Friday, August 12, 2011

Merry Woman Keeping Calypso Alive

Merry Woman Keeping Calypso Alive

     Manuel Monestel is a man of many occupations: singer, songwriter, notable music historian and above all, a Calypsonian. Besides recording and touring with his band Cantoamerica and sitting in with other musicians, Manuel also has a successful solo career. His newest solo offering is a ten song CD titled “Merry Woman”. While his first solo album, “One Pant Man” was strictly Manuel and his guitar, singing his own songs and those of his mentors, such as Walter Ferguson, the new album features his experimental band Frutos de Acki that he put together a few years ago with students from the University of Costa Rica. Manuel still tips his cap to Ferguson, with a new version of “Going to Bocas”. What makes this rendition unique is the lead banjo by Monestel in it. This entire new album feels like it is exploring new directions to take Calypso music (which is really the godfather of reggae). For example, the use of sitar by Fabrizio Barquero on the song “Especias” is certainly new turf. Manuel told me that in addition to releasing his new songs, one of the goals of the album is to experiment with stringed instruments like the aforementioned sitar, as well as an ancient Caribbean instrument called the Marimbula, played by Marco Naranjo, which is used on some of the tracks in place of the conventional bass guitar, both handled adroitly by Jose Daniel Martinez. This Afro-Caribbean instrument is basically a resonator box with attached tongues or keys at one end that are plucked. I also hear the banjo being showcased on the album, which really makes sense to me. Calypso developed during the shipping trade years in the Caribbean, with its northernmost port being New Orleans, where Stephen Foster and his music flourished. It is still not unusual to hear a Calypso singer break into “You Are My Sunshine” and it seems Manuel has brought that tie full circle by implementing the banjo in a number of songs on this new album. The female lead vocals by Marcela Membreno on “Madrugada” as well as her accompanying vocals on the other songs also gives a fresh, new sound to this disc. 

     The title Song, “Merry Woman” encapsulates a lot of what Calypso is about: rhythm, humor and dancing. Monestel produced and arranged the album and his song sequences are masterful. Opening the album with “Still Turning Around”, a finger-snapping salutation with banjo accompaniment, is the perfect hook to draw the listener in. Likewise, finishing the set with “Early Morning Rain” and “Habitante Eterno de la Tierra” is a fitting close to this wonderful collage of songs sung alternately in Spanish and English, in impeccable recognition to Calypso’s bilingual heritage. Other highlights on the album set include “The First Time I Saw Limon”, another song that features the banjo, and “Especias”, that reminds us of the widespread origins of Latin American culture and the mixtures involved in it.
     The overall result of Merry Woman is a new sound for Calypso, one somehow seeped in past traditions while stepping into new terrain. All comments about this article are gladly welcome.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hammock Beneath the Mangoes

Hammock Beneath the Mangoes

     As a North American, I admit that my exposure to Latin American authors prior to moving to Costa Rica was limited, at best. Yes, I’d read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges and Isabel Allende (I’d even had the pleasure of meeting this famed author a few times), but honestly, my knowledge of this expansive world of literature was sorely lacking. When I moved to Tamarindo eight years ago, I made it a point to start amending this void and it has since been my pleasure to discover the rich, poetic world of Latin literature.
     I recently found a copy of “A Hammock Beneath the Mangoes”, a compilation of short stories written by twenty-six Latino authors from eight different Latin American countries. It is a great way for any novice to gain an introduction to this extensive genre. The collection is organized into five geographic sections: Mexico, the Caribbean, Chile, and two more chapters covering the rest of South America. Prior to each story, there is a brief bio of each author.
     I was a little disappointed and more than a little surprised that the famed Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa had not been included. I’ve read a collection of his short stories and can think of more than one of these that could easily have been included. By the same token, the book exposed me to a variety of writers whose other works I will now pursue reading. Two of the good surprises for me were discovering Jorge Amando, via “The Miracle of the Birds” and Murilo Rubiao’s “The Ex-Magician from the Minhota Cavern”, both modern Brazilian writers who combine sensuality, humor and the fantastic into a lively literary buffet.
     The Puerto Rican authoress Rosario Ferre was an excellent discovery for me, too. The story included in this book was “The Gift”, a well-crafted, flowing story about two girls from opposite sides of town who become best friends at a Catholic all-girl school and what ensues. It is truly a wonderful tale. Another Puerto Rican writer, Ana Lydia Vega, is represented in this anthology with her novella “Story-bound”, a sort of romantic detective tale told with a very hip, caustic wit. I also enjoyed being exposed to the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo via his perfectly paced short story “Luvina”. My favorite new author (for me), though, was the “enfant terrible” Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas and his delivery of “Bestal Among the Flowers”, a bizarrely enthralling story that could never be properly recounted and deserves to be read first hand only for its full impact.
     And the aforementioned Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are here, too: he with “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship”, a rambling, three thousand word single sentence of interior monologue and she with “Toad’s Mouth”, a classic example of her talent for fairy tale erotica.
     Spanish is called a Romance language for a reason and it means a lot more than what goes on between the sheets. The culture seeps through the language. Metaphors and adjectives live in a poetic, otherworldly level. This book is a nice primer for non-Latinos to become exposed to this Romantic way of life. 
     All comments about this article are gladly welcome.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Musical Depth of Manuel Obregon

The History of Central American Music
(In Five Easy Lessons)

     In a region that has been a melting pot for centuries, Central America has become seeped in cultures 
and traditions, some of them in regional pockets and some unilaterally across the entire area, and music is 
no exception to this historical collage. Manuel Obregon is a classically trained pianist. He took it upon
 himself to transcribe to keyboard the music of legendary Peruvian guitarist Agustin Barrios Mangore’. 
He is a member of Malpais, one of Costa Rica’s most popular bands. He is one of the founders of Papaya
 Music, one of the premier recording labels in Central America. Last year, he was recruited as the Minister
 of Culture for this country. That is quite a resume’. 
     I also perceive Sr. Obregon as a musicologist and an even bigger music nerd than me, and I mean that in a nice way. And one of his passions has been to record and present a musical history of Central America. In my estimation, there have been no less than five offerings by him thus far in this vein. The first album on Papaya was Sr. Obregon directing and accompanying La Orquesta de la Papaya, which was a conglomeration of fourteen musicians from all seven Central Americans playing songs individually rooted in each country and morphed into a kind of musical Central American stew with a definite indigenous backbone. It’s a unique concept and the outcome is remarkable. The second release from the Orquesta included five female vocalists as the music, like the area, continued to evolve, and the definition and character of the music became even stronger. These two albums and the live tours promoting them put Central American music on the global map.
     Piano Malango was Obregon’s next dissertation into the area’s musical legacy and this one is borne of Manuel’s insight. An instrumental album of piano accompanied by members of Malpais on percussive, stringed and wind instruments, Sr. Obregon takes the listener on a musical journey of time and geography across Costa Rican, Nicaraguan and Panamanian terrain. One needn’t know the songs beforehand to appreciate the sojourn.
     Manuel Obregon could never be accused of being conventional, the irony being that the bulk of his work is seeped in history. His next chapter in his presentation is a duet of piano and vocals titled "Abril y Mayo", presenting thirteen traditional tunes from the working class, mostly of the Central Valley of Costa Rica. The songs cover a span of more than two centuries and were unearthed over thirty years by the vocalist, Aurelia Trejos. The result is breathtaking and indicative of Obregon’s (and Trejos’) devotion to preserving history that has been encased in music, and that would certainly evaporate without the passion and perseverance of people like them.
     The fifth chapter is a conglomerate of some of Obregon’s other recordings with Papaya Music, including his part in Malpais, a group that blends folkloric Guanacaste music with jazz and improvisation (popular in San Jose) to create a style all their own. Obregon also played on the “Wade in the Water” album gospel music in another fusion of modern and historic music that has been a part of Caribbean culture for centuries. He also appeared several times on the “Guanacaste Atardecer” compilation CD, with Malpais as well as in Cuarteto Esporadico with Fidel and Jaime Gamboa and revered guitarist Mario Ulloa, performing a fifty-year old Panamanian bolero, and on the opening cut, playing in a trio live with a flautist and Mother Nature on the Osa Peninsula.
     OK, the music/history lesson is over. There will be no test. But please do your homework and listen to any Manuel Obregon music you can find, all available at the Jaime Peligro book stores in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Nuevo Arenal.
     All comments concerning this article are gladly welcomed.

More Salsa!

More Salsa!

     Like much of the modern Latin American culture, salsa music and dance originated literally hundreds of years ago on the islands that include Puerto Rica and Cuba. At the time, the region was called the Spanish Caribbean. But the term “salsa” is generally credited to Izzy Sanabria, a graphic artist who reportedly coined the phrase to identify the Latin music that was popular in New York in the Sixties. Sanabria designed album jackets for the popular Fania Records in New York City’s “Spanish Harlem”, founded by Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco. It refers to a phrase the audiences would call out to the musicians during the montuno, the instrumental portion in the middle of a song, to “spice up” the established melodies, dance and rhythms of the time, such as la conga, cumbia, guaguanco and danzon, with a new, notable jazz influence.
     In 2003, Putumayo Music, the label that coined the phrase ‘World Music,’ released “Salsa Around the World”. Now, in response to the mounting popularity of this style of music, Putumayo has decided to release a second CD, titled simply “Salsa”. Yes, salsa has become mainstream, but that is not a bad thing. While Putumayo’s first disc presented salsa music from unexpected places like Scotland, Finland and Japan, the second disc displays how this genre initially seeped into the rest of Latin America from its original Caribbean origin.
     The ten-song disc opens with the Colombian band Grupo Gale performing “Volver, Volver”, an upbeat, very danceable tune. The nine piece group, founded by percussionist Diego Gale, has an immense following, including a hefty allegiance in Europe. Two more Colombian bands make an appearance on the disc. Fruko y Sus Tesos play “Naci en la Barriada”, another up-tempo tune. The band was founded in 1970 by Ernesto “Fruko” Estrada at the tender of age of fifteen. And Juanito y la Agresiva demonstrates the music of a new generation of Colombian salsa musicians with the song “Angoa”, the final cut on the disc.
     Cuba gets a double nod on the album, with Chico Alvarez and his Afro-Caribbean band doing “Rumba en el Solar,” a selection from one of their eight albums. In addition, the Cubano 50s-style charanga band Orquestra Aragon donates “Son al Son,” a tribute to modern salsa’s roots.  Famed pianist Eddie Palmieri lends credence to this compilation with his “Sujetate la Lengua”. It’s nice to see the nine-time Grammy winner participate on this venture. Another bow to Palmieri comes from the group Son Boricua playing their version of his classic tune, “Muneca”.
     As always, the album is produced in premium Putumayo style, complete with an informative booklet in Spanish, English and French and packaged in an eco-friendly cover. I do need to comment, however, that I am more than a little disappointed by the lack of representation of Central American salsa music. The Costa Rican band Orquestra la Solucion, for example, is an extremely popular and accomplished group who would have filled a glaring void in this compilation. Hopefully, some day the musical culture of this continent will get the global recognition it deserves.
     In Playa Tamarindo and Tilaran, both of Putumayo’s salsa CDs are available exclusively at Jaime Peligro, where they will sample the music for their customers.  All comments about this article are gladly welcomed.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Ticos (Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica)

Understanding Tico Culture

     There is an old saying that opinions are like navels: everyone has one. And it seems that every person in Costa Rica, Ticos and ex-pats alike, have their own take on “the Tico way”. I’ve just finished reading “The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica”, by Mavis, Karen and Richard Biesanz. The authors are a little like referees in that they try to present the different viewpoints or explanations for Costa Rican’s mannerisms and tendencies. In my opinion, the book is a good insight to the country’s social behaviors; but then again, like the authors’, this is only my opinion…
     The book starts with a brief history of Costa Rica, focused mainly on the culture since the Spanish colonization. Even early on, the country gained a reputation for independent thinking and being spread out, rural and being a terrain of a variety of microclimates only aided this mindset. The second chapter delves in the history of the economic climate, from coffee to bananas and finally ecotourism. Along with the third chapter on the history of politics here, the authors establish a trend or foundation in their presentation, a country in permanent flux where social mores prevail, remedies are patched together to keep all party’s pride intact. The book is full of interesting bits of information. For example, I had not been aware that President Calderon, elected in 1940, had a secret agreement with then U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to defend the Panama Canal in the event of an attack and that this alliance resulted in funding for the construction of what would be the Pan-American Highway.
     The next chapters deal more with the social aspects of the country, from “Class and Ethnicity” and “Community” to chapters on “Family”, “Education” and “Religion” and I believe these five chapters are the real core of the book and of Costa Rican culture; indeed, family, community and religion, specifically Catholicism, seem to be enmeshed. I did find it interesting to read about the growing population of Protestants here.
     Understanding some of the traditions and their roots helps define a people and Ticos are no exception. It’s more than a little sad to read in this book how some of the mannerisms, rituals and respects of the culture are vanishing so rapidly as the Twenty-First Century invades Costa Rica and families, generations, neighbors and communities become more detached, literally with the aid of cars, computers and Cellphones. The final chapter on how Ticos prefer to spend their leisure time was something of a summary for the entire book. It included a look back at how much more family-oriented leisure time was in the past and how fractured and singular it has become.
     Another interesting aspect of the book was in clarifying dreamy myths about the country with hard facts and numbers about how much money the government here actually spends per capita on things like public health and education. It takes a little shine off the glorified personae. Far and away, though, the backbone of Tico culture seems to be “para quedar bien”, to get along with everyone which, in a single stroke, explains why issues have historically never been completely resolved. Embracing and understanding this concept will help an outsider go a long way toward persevering here.
     All comments concerning thhis article are gladly welcomed.