A Magical Journey

Making Music in My Narrow Piece of Land

By Manuel Monestel

Photo of Manuel Monestel in front of a church in Toulouse, France, by Mireille Lacaze. 

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.

The Calipsonians. Photo by Maria Nunes (http://marianunes.com

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. I soon discovered I wanted to be a musician for the rest of my life.

As a university student I heard records of wonderful singer-songwriters from Latin America like Violeta Parra, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Daniel Viglietti and Victor Jara. From their lyrical, musical and political examples I learned to sing about social and political issues from the perspective of love and peace. At about the same time, I discovered Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger with the help of my American friends.  Later I learned about Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanés, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso.

By mid-1970s I founded my first group of Latin American music called Erome, with my younger brother Bernal and two friends from Venezuela. By the end of that same decade I joined Tayacán, a band with a repertoire of political folk songs led by Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy. We sang at a thousand concerts to support the liberation struggles in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

In 1980 I founded Cantoamérica, my current music band along with Rodrigo Salas, Roberto Huertas, Carlos Saavedra and my brother Bernal Monestel.  This new group started to  move towards the roots of Afro Costa Rican sounds.

As a sociologist, I had begun to discover another part of Costa Rica, far from my roots in San José. By now I had experienced the music of many places, from rock and roll to haynos, cuecas and joropos, but at the same time I ask myself: what is to be discovered and developed as a local musical expression?

In the late 1800s black West Indians came to build a railroad from San José to Port Limón, so the new coffee industry could compete in the coffee world market.  The Costa Rican ruling class had invented a white, Catholic and Spanish-speaking country when they founded the new republic after independence from Spain. Ironically, the country was, and still is, a mixture of indigenous, European, African and Asian population.

The railway company decided to hire labor hands from the Antilles and that became a threat to that artificial whiteness the coffee oligarchy wanted to keep.

The racist attitude from the so-called “white society” remained, so in the 1980s there was no information about the music in Limón, and most of the population of the country did not know about it and did not want to know.

Gavitt and Manuel. Photo courtesy of Manuel Monestel. 

In that context I started to do some basic research about the music in Limón, based on my background as a sociologist.

After reading Paula Palmer’s What Happen: A Folk History of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Coast (University of Texas Press, 1977), I foresaw a new cultural strand of music.  Then I met Walter Ferguson, the greatest Costa Rican calypsonian and later some other great calypso songwriters. From then on, I have been learning, recording, producing, researching and promoting calypso limonense around Costa Rica and the world.

With this band and as soloist singer I have had a marvelous musical journey along the Costa Rican Caribbean. Since the late 1970s until today I have studied the sounds of the province of Limón in the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. 

Recording many albums has been the only way to move forward in a country where the radio stations are bound to promote foreign music, normally produced by the big entertainment corporations, while the national production is ignored. Music albums are good means of promotion: they are like free birds that fly to different places and pose themselves on many branches, which means that you never know who will end up listening to your material and what doors can be eventually opened by means of the recording. So far, I have 14 albums of Cantoamérica and as a soloist, and three more produced for such artists like Calypso Legends, Kawe Calypso or Lenky.

Keeping away from the mainstream and the massive musical industry I feel, at 64 years of age, very happy and satisfied with what I have done. I have travelled the world singing my songs; I have met and shared stages with wonderful artists from different parts of the world. Singing in either an old arsenal in Holland, at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taiwan, at the Alliance Française in Benin, West Africa, Teatro Verano in Montevideo Uruguay, Los Baños in Port Limón, in Cahuita, in the San José National Theater, Casa America in Madrid, the Paul Masson Summer Series in California or wherever, I feel proud and grateful of having this magical job that fills me with happiness and gives me the opportunity of sharing good messages and good energies with the audiences everywhere.

Manuel Monestel is a Costa Rican musician, sociologist and ethnomusicologist. The founder and lead singer of Cantoamérica, he is the author of  Ritmo, Canción e Identidad: El Calypso Limonense  (Editorial de la Universidad Estatal a Distancia, 2005) and Enclave Afro Caribe (Centro Cultural de España, 2010). He was a 2008-09 Society for the Humanities Visiting Fellow at Cornell University.