Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

A Magical Journey

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

A Magical Journey

Article excerpt

I GOT MY FIRST GUITAR FROM A CLASSMATE IN 1967 at age 17 in my last high school year at Liceo Vargas Calvo high school in San José, Costa Rica. I paid thirty colones (around five or six dollars) and gave him fourteen 45 RPM records in exchange for the middle-size guitar, which came with three rusted strings, two missing tuning pegs and was broken at the neck joint. I received my sweet guitar with great affection, polished it, bought new tuning pegs and strings that I installed myself, but not before enlisting the help of a cabinetmaker in my neighborhood to fix the broken part. Then, came the pleasure of embellishing it. I varnished and painted it with flowers that looked like colorful daisies and peace symbols of the hippie generation and started the task of learning chords.

I learned my first chords by peeking through the keyhole of my younger brother's room, because Alvaro locked himself away while practicing so I would not steal his knowledge. A schoolmate of his was already a good guitarist and had taught him many things. One day my brother found out I was spying on him and since then decided to practice with his back to the door. I had to find other ways to move forward in my musical "career."

Playing around with my humble guitar was the start of a musical life I did not imagine then, which has given me lots of satisfaction and made me become a professional musician and something of an expert on Costa Rica's Afro-Caribbean music.

At the age of 19, already hooked on music, I used to visit the workshop of Reca Mora, a Costa Rican bolero writer. I loved watching him make guitars, around the corner from La Dolorosa Church in downtown San José. He would cut the pieces, sand and varnish the wood and tune the strings. From time to time that magician of wood and sound stopped his work and began to sing songs composed by him that I thought no one would remember; they were cute boleros appreciated by a 19-year-old even though at the time I only listened to rock and roll. Reca was the author of "Noche Inolvidable" and icon of the Costa Rica repertoire recorded by several international artists. The sound of bolero was familiar to me since I grew up listening to my dad singing it. The workshop was dark and dingy, full of sawdust, wood, tools, nylon strings, vinyl records and some pictures on the wall, including a photo of Paraguayan classical artist and composer Agustín Barrios Mangoré with Reca's father. I later learned that Mangoré while living in Costa Rica had the Mora luthiers make him a guitar.

It was now 1969 and the American astronauts had landed on the moon while I had to work to finance my studies, selling appliances in a small shop that belonged to my brother-in-law, just around the corner from that historic guitar workshop. Business was slow, and the most frequent customers were prostitutes from the street corner who offered me sexual favors in exchange for letting them take a TV set or a record player without making the first payment or going through the legal commercial process. Being a shy boy from a Catholic home I did not fall into such temptations and ended up getting insults and obscene gestures from those women.

In my neighborhood, my friends Ronald, Enrique and Julio and I learned the songs of the Beatles, Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and many other rock and pop groups of the northern hemisphere as well as Joan Manuel Serrat from Spain. We also learned Latin American boleros, nice love songs that made our adolescent hearts vibrate. We used to serenade girls in a strange mixture of Spanish boleros and ballads in English hoping the girls at the other side of the window would choose one of us, troubadours who shivered in the middle of the night to offer them love by means of those bilingual romantic songs.

I came from a musical family: my father was a non-professional singer, my grandpa, a folk guitarist, and his cousin Alejandro Monestel, a well-respected Costa Rican formal classical composer and organist who made his career in New York in the early 1900s. …

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