(This title borrowed from C. S. Lewis seemed perfectly fitting)
As a musician who’s just about seen and heard it all, music has become predictable, hum-drum, and rarely has the ability to move me deeply anymore. I left the thrill factor back in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s. Ahh the days when music was a living and breathing entity unto itself, and not a contrived thing of fashion! In the years to follow it would become over worked and over analyzed, counterfeited and pitch corrected, synthesized and dehumanized. Until finally: The dead thing on the radio. Lifeless. Fabricated. Spoiled.
Forgive me my harsh critique. Blame it on my age. Blame it on my journey of late, to find the fresh and innocent in all of life. Blame it on my unrelenting quest for all that is good, and real, and alive!
But don’t blame it on narrow-mindedness, shelteredness, lack of experience, the inability to let loose, or a complete lack of joy in my heart. None of that is the case.
I wait patiently like a cheetah for the gazelle. Enough of rabbits! The gazelle is worth waiting for and when she finally comes into view, you can be sure the cheetah will pounce!
And so it is with good music. And had you been around, you would have seen me pounce last night.
I’m guessing he wasn’t a day over twenty-one. He was new to Costa Rica from the mountains of Brazil. He sat on a drum low to the floor, his knees pulled up and even with his chest. This seemingly awkward presentation of manhood was about to become the envy of every man in the room. His dark hair, thick with perm-like curls, fell past his shoulders and tucked neatly behind his ears. The bright whites of his eyes and the gleam of his chipmunk-like teeth jumped out engagingly from cocoa skin.
A mix match of colorful drums constructed of wood, rope, animal skins, plastic and steel surrounded him. They were tall and oblong, round and heavy, snare like and slanted. Later he named each drum for me: Alfaia, Timbau, Cuica, Pondeino, and Nepinicado. Add to this a capped beer bottle hanging off a cymbal, a whistle roped around his neck, a tambourine, a bead shaker, a tin can, a triangle, a djembeand a few unnamed smaller drums.
He complimented the slightly older singer who played a “silent guitar.” An enticing and romantic vocalist who understood the affect the rising and falling of his voice had on his female audience. The crooner was also capable of quickly and intelligently interpreting any frenzied drama his un-caged drummer might release at any given time. His dress was simple, but effective. He had on a casual, but expensive pair of jeans with a snow white t-shirt that clung to his physique and beautifully contrasted the darkness of his skin.
At first glance, as the gentlemen shuffled to the performance corner of the restaurant, it was obvious who was the star of the show. The exceptionally good looking singer/guitarist slid onto his stool and began tuning his already in tune guitar. He leaned back to adjust the levels that were already fit for studio recording.
The drummer adjusted his knees and smiled at the on again-off again, third member of the ensemble who was also adjusting the small drum he sat on. The front man’s little Chico was approximately six years old and mirrored his father’s style. He wore a white cotton button up, that buttoned down to reveal a shark’s tooth dangling from a leather necklace. He sat in for a few sets before distraction and fatigue took him away from the djembe he tried to master.
At first it seemed like it was going to be a typical performance. Not unlike many I’d witnessed in North America. A suave, smooth, and, no doubt, honed lead singer with his mysteriously talented drummer behind him. Wowing the young ladies and impressing the local musicians. That’s what we look for, right? That’s what we’ve come to expect. Just the right mix of sensitivity and skill. We desperately hope they don’t disappoint because we want to “feel good” when we leave. In fact we’ve seen so much of that, that some of us have become tired of it. Some of us are bored. Some of us wonder if we’ll ever feel the earth move under our feet again.
And then the breeze blows in. Imperceptibly- and we wonder what it was. Fresh air. He smiles. His eyes lock onto yours with genuine kindness, excitement, a secret, and JOY! His hands are a blurr- count the beats just to be sure. Prestissimo! Going as fast as he possibly can. He’s not even thinking about it. He’s busy having a conversation with you with his eyes. He’s busy with his little student on the djembe nodding with emphasis to help him try to match the beat. His right hand hides a tambourine blazing beside his leg. His left hand hits five different instruments at once as though swatting at flies. The guitar player is chasing him and they are shouting for joy. He blows his whistle and Costa Rican girls rapidly fly into figure eights with their hips. When the audience smiles and cheers and claps, he throws his head back in laughter reveling in the shared joy. The joy of music.
He understands. The music is the joy. He partakes. He isn’t creating. He is receiving. And yet, it is honestly the most creative thing I have ever heard.
We breathe. He drums. It is oxygen for him. A long drink from the cold river on a hot day. He talks intimately with us all the way through the evening, and yet, he never utters a word.
He is no longer in Costa Rica. He is back in the mountains of Brazil. Tremendously anointed and gifted by God. He is receiving and distributing his blessing. He is untainted. He is grateful. His is so rare. They don’t even sell a CD. That is not why they play. I have never heard the songs before. I have never heard anything remotely similar. I’ve listened to a lot of Latin music, East Indian music, New Age music, World music, North American music….nothing like this.
They played for three and a half hours non-stop. Not even a small break. They couldn’t stop. They did not make the music. They followed the music.
The technical things the drummer did in the course of their journey would blow your mind- unusual syncopation, his tasteful ear for the dramatic, and even his whistle blowing that was completely out of tune and yet perfectly fitting- but what’s the use in trying to describe it? He felt it. He was amazing and you’ll have to take my word for it. He worked so very hard so we all could catch up to the music and experience this joy together. I’m positive that was his mission.
I pray with all of my heart that you’ll never see him on a TV screen. Yes, I even pray you’ll never be able to buy one of his CDs. I pray the Lord takes him back into the arms of the mountain. I pray the evil one never has the opportunity to corrupt his joy.
Still, he will always be the star of the show in my eyes. I never even learned his name, but when I told him at the end of the evening that God had richly blessed him, his permanent smile widened even further and his eyes revealed their secret.
“Yes!, Yes!, Yes!” was his humble reply.