By Nancy Buchan
Diversity is a word that describes this beautiful country of Costa Rica in many, many ways. Thankfully we don’t have scorching hot summers or snowy winters, but our rainfall can go from almost nothing to huge amounts seasonally, and botanists and biologists just love prowling around this place in search of new weird plants or bugs or critters. Costa Rica has more than 35,000 species of insects, and those are just the ones that scientists have named. Yikes. 10% of the world’s butterflies live here – a lot of them in my yard! Global warming and a funky skin fungus are chipping away at the frog population, but there’s around 160 species of amphibians. The reptile world here includes 220 species of snakes – several not very nice ones – and we’ve got plenty of lizards, including my personal favorite, the Basilisk or Jesus lizard. My husband Charley has one of those guys tattooed on his ankle, however so far he hasn’t been able to walk on water.
Our coastal areas, rivers and estuaries are home to several types of whales, dolphins, sea turtles, manatees and more, and marine conservation projects on their behalf are important national concerns. Watching those little turtles run for the ocean right after hatching is a spectacle I’ll never get tired of. Then there are the mammals – we’ve got sloths and anteaters and armadillos and monkeys and coatis and raccoons and kinkajoos. Otters and tayras and weasels and jaguars and ocelots and peccaries and pacas and lions and tigers and bears, OH MY! Ok, so there are no bears. But the humans who live and play music here or the ones who pass through and enrich our musical experience are just as diverse – here’s a few of my favorite musical moments to prove my point.
Fishing with Taj Mahal
For a couple of years a lodge in Zancuda hosted a fishing contest/rodeo/charity event where folks paid to fish with legendary blues & roots artist Taj Mahal. Taj, a big ‘ole handsome cigar smoking black man, was born in Harlem in 1942 to a musical family, and has been nominated for 9 Grammys, winning twice. He has put out more than 40 recordings, including 3 albums for children, a couple of movie scores (“Sounder” and “Brothers”), and has explored the musical territory of the Caribbean, Central America, Africa, Hawaii, Louisiana zydeco, gospel and R & B. The guy has played with everyone; from Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones, but what he really likes to do is FISH. He is aligned with many ocean conservation groups, and started a charity called the Music Maker Relief Foundation to help the forgotten heroes of the southern musical traditions gain recognition and meet their day to day financial needs. Bless his heart, they even sent me $200 after Hurricane Katrina rendered us homeless! Watching him play to a small audience in Zancuda (near the middle of nowhere), was a great thrill. He was so accessible and likable and he talked to everyone and seemed truly interested in his surroundings and the folks he met. One year he even brought along Little Freddie King, one of the last of the great juke joint blues masters of the southern US who still travels. In New Orleans Freddie is considered a local treasure, and seeing him at this venue, looking so dapper, dressed to the nines in a 3 piece suit and shiny shoes was another unique and wonderful experience.
An Illiterate Ranchero Singer
Years ago I played with an old Nicaraguan gentleman at a soda/bar south of here in Pinuelas. It was raining relentlessly at the time, and the bar had no electricity, so we played for about a dozen people by candlelight. I can’t remember his name, but he played guitar and sang and said that he had written over 400 songs. I struggled to follow him musically, and tried hard to understand his lyrics, which were mostly about love gone bad and hard times. An illiterate ranchero singer, he had no knowledge of which strings go where, or how they are tuned, or how valuable his insights were. Watching his fingers form chords or play solos was pointless. He had never received any information about how music ‘worked’, so he just made up his own version. I’m still dumbfounded about how he conceived of and then played what was in his mind, and never did figure out how he tuned his strings, but I felt privileged to have been allowed into his world. Truly it was like getting to hang out with John Lee Hooker, or Muddy Waters or Sun House, or any of the creative yet dispossessed people who are nowadays called ‘roots’ musicians. We drove him back to his one-room abode near Uvita that night, and I can still see him standing in the doorway, barefoot, with a bare light bulb dangling from the rusty tin-patched roof behind him, holding his beat-up old guitar and waving goodnight to us with a big smile on his otherwise sad and weathered face.
Orquestra del Rio Infinito
Manuel Obregon, the current Minister of Culture for Costa Rica, has old family connections with Dominical, and I met him like 17 years ago when he walked onto my porch with a bottle of rum and his cousin and father. We have shared so many incredible musical moments in our friendship and collaborations – a night at the old Thrusters Bar in Dominical where we were joined by didgeridoo player Ule from Uvita and some blues guys from San Jose and Europe, the two of us at Roca Verde when I was so intimidated by his amazing playing I could barely breathe, going to the Caribbean coast with him to play with a bunch of cranky yet profound 80 year old Calypso musicians, and the coolest of all was when he included me in his grandiose Orquesta del Rio Infinito project. In 2009 over 30 musicians from all of the Central and South American countries came together at La Sabana Park in San Jose to play the first concert of this endeavor to bring awareness and support for the grass roots movements to clean and preserve the waters of our shared countries. It was broadcast live over all of the Americas – state of the art staging and sound, the best musicians from every country, and an amazing agenda and subsequent tour to try to make a positive impact on environmental issues. I have never been prouder of anything in my musical life than that project, and am privileged to know and get to play with such a great musician and person as Manuel. There was sublime gospel singing on the bus by the Tucker sisters from Allejuela, a memorable night of dancing with the shy Panamanian violin player who thought I was nuts, the sight and sound of hundreds of people singing along to Leon Geicos’ incredible anthems to the common man…..times to remember forever that could of only happened here.
Escuela de Musica Sinfonica Perez Zeledon
The Escuela de Musica Sinfonica Perez Zeledon is in a ramshackle funky old building in San Isidro, where kids who have auditioned and have been accepted into the school pursue their musical dreams. There are dedicated teachers who travel great distances to guide these youngsters, and the kids are creative, disciplined, attentive and talented. The family support for them is incredible – they show up in droves to applaud the little guys playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at their recitals, and even though they have homemade music stands and second-hand instruments, they are undaunted and achieve great things. I have great memories of dancing backstage with the music director of the school to the sounds of their Big Band doing jazz songs. Hearing my prize violin student hit that scary high note with confidence. Listening to young musicians get over their shyness to sing from their heart.
There was a night in Quepos years ago when the guys at the Banco Bar asked me to come over there and play with a young hotshot guitar player named Ian Moore. Back then driving to Quepos was like embarking on a freaking African safari – take your boots, your machete, a shovel, a change of clothes, your sense of humor and have an adventure. For the 20 or so people that were there, it was a night of unforgettable music driven by a young man with more soul and chops than is probably legal. After listening to his recorded stuff I had assumed he was an old black guy, not the long haired white kid from Texas that he really was. Then there’s the night at Rio Lindo when a 15 year old kid who was riding the rails in the states and living the life of an orphaned teen-age hobo sat in and astounded everyone with his knowledge of 30s and 40s songs, his soulfulness and his view of life as an outsider. I remember he had a really really cool hat also.
And now I get to play with Ben Orton – an accomplished and wonderful guitar player, singer and songwriter who lives in Quepos. Sometimes I feel like I can crawl inside of him – and in a weird way I want to. He is never musically selfish, he plays with emotion and passion and expertise and the freedom that comes from playing for all the right reasons. We play most Friday nights at the beautiful Roca Verde in Dominical.
There is great music being played all over this country – the desire to play with others and learn from diverse musicians is universal, and diversity makes music a wonderful and enriching experience for musicians and listeners. It happens all the time here in this beautiful and diverse place we live in, so get out and support live music whenever you can! As the sign over the stage at the New Orleans House of Blues club says – UNITY IN DIVERSITY.
“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” John F. Kennedy
“I feel my heart break to see a nation ripped apart by it’s own greatest strength – it’s diversity.” Melissa Ethridge
“One love – One heart – let’s get together and feel alright!” Bob Marley
“Teach your children and teach their children – there’s only One Race – the Human Race!” New Orleans Neville Brothers
Lifelong professional musician Nancy Buchan and her husband Charley built a house in Dominical 20 years ago, and moved there full time after Hurricane Katrina swept them out of their beloved New Orleans. Nancy plays her 5 string violin in a variety of situations – from rock and roll with Ben Jammin’ and the Howlers to jazz with C.R. pianist Manuel Obregon to Bach at beach weddings. She has been featured on over 50 cds and teaches violin at the Escuela de Musica Sinfonica in San Isidro. Contact her at [email protected].