monestel: Songs of a One-Pant Man

Songs of a One Pant Man

   Manuel Monestel is a modern-day troubadour, in the truest sense of the word.  He travels up and down the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, at times venturing into Panama, to sing his songs and participate in adventures, some of which are destined to become new chapters to his ever-expanding repertoire. On his initial CD, One Pant Man, Monestel borrows the title track from his long-time buddy and fellow Calypsonian, Walter Ferguson, aka Dr. Bombadee, so it comes as no surprise that they both record for Papaya Music.

   Monestel recorded two of Ferguson’s songs for this disc, as well as one from Herbrth Glinton, another Calypso singer/songwriter from the Costa Rica Caribbean area. The remaining tunes are all original compositions. Through the songs, he leads the listener along his journeys in search of “the secret connection between Calypso and the blues”. Manuel is part of a new generation of regional Coats Rica music and musicians, finding their collective niche and paying homage to a revitalized tradition.

   So, when you thinking of modern Calypso, don’t think of Harry Belafonte…On the song “Next Creation”, for example, Monestel sings about wanting to be a dog, and specifically, anything but a human being, in his next incarnation. And on the title cut, “One Pant Man”, the singer finds himself with a woman much younger than himself, who accuses him of being so poor that he possesses just a single pair of pants.

The Travelling Calypsonian
   Manuel Monestel covers the three songs of his friends in English. His original material is sung in Spanish, in his clear, sweet voice. He accompanies himself with clean picking on his acoustic guitar. In this sense, Monestel is something of a folk singer as well. In the song, “Costarriquica”, he peers into his country’s diverse potential future, venturing into political and social topics on one hand and equally comfortable singing beautiful romantic songs about the people and places he loves in Costa Rica. “Arrecife de Coral”, in particular, has Monestel’s brand stamped on it. The song is about a dream the songwriter has – a coral reef filled with warm water and marine wildlife. The warm waves wash the soul and coconut trees on the beach sway and dance in Calypso rhythm. The wind whistles a melody and congos call a harmony, while the Cahuita sky entices a sleepy tan. The tropical forest is in good company, so full of life. And the world rotates, with luck, enough to share for everyone. Sr. Monestel then sings in his native Spanish about how difficult it is to awaken from this dream and witness the “Occidental Powers” ruining this idyllic scene.

   The CD was produced by Manuel Obregon, who also plays piano on a few of the songs. The complimentary artwork on the CD jacket, insert and booklet is by Senora Pricilla. The disc opens a new chapter in Costa Rica folk music, bridging a generation, in true Papaya Music tradition. His CDs are available at Jaime Peligro book store in Playa Tamarindo.All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Manuel Obregon: Estampas de Abril y Mayo

Estampas de Abril y Mayo
     Manuel Obregon is an incredible pianist and an incorrigible musicologist who has definitely found his calling in life and is now reveling in it. Even before he helped form the Central American music label Papaya Music, he showed signs of his calling when he became enamored by the music of Paraguayan guitarist Augustin Barrios Mangore’ and transcribed and interpreted the compositions to piano. Along with being a member of Malpais, arguably the most popular band in Costa Rica, playing original tunes in a new style I have dubbed “modern folkloric”, Obregon also commandeers the Orquesta de Papaya, a culmination of musicians and musical styles from all of Central America. His last recorded project, “Piano Malango” was a unique presentation of instrumental interpretations, meandering down the river of historic and famous Costa Rican, Nicaraguan and Panamanian songs.
     For his latest album, Manuel Obregon has ventured down a new tributary of that river, along with singer Aurelia Trejos, a fellow music historian, who has recorded and performed in the past with famed guitarist Dionisio Cabal as well as the group Cantares. Aurelia is an accomplished and recognized actress as well, hosting two popular television and radio shows in Costa Rica, “Somos Como Somos” and “Aurelia, Cancion y Pueblo”. The new album, titled “Estampas de Abril y Mayo” is a compilation of songs from the past two centuries, unearthed by Aurelia over a thirty year span, a collection of “campesino songs”, traditional tunes from the working class, mostly agricultural from the Central Valley of Costa Rica. It was recorded in the Papaya studio in Alajuela last February as a live duet and that interplay is conveyed in the warmth and intimacy that comes across in the music. And yes, that means it is simply piano and voice, which Ms. Trejos delivers in a lower register, giving the songs a somber, sepia-tone effect.
     The title track, “Estampas de Abril y Mayo” captures the theme of the entire album: the passage of summer to winter, when the rains begin along with a kind of rebirth of the cycle of life, something celebrated in agricultural zones throughout the world. This collection of thirteen songs also captures and preserves a part of Costa Rican culture that is rapidly fading and I perceive this as one of Papaya Music’s and Manuel Obregon’s goals. From the Caribbean, the Calypso Legends and Walter Ferguson albums, from Guanacaste, the Tierra Seca album, along with the aforementioned Piano Malango all attest to this, let alone the Ray Tico CD, whose title says it all: “Solo Para Recordar”.
     The piano work on “Abril y Mayo” is playful and lilting, a delight to listen to. The interplay with Aurelia’s delivery is romantic in the true sense of the word. Whether the song is about hummingbirds, a typical meal, a rose, a river or an oxcart, this duo’s passion is at the forefront, distilling the sentiment of the song, to be enjoyed and appreciated by all its new listeners. As always, the packaging by Papaya is first-rate. The case is a double gatefold with a nice collection of Luciano Capelli photos and a booklet with lyrics and a description of each song.
     Estampas de Abril y Mayo is available the Jaime Peligro bookstores in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Tilaran, where they will sample the music for their customers.All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Jose Humberto Rodriguez Seas: The Arrow and the Sword

New Direction for the Arrows and Swords

     Jose Humberto Rodriguez Seas is an educated man. A graduate of the University of Autonomy in Guadalajara, Mexico, he went on to receive his post-graduate degree in medicine at the University of Miami. He headed the medical section of the University of Costa Rica and was the vice-consul of Costa Rica in Guadalajara. And these are just a few of his credentials. But besides being an educator, Sr. Seas is also a man of passions, including writing. He has recently written a book, “La Flecha y la Espada”, about another of his passions, an accurate portrayal of the treatment of the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica by the Europeans who first arrived in The Americas. Using no less than twenty-three reference books, Jose Humberto has succeeded in presenting a scholarly text that is very readable for the casual reader. I have studied the Mayan civilization for more than two decades and read books such as “1491” so I have a good base of understanding of the subject matter but I still found the book full of interesting material and I think the flow of the book, along with its “voice” lend to its success.
      The book is also full of facts and viewpoints. I did not know that Ponce de Leon, for example, discovered the Gulf of Nicoya or that the country of Panama was originally called Tierra Firme, or the history behind the naming of Cartago. I also had no idea that there was such an early faction of Austrians and Portuguese here.
     The real insight in the book, however, is the view of the author: pointing out that very few of the indispensible native guides were even named in any of the diaries or letters of the explorer/conquistadors. Equally revealing come in particulars like the Catholic priest Estrada Ravago dubbing himself the “apostle warrior”, a mouthful in just two words. But these were the guys who would read their proclamations to the Americans that they were now under Spanish rule in Latin or Spanish to indigenous people who did not understand either language, and usually read them from a safe, peripheral distance from the villages, or even from their boats before disembarking. The indigenous people here were ready and even happy to embrace a new god, the one the missionaries were toting on a cross, but were also perplexed as to why the priests showed no interest whatsoever in their gods. Make no mistake; Sr. Seas is ready to point out that not all the indigenous peoples were pacifists. The Couto tribe, for example, lived in heavily fortified pueblos, with the decapitated heads of their nemeses on proud display, certainly a barbaric, albeit effective, practice by Euro-standards.
     The hunger for power and more importantly, control of the mythical gold cities prove to be one of the strong driving points among the conquistadores, so it comes as no surprise that the Spaniards were fighting among themselves at least as much as they were defending themselves from ‘the locals’, who at times were more than willing to relocate to more desolate sites rather than deal with the Europeans.
     Sr. Seas’ passion for writing shines through especially in his great scenery and nature passages, as the landscapes come to life through his written words, granting the reader a glimpse at some of the first Costa Rican travelogues, a wonderful glimpse of Costa Rica during the Sixteenth Century.
      La Flecha y la Espada is available in Playa Tamarindo at Jaime Peligro Book Store.All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Monday, April 5, 2010

New World Music Box from Papaya Music

New World Music Box

     It’s a funny thing about music: it does not recognize the imaginary boundaries men have drawn on maps or in the ground. Put simply: music transcends borders.  It travels into the ear of its listeners then, hopefully, into their hearts as well, no matter where they live. And music does not need a passport to accomplish this. That is part of the appeal of World Music for aficionados from anywhere on the globe. We have had a plethora of Euro café discs, Middle Eastern lounge CDs and Indonesian trip-hop fusion albums while, regretfully, Central American music has been nearly unheard during this wave of international awareness. Until now. A joint venture by the four most popular and progressive recording labels in this part of the world has begun to fill that void with the release of La Caja de Musica Centroamericana, the Central American Music Box.
     This compilation of sixteen songs showcases musical styles that ignore the borders of places we call Nicaragua, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica. The Garifuna music represented here from Ivan Duran’s Stonetree label from Belize is a good example. The Garifuna culture was spawned nearly four centuries ago when survivors from two sinking slave ships began cohabitating with the indigenous Carib tribes, including the Arawaks on the islands of Saint Vincent (in the Lesser Antilles), Dominica and Santa Lucia, as well as with other escaped African slaves. Later, under British domain, they were relocated to the Honduran island of Roatan and from there they migrated to the surrounding countries in Central America. The resulting music is unique, mesmerizing, and anything but Latin.
     Then there is Perrozompopo, a rock singer from Managua, Nicaragua, who records with Costa Rica’s premier label, Papaya Music. It’s a nice touch on this historic album to have Manuel Monestel with his calypso band Cantoamerica sing “Calaloo”, a song written by his mentor, the legendary Walter Ferguson and the contribution by the Calypso Limon Legends. This style of music has certainly travelled outside the Caribbean coastline and contributed to the creation of other musical styles, including reggae. The Moka Discos label from Nicaragua is represented by the fabled Duo Guardabarranco, along with Moises Gadea, internationally acclaimed Clara Grun and Katia Cardenal, the label’s founder. And the ethereal voice and variety of musical styles of Guillermo Anderson who co-founded the Honduran label Costa Norte with Max Urso is testament to the wide scope of rich culture here. Of course, no Central American compilation album would be complete without a song from the immensely popular Costa Rican band Malpais, and they are here, along with a solo piece from their pianist Manuel Obregon, one of the founders of Papaya Music. One of my favorites is Belizean Leroy Young, discovered by Ivan Duran doing his thing while washing cars in Belize City. He went into the studio and recorded his infectious art and now he’s a dub poet.
     I have to admit that when I moved here nearly eight years ago, I had no idea of the wealth, diversity and depth of Central American music. This collaboration between the four major labels, under the name The Central American World Music Network, has done an excellent job of offering a sample of the broad scope of culture that lies within these imaginary boundaries.
     I could not review this impressive new album without mentioning the artwork and overall production. In sharing the duties of production executive, Luciano Capelli from Papaya Music and the aforementioned Ivan Duran of Stonetree Records, along with Sylvie Duran from Costa Rica, who was instrumental in getting the key players together at the World Music Expo (WOMEX) last year in Copenhagen, have collectively done an incredible job putting this coalition of diverse talent together; Priscilla Aguirre from LaCabeza Estudio and Paula Cruz from Papaya have done a first class job in packaging and presentation, complete with classic Central American watercolor artwork and a bilingual booklet, with text by Yazmin Ross.
     I have a feeling that this project is just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, each of these four labels has an abundance of talent that could easily make this album the first of a series. As they say in the business: “It’s a monster!” Already, I can’t wait to hear the songs playing on Central American Music Box II. This new CD is availableat all three Jaime Peligro book stores in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Tilaran, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers.
     All comments concerning this article are welcome. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Leatherbacks Hatch Their Baby

Leatherbacks Hatch Their Baby!

     For centuries, the leatherback turtles have called Playa Tamarindo one of their nesting spots. And for more than a decade, so has the rock band known as The Leatherbacks. It’s hard to live in Tamarindo and not know who this band is. They have established themselves as a hard-working group, playing regularly at open mike night on Tuesday nights at Pasatiempo Hotel. Their exuberance onstage is infectious. It is obvious that these guys genuinely enjoy playing together and in paying their dues over the years, they have gotten very tight together.
     For the past few years, one of the band’s two guitarists, Canadian born Brian Burback, has been writing and recording songs for a solo album, a kind of side venture. Or so he believed. As it turned out, Brian was simply developing his contribution for the much-anticipated debut album by The Leatherbacks. I recently had a chance to listen to this collaboration and it’s very, very good. The first thing that struck me was that this album is truly a joint effort, with these guys’ experience and comfort with each other shining through. Brian likened it to different threads in a tapestry, and he was quick to point out that while the songs were written be him and Nick D’Amico, the other guitar player/vocalist in the band, that the end result was the woven cloth, not a group of strings. Of the nine original songs that comprise the album, five were written by Nick and four by Brian. But that is where the sole ownership ends. Just listening to percussionists Roy Fonseca and Jose Canales’ steady backbeats are true testament that these guys are five fingers of the hand known as The Leatherbacks. And holding up the steady bottom on each song is the able bassist, Pedro Golobios. 

     The album kicks off with “I Know”, a good intro song and segues into the rest of the album. The whole CD of songs operates well as a unit, with various standout songs. I think “Better Be Gone” has the catchiest, foot-tapping hooks. I asked Nick about his guitar influences and he acknowledged that Carlos Santana was on that list, along with Clapton, Hendrix, “and about a million others”. I asked both guitarists about songwriting and they both told me that while there was no single formula, usually the tune comes together first, with the words forming their way around the music.
     Deciding to simply title their first album “The Leatherbacks” is, I think, yet another indication of how these guys operate as a unit. The band plans on an early January release, so by the time you are reading this, the CD should be coming out soon. The entire album was recorded at Nick’s place, Casa Palmas, with the band doing all the recording, engineering and mastering themselves. “We had to get the sound straight from the amps to the soundboard,” Nick explained, “We wanted it to sound like a good live recording”. And it does. It’s got a good clean sound, without sounding like a sterile, digital recording.
     The band is planning to play live with the Costa Rica National Philharmonic in June. It’s a big opportunity for the band and a big challenge as well: one I think the boys are up for. Their CD is available at Jaime Peligro book store in Playa Tamarindo, where the customer can sample the music.All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Santa Esperanza

The Beautiful Country of Santa Esperanza

   There is an old adage in journalism that says, “Write about the things you know”. For music, I suppose they say, “Write songs about the things you know”. It sounds simple. But the hallways of the overpopulated literary and music worlds are littered with material written by people composing things they definitely don’t know about. In the industry, there is a technical name for these people: “Wannabes”.

   So, when I heard about a jazz band from Santa Cruz, I was both curious and skeptical. Jazz, after all, has traditionally been identified as an urban style of music. But this quartet more than proved their worth at the recent Tamarindo Jazz & Blues Festival, held at Ristorante La Laguna del Cocodrilo. At that show, they played more of a straight jazz set, because they can, and that is what was expected of them. The band is comprised of Jose’ Contreras on flute, saxophone and lead vocals, Pedro Golobios on Bass, Mauricio Vargas on piano, and Greivin Vallejos handling the percussion. I spoke with the band after their set and found out they have a self-produced CD which has just come out, titled “Lindo Mi Pais”. Listening to it the first time through, it was quickly obvious to me that these guys are apostles of Rule #1 in writing (see above). The songs are like a travel guide to Guanacaste. In fact, the first song on the disc, “Santa Cruz”, is demonstrative of the format for the whole disc. It is rife with local references of all things Guanacastecan. The terrain and divergent landscapes are constant reference points on the entire CD, as are the pueblos and townships of Filadelfia, Santa Cruz, Monteverde, Diria, and Tilaran. Even Liberia gets a mention or two.

   When I spoke with Pedro about this venture, he echoed a concept that is recurrent among modern day Costa Rican musicians. The trend throughout this country has been to preserve traditional, historic musical styles, presumably to keep them from fading into obscurity, while adding your own, contemporary signature to the style of songwriting. This has been anathema for Papaya Music, the biggest recording label in Costa Rica. The goal of Santa Esperanza is regionalized to Guanacaste, as they stay true to Rule #1. I mentioned to Pedro that the goal and style reminded me a little of the Tierra Seca CD, on the aforementioned Papaya label. His eyes lit up, as he asked me, “How do you know about Tierra Seca?” As it turns out, the bandmembers are friends and musical associates of Max Goldenberg, one of the two founders of Tierra Seca, a folkloric Guanacaste band, with a similar mission statement.

   So, “Lindo Mi Pais” is not what I would term a traditional jazz composition. The two instrumentals on the disc, “Malamba” and “Nosara”, certainly fall into this category. With their catchy saxophone hooks and refrains, they sound like something you might here late at night in a quiet bar anywhere in the world. The rest of the songs on the CD, all of them also originals by the band, are basically modern Guanacaste folklore, with Santa Esperanza’s own spin on it. In this case, beyond the traditional local music, the band has an at least jazz-influenced approach. There is a very comfortable feeling in the end result. And well there should be. They are playing music about the things they know.

   The Santa Esperanza CD, “Lindo Mi Pais” is available at Jaime Peligro book store in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Tilaran, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers. All comments concerning thhis article are welcome.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tierra Seca in Guanacaste

Tierra Seca in Guanacaste

   Max Goldemberg and Odilon Juarez were both born into musical families from the Guanacaste province in Costa Rica. They have been playing music together, trading songs, for most of their lives. For the sake of preserving some of the musical legacy of the area, they recorded a live set of their music with some of their musician friends and family and really didn’t think any more about it. It was the first time they have recorded any of their musical escapades. Some of the musicians in attendance went on to create the highly popular Costa Rican band Malpais, a staple with Papaya Music. Recently, Papaya uncovered this nugget and decided to dust it off and share it with a bigger audience.
   The result is titled Tierra Seca and it is a fifteen song, forty-seven minute affair of Guanacaste folklore, sounding as if they were recorded in front of an audience on someone’s patio. And it probably was. The two singers trade local songs that are as much a part of the tradition and landscape as the huge trees for which this area was named and the families who for countless generations have sat in the shade of these trees to share these very songs. They are a throwback to a time when Guanacaste was a part of Nicaragua, blended with Spanish Colonial times here and even a little pre-Colombian culture, all filtered through time and translated into the songs of town fairs, weddings, serenades and funerals.
Odilon Juarez
   Max Goldemberg is the son of a Russian immigrant father and a Costa Rican mother and Odilon Juarez is the oldest of twelve children of Guanacaste lineage. Both come from families of poets and teachers, guitarists and singers, historians and minstrels. Two of Odilon’s nephews are Fidel and Jaime Gamboa, the founders of the aforementioned Malpais, whose idea it was to present this traditional music, interpreted by a modern band for a new audience. In the booklet included with the CD, Jaime imparts a wonderful tale of the cross-section of musical history in Guanacaste, glomming every passing style until no format is singularly recognizable and a new, indigenous one is spawned. He also tells a great story about working with his uncle (Max) making cheese, while singing traditional songs and making up new ones, essentially becoming new threads in the living, woven fabric that is Guanacaste folklore.
  Jaime also gives a description of the storyline for each song that I will not try to reproduce here. Suffice to say that they are overtly allegoric and work on many levels. And that the music itself seems to have a life of its own: with five or six tempo changes per song, they are a veritable potpourri of every culture that has left an imprint on the area.
   Yazmin Ross and Luciano Capelli, two of the Papaya CEOs, worked on the production of the CD, while the third, Manuel Obregon, plays piano on the disc. It all lends to the homespun feel of the album that it deserves. The result is that Papaya has once again held up their end of the bargain by producing a recording that preserves past legacies while forging ahead with modern Costa Rican culture. Tierra Seca and all Papaya CDs are available at the Jaime Peligro book stores in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos, and Nuevo Arenal, where they will gladly sample the music for the customer. All comments concerning this article are welcome.


Osa On My Miind

Osa On My Mind

     It had never crossed my mind that one of the reasons that the Osa Peninsula has remained such pristine terrain is because its isolation has helped it to remain an entity. This geographical logic comes up early in the text of the stunning new book “Osa – Where the Rainforest Meets the Sea”, a successful collage of photographic art and insightful journalistic essays that portray this unique region in southwest Costa Rica like no publication that has preceded it. In fact, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard Professor Emeritus Edward O. Wilson proclaimed the work, “the best way to experience (Osa) short of going there.” High accolades, indeed. 

     The two hundred twenty pages are separated into eleven sections with a forward by internationally renowned biologist, conservationist and nature writer Adrian Forsyth, certainly lending more credence to this two-man project by highly acclaimed nature photographer Roy Toft and writer Trond Larsen. Toft’s work has been featured in National Geographic, Smithsonian, Audubon and Discover Magazine, to name a few. He has been traveling to the Osa Peninsula for more than twenty years. His partner in this book, biologist/conservationist Trond Larsen received his PhD from Princeton and has been conducting scientific research on the Osa for more than a decade, has established a new biological station there and is currently a research fellow with the World Wildlife Federation and the Smithsonian Institute. These are all lovely credentials but honestly, the book speaks for itself and in ways that make the resumes seem inconsequential: it is a masterpiece. The scenery photos are spectacular and the writing is truly heartfelt. And I think it is the wildlife photographs that help to put this project head and shoulders above all others along with the obvious emotion, the care that went into the entire presentation. Trond told me that it took him nearly two years to find time away from his research biologist job to put together his half of the project and that Toft’s photos in the book are a cross section of literally thousands of shots he has taken in the Osa over the past decade or more.

     More than fifty years ago, botanist Paul Allen wrote of the Osa that “it is difficult to believe that anyone could view these forests without emotion”. That sentiment emanates from every page of this publication. The staggering wealth of bio-diversity and life there is portrayed both in images and the written word, along with the sense of the delicate balance, the micro-environments and unique situation that exists at Osa. The inter-relationships, dependences, not unlike a woven fabric, are astounding. Trond Larsen has done a highly commendable job of making this information palatable to a lay person, such as me, for example. I have to say that reading the text in this book also has a certain sobering effect, an immediate diminishing of human ego.
Map of the Osa Peninsula
     The division of information into chapters is also subtly yet well calculated, beginning with a nice overview and history of the peninsula. Four of the chapters are dedicated to the different animal groups in the area: mammals, arthropods, reptiles and amphibians, and birds. Another chapter focuses strictly on the flora, while three other chapters each are immersed in a particular ecosystem: watersheds, the rainforest intersecting with the ocean, and the Golfo Dulce. The final chapter, “The Human Animal”, looks at how we have and will fit into the history of this unique area. The book also dedicates, not surprisingly, one chapter to the importance of conservation. Personally, I think the whole book does a good job of reminding us about this essential topic.
     It is important to note that a portion of each sale of this book is donated directly to conservation projects on the Osa Peninsula. The book is available at all three Jaime Peligro book shops in Playa Tamarindo, Tilaran and Quepos, where the customer can view a sample copy of “Osa – Where the Rainforest Meets the Sea”.
     All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.