Sunday, February 27, 2011

New Reggae Night in Costa Rica

New Reggae Night in Costa Rica

     Reggae music has become a global phenomenon. Cast into public awareness forty years ago by musicians like Johnny Nash and Bob Marley, the music remains Caribbean in temperament.
     In 1995, the young Costa Rican label Papaya Music released “Costa Rica Reggae Night”, an excellent compilation of Reggae music from this country. This collection of thirteen songs from well known Costa Rican bands serves as a history of notable local reggae bands. The album has been a monster, selling over fifteen thousand copies in fifteen years, a remarkable feat for an independent Central American label.
     Papaya has decided to release a second album in this vein, appropriately titled “Costa Rica Reggae Night 2”. It is a logical follow-up to the first CD and picks up where it left off, with some new conceptual twists. Many of the songs were recorded October and November last year; this new disc is an excellent showcase of current Costa Rican bands and how Reggae has been embraced globally and woven into other musical fabric, including ska, electronica, cumbia, dub, even punk, along with conventional Latin rhythms. 
     The album opens with “Danger” by the Kingo Lovers, a popular band from San Jose who has amassed a large fan base during their four years together. The second song is “A Queen Is” by Unity, formed by Sergio Camacho, a veteran in the Costa Rican Reggae scene. His original band, Native Culture, appeared on the first Reggae Night compilation. Other notable groups include Huba & Silica, performing “Rockin’” from their  “El Origin de las Especies” CD and Sulalakaska (which means “paradise” in the indigenous bri-bri) doing “Ayer Triste Hoy Feliz” from their album “Mummy Fingers”, blending ska, punk, cumbia and meringue into their reggae stew for their own unique sound.
     Another impressive band on this compilation is Moonlight & Huba, who mix reggae dub with electronica and an environmental message. Very Twenty-First Century. Appropriately, their song is titled “Global Warming”. The band was founded by bassist Gabo Davila, from the popular band Mekatelyu, also featured on the first Reggae Nights CD. Moonlight has recorded two CDs, “Biodub” in 2009, and the new disc “Se Caliente”, released in February 2011.                 The hard-driving sound of “Positvity”, from the CD “Elevarse” by the popular San Jose band Cocofunka is a nice selection for a closing song. But somebody needs to call a doctor: these guys have Rock & Roll fever!
      The standout performance is “Contracorriente” by Lucho Calavera y La Canalla from their new debut CD “Ni Pa Que Te Quento”, which took a full year to make. The eight piece band is known for their lively stage shows and an earnest attention to detail in the studio, a rare combination. As Lucho explained, “We play what we know: Costa Rican and Central American rhythms, rumba flamenco, meringue, funk, even cha cha cha!” The potpourri has drawn a lot of attention, including by Papaya Music, who are interested in distributing the new CD for the band.
     In all, twelve bands appear on the album, produced by the husband/wife team Yazmin Ross and Luciano Capelli, two of the founders of Papaya Music. The result is a great barometer of the breadth Costa Rican reggae has reached, revealing new talent and the evolution of popular local musicians. Costa Rica Reggae Night 2 has the propensity to succeed beyond its predecessor. It’s a great addition to anyone’s collection. It is available at the Jaime Peligro book stores in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Nuevo Arenal.All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Guillermo Anderson: A Musician for All Seasons

A Musician for All Seasons

     Honduran musician Guillermo Anderson recently released his ninth CD, “Del Tiempo y del Tropico”. Each of his CDs has its own distinctive flavor and direction. It’s hard to describe his music with a single, catch-all phrase. The term “versatile” falls short. I think a brief synopsis of each album demonstrates this point.

       His first CD, “Desde el Fondo del Mar” was recorded in Italy with his Afro-Caribbean band Ceiba, who play on all his non-solo efforts. The disc contains the song “En Mi Pais”, which has become a modern national anthem for Honduras.

     “Costa y Calor”, his second album, is an experimental album with the band, blending the popular Honduran coastal musical styles of Paranda and Punta into a new sound. It’s a good example of how Anderson takes chances, setting his career apart from the conventional.

     “Mujer Cancion, Cancion Mujer” was produced in association with the Honduras National Institute for Women. One humorous song, “Historia de Manuelito,” follows a day in the life of a man who has agreed to do the home chores and take care of the kids. The rest of the songs have women as the main character. “Haydee,” for example, is about a woman who washes clothes by hand during the day and is the Queen of Calypso by night. 

     “Para Los Chiquitos” gets so much airplay in Honduran schools that people who learn about Guillermo this way assume that he only records for children. The goal of this CD is to make children aware of rainforest species in danger of distinction.


  “El Tesoro Que Tenes” is dedicated to calling attention to La Mosquitia, a lesser known area of Honduras. Guillermo uses regional musical instruments from this zone, and employs musicians from the area to participate, at times singing in the region’s indigenous language. The production of this CD is in conjunction with Biosphere of Rio Platano.


       “Escarguitos Del Caribe” is a musical collection from the coastal regions of Honduras. The CD includes a video for the title song, depicting immigrant Hondurans longing for some home cooking. The song has been used as the opening and finale for four of the most popular television stations in Honduras.

      “Pobre Marinero” is an acoustic solo CD. The songs are stories about a variety people whose lives overlap with the author himself. An interesting concept, indeed. It is also a wonderful vehicle to demonstrate Anderson’s equally incredible voice and guitar picking. 

     Anderson’s newest album is the soundtrack to a book by photographer Hannes Walraffen, depicting historical Honduran sites. The album stands on its own, an eighty minute opus that visits the old banana railway, seaport bars and indigenous Garifuna towns.

    All these CDs are produced by the independent Honduran music label Costa Norte Records and Max Urso, president of the label and longtime friend of Guillermo. Recently, Papaya Records in Costa Rica felt a need to broaden Anderson’s audience by releasing the compilation “Llevarte Al Mar” including songs from each of the Honduran’s albums. All his CDs are available in Costa Rica exclusively at Jaime Peligro stores in Playa Tamarindo.  All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Walter Ferguson - A Living Legend

A Living Legend

     Walter Ferguson celebrated his ninetieth birthday on May 7. Three days later, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Central American Musicians (ACAM). It was well deserved. A storied Calypsonian, Walter Ferguson has witnessed his status being elevated into that rarified air of “Living Legend”. In the interim, he has inspired several generations of musicians. One of his most notable students is Manuel Monestel who, besides being a music historian and having a solo career, is the leader of the highly popular calypso band Cantoamerica.
     The essence of Calypso music is in its rhythm and its humor, not necessarily in that order. The seed of this musical style sprouted around Barbados, Trinidad and Ciudad Colon, Panama more than two centuries ago. It spread, literally by word of mouth, to other Caribbean ports, including Kingston, Jamaica, where it later spawned the nucleus of reggae music.
   Walter Ferguson is perhaps the last Calypsonian to learn his craft in this traditional, organic manner. Born in Guabito, Panama in 1919, he moved to Cahuita, Costa Rica at an early age with his father, Melsh, who was a cook for the Banana Company there. For years, Ferguson, or “Gavitt” as he is affectionately referred to by his wife and family, plied his trade with an old Martin guitar, creating songs and exchanging them with other wandering Calypso minstrels up and down the Caribbean coast of Central America. Walter even recorded “Calypso Caribbean: Costa Rica” a vinyl album of original songs in the early 1970s, which quickly slipped into obscurity along with its composer. Subsequently, he was known to travel with blank cassette tapes and a portable, battery-operated recorder and microphone. He would make up songs on the spot for travelling visitors and supply each purchaser with a one-of-a-kind tape. Oh, to have one of those cassettes now…
     In a sense, the travelling Calypsonian was like a news reporter. Their songs all deal with events and local characters that everyone in the Caribbean towns knows and can relate to. The difference is that the “news” was crafted into catchy songs, usually with a twist of humor to make it a little more palatable.
   With time, the legend of Walter Ferguson had garnered legs of mythic proportions. Finally, in 2003, he broke his recording silence of more than thirty years, agreeing to record a CD for Papaya Music, who had “discovered” him living in his family’s hotel in Cahuita. Papaya has an austere reputation for its integrity in capturing and preserving authentic Central American music. At the time of their initial contact, Ferguson agreed to the recordings, but explained to Manuel Obregon, the president of Papaya, that he was eighty-four years old and had no desire or intention to go to a recording studio in San Jose. So Papaya brought the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak: they packed up and transported their recording equipment to Ferguson’s beloved Cahuita, where they set up a makeshift studio in the family’s hotel.
     Mattresses, rugs and blankets were employed as soundproofing in one of the hotel rooms, to muffle the sounds of the local pet parrots and dogs, the passing buses and trucks on the streets. The result was titled “Babylon”, the first CD by one of Calypso’s forgotten kings. The disc is comprised of thirteen original tunes with only Ferguson accompanying himself on his old Martin, in a style he dubbed as “Porch Reggae”. “Babylon” portrays everyday life in the little Caribbean towns along Costa Rica’s southeastern shoreline, with characters passing along from one calypso number and into the next, like images in a comic strip. The first two pressing of the disc sold out in just a few months. “If you’re coming to interfere,” sings Ferguson, “I’m going to tear off your pants and your underwear”. Anyone who can rhyme “interfere” with “underwear” and get away with it is OK in my book.
   One year later, Walter Ferguson was revitalized. Once again, Papaya had to unplug all the refrigerators in a four block radius of the Ferguson Hotel in Cahuita (ostensibly, according to Manuel Obregon, to get the hum out of the wiring), quiet the pets and set up their hotel room/recording studio. For his second CD, titled “Dr. Bombodee,” Ferguson dusted off some of the songs he had nearly forgotten from his purported two hundred fifty song repertoire. One of those gems that needed very little polishing is “One Pant Man”, which Ferguson wrote after the young woman he was living with accused him of being so poor that he owned only a single pair of pants. Along with nine other original songs on the second disc, Walter also renders his version of “Old Lady” by Papa Houdini, whom Ferguson considers to be his mentor. He also pays homage to traditional Jamaican music with his rendition of “72 Weeds”, a song with a ridiculously funny list of local plants which, if recited correctly, will cure any illness.
   Walter Ferguson’s songs have an air of innocent pranks and jokes, a very healthy humor that some doctors might prescribe to their patients to forget all their own ills for a while. A perfect example is “Going to Bocas”, the first cut on Dr. Bombodee. “The young gal claim that she don’t want me no more,” laments Ferguson, “then I notice she start to dash me things out the door”. Well, I guess having your things “dashed out the door” is usually a good indication that you are no longer wanted…
     Papaya Music was clever enough to include in the two recordings some of Walter’s casual chat in between the songs, which definitely displays his endearing nature. I imagine being at these recording sessions must have been similar to finding Leadbelly or Mississippi Fred MacDowell playing on their front porches fifty years ago.
     After the recording of Dr. Bombodee, Ferguson informed Papaya that it would be his final recording. In my opinion, Walter Ferguson should be proclaimed a Costa Rican National Treasure.
     Both Walter Ferguson and all Papaya Music CDs are available at Jaime Peligro in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Tilaran, where they will gladly sample the music for the customers. All comments concerning this article are welcome.