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Joe Bonamassa

Joe Bonamassa

“Keeping the blues alive at sea!” That was our mantra–our mission–our goal—our obsession for a week or so in February when 9 of us music lovers from Dominical got on a big ole’ ocean liner in Miami and floated away to the sounds of the Blues. I’m not gushing about this cruise because I bought stock in the damn boat or anything, and I am kind of amazed at my own enthusiasm for the whole trip, but it was SERIOUSLY BIG FUN!! Guitarist, singer and songwriter Joe Bonamassa is the driving force behind not only the Blues Cruises, but the Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to the next generation of young, talented musicians.

At a time when school music programs are being cancelled, the NEA is being de-funded by Trump, and people don’t have health insurance, it’s a breath of fresh air to know that there are still people out there raising money to offset the loss of arts funding in America. Mental and physical health is always improved by exposure to music, and there are so many benefits to music education—I harp about this subject all the time. Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation was created in 2011 and since then they have funded over 350 music projects, affecting over 60,000 students, and they have donated over $400,000 to educators, festivals, scholarships and Blues related events.

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Kids & Talent

Girl playing violin

No more goofing off! It’s the time of year when kids here go back to school and I go into teacher mode with a whole new batch of potential violinists to mess with! We’ve all been on vacation, and it’s always interesting to me to see which kids have returned, which ones clearly have been practicing, who the new kids are, and who switched over to saxophone while I wasn’t looking. There is an inevitable question that parents or other interested folks are just dying to ask me, and which I dread having to answer. “Does this kid have any talent?”

Sometimes the answer is so obvious that I can’t believe they even bother to ask it, but that is usually when the answer is a firm NO. If a kid can’t hear the difference between low or high notes, or shows no interest in understanding rhythm or doesn’t even like any songs, well, the answer is probably a firm NO. I understand fully the parental need to validate the expenses involved, and to justify their high hopes for their kids’ musical future, and who the heck am I anyway to put some judgment on a child’s potential or innate ability? What kind of jerk would I be if I casually dashed the hopes of a family who have scrimped and sacrificed to buy their child a violin and the accompanying lessons? I’ve found it is pretty difficult to predict how far a focused and determined child can take their talent. Parents want someone to tell them whether their kid is freaky because they are super talented or whether they are just freaky… Thinking about the elusive term ‘talent’ started me wondering what it really is, and what the difference is between a talented kid and a musical prodigy.

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Happiness

Happy baby with headphones

Most of us are just looking for some happiness. ‘Course we don’t always know what happiness is or maybe even notice when we find it, but I think happiness comes to us in small ways that sometimes seem unimportant. We need to teach ourselves to enjoy our happiness—relax in the moment—take pride in achieving happiness, no matter how small a thing it might seem. A psychologist would define happiness as “The experience of joy, contentment, and positive well-being combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” For some of us happiness comes from sitting on a log at the beach watching a spectacular sunset. Or, from being surrounded by family or friends who you love. Maybe it comes when you achieve a personal goal you’ve been working towards, like learning a new language or conquering an old fear. Or maybe it is as simple as a good meal prepared by loving hands or hearing someone singing from their heart and soul.

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Fiddlin’ Around

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Guitars hanging on a store wallEvery year at Christmas time I write about getting the Xmas Blues, or about sad, forgotten souls, or depressing songs about hookers during the holidays or melancholy loners or mean ex’s, or stupid songs about reindeer, or sentimental slop about sitting by a fire with a golden retriever drinking eggnog. Me drinking eggnog, not the dog. I dearly love bad Xmas songs—but I do realize that I might have overdone the whole weird Xmas thing in the past.

Well, this year I’m gonna get right to the materialistic point, and tell you guys what you should get us musicians for Christmas! Keep in mind we have all spent more of that sacred holiday in bars playing for you guys than we have eating turkey at your dinner table. Usually we don’t even get any leftovers! I don’t know why I’ve always gone to the dark side with the Xmas thing, ‘cause actually it’s quite a cheery and fun time of year to be here in Costa Rica. Most folks have a bunch of days off, so don’t think you’ll get much accomplished business wise—it’s Xmas! Happiness depends on whether you are paying your employees an aguinaldo or you are the one getting that extra month of pay at the end of the year.
I bet everybody knows or is related to at least one young and inexperienced aspiring guitarist who could use some help getting his musical ducks in a row. So get him a present from a music store this year, but be careful, because even new guitar players can be mighty opinionated about what they like. The array of options just to buy some strings is pretty intimidating—you got your nylon and your steel wound and your light gauge and your electric and your 12 string and a kzillion brands to choose from! Shoot, if you go to someplace like Guitar Center you’ll come out hours later all bleary eyed and still without a clue what to get young Santana. And you can’t assume that the strings you saw inside his instrument case are the ones he would actually prefer to use. Maybe he just liked the artwork on the package and they have been in his case since the last Grateful Dead tour!

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Rain

Fiddlin' Around header

Calvin comic enjoying the rainYahoo it’s rainy season here again! Of course some folks feel the need to move on to drier and safer pastures, but many of us rejoice in the growth and beauty and messiness the rains inspire. And just in case we need a reminder that we are mere grains of sand on this beach called Life, Mother Nature will re-establish her dominance and toss us around like the soggy children that we are. Manuel Antonio and Quepos can get 16.5 feet of rain annually, and averages 17 inches in June. It gets very elemental here. Sometimes scary and dangerous. Exhilarating and humbling. And the strings on your guitar will rust.

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Teen Music

Teen boy listening to headphones

Joan Baez singingWhen I was a teenager, I pretty much liked any music that my parents didn’t like—especially if it was being played by long haired guys dressed in black leather. I mean, that’s just typical for teens to be that way, right? That dynamic has changed some by now, and I know teens who actually like their parents and hang out and listen to music with them. Back in our day not all DJs had to adhere to programming rules or meet quotas of how many Beach Boys songs they played per hour, so sometimes they actually played some interesting music. Of course, in those days payola was still very much part of the computation and it was more or less expected since the greedy studio fat cats were still running things.

Now don’t get me wrong—I liked and still like the Beach Boys, but as music listeners in the 60s and 70s, many of us were angry and looking for musical ways to express that anger, or we were in a kind of clueless pot fog. Or maybe that was just me… The Vietnam war, unjust drug laws, crass commercialism, the lack of support for women’s issues, the double standard for equal pay and opportunities, civil rights for all people…the list was long and is STILL long, but I am encouraged by the fact that many teens are still listening to the same music that used to get our juices going back in the day. Relevant and important music and pretty darn creative.

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Fiddlin’ Around – August 2019

Fiddlin'Around headerAll songwriters start out with a scary blank page, and most of them have their own particular approach for filling it up. Everybody’s got to find the muse and method that works for them, but like most artistic endeavors there is no one ‘right’ way to go about writing a song. There are lots of different reasons for writing a song—to tell a story, to make a buck, to give yourself or another singer a vehicle for showing what they are capable of, to influence others, or because that’s just what songwriters do! There are books written on the subject, and plenty of folks with advice about how to write a hit song, but eventually it’s all gonna boil down to HONESTY and HEART. Of course it is useful to learn how to read music and to understand keys and scales and harmony—but somehow the listener can always tell when music is fake or contrived and it just doesn’t work.

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Fiddlin’ Around – July 2019

Fiddlin'Around headerRainy season down here in the southern Pacific zone of Costa Rica is usually full of beautiful mornings, birds singing, spectacular plants blooming, clear streams babbling away, and unless it’s been relentlessly raining for weeks, it is a very pleasant time to be here. If you do find it a bit overwhelming this time of year, then find some goofy old movies or cartoons with a musical sound track and watch them on your TV or computer! Before talkies, the movie studios flagrantly stole from great classical and symphonic works for the sound tracks to their animated films. Wily E. Coyote freefalling off a cliff to the strains of Beethoven. Baby chimps settling down to bed in their jungle cradles, to the sound of a Brahms lullaby. The characters didn’t find their voices for a while, so the early cartoons were all about interpreting the music. The artists would painstakingly draw frame after frame to fit the musical selections as much as the story line. I remember seeing an ancient cartoon that had a bunch of barnyard animals playing Dixieland music, and many of us were permanently disturbed by Disney’s scary interpretation of Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky, in his epic animated film Fantasia. Disney could be very funny—he could also be dark and frightening and his characters raw evil.

At the same time that movie soundtracks were getting popular, music theatre was evolving from burlesque, and attempting to kind of upgrade the slapstick style that they had been using. Much of it is kind of silly and certainly unrealistic—navy guys dancing and singing on the deck of their ship, pool-playing shysters leading a parade, aristocrats singing in the kitchen with the help. Often the lyrics to a song wouldn’t have anything to do with the story line, but would merely be clever or humorous rhymes.

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Rhythm

Rythm headerOne year, during a particularly dismal rainy season here, several of my lady friends organized aerobic and dance and step classes so they could get their exercise fix. Being the nice, inclusive types that they are, they invited me join in their sessions, which started at some ungodly early part of the day, like 8:00 am. Frankly, I prefer to indulge myself in being grumpy in the morning, but I eventually lighten up and surface into niceness behind a couple of cups of strong coffee, a cigarette or two, and some loud music. By then it’s more like brunch time, so needless to say, I never actually made it to a class. But one of my friends told me that exercising to music and a strong beat made her feel rhythmic, and it was clearly some kind of personal breakthrough. People often argue with me when I say everyone has music inside of them, but it is true. It is also true that we all have rhythm inside of us.

Carlos SantanaHello, how about that ever-present heartbeat? It marches along with very little influence from us and permeates our entire body. Respiration—we breathe in, we breathe out, we breathe in, we breathe out. Most of the time these things happen without our even noticing them and it takes doctors with high tech machines to determine deviations in our silent but ever present body rhythms. Brain waves, nerve impulses, glandular releases, and even our throbbing pain sites. Synapses’ firing, adrenaline being released, cells multiplying, hair growing—geez we’re probably just a cacophony of wacko sounds if we could just hear it all. All of these body functions respond to outside stimulus as well, whether it’s exercise, coffee, discomfort, temperature, fear, joy, or listening to Carlos Santana. And until we’re pushing up daisies they just keep on playing their own part in the rhythm section.

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Fiddlin’ Around – April 2019

Fiddlin'Around headerWhen people can’t communicate with each other verbally, when age or physical differences keep us apart, when we share no common history or experiences—there is always music to bring us together! OK, so this is not exactly earth-shattering news, but I am writing this on Fat Tuesday, where in my beloved town of New Orleans people are going crazy right now and are dancing in the streets to all kinds of different music and rhythms. Mardi Gras music is its own category and lingo and everybody knows the songs—from little kids tap dancing to ‘Hey Pocky Way’ to Little Queenie singing ‘My Darlin’ New Orleans’ to Dr. John growling about ‘Going Back to New Orleans’. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, the folks there will put away their costumes, donate all those beads that they were diving on the filthy ground to retrieve to a charity and trying new hangover remedies.

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras

But also as I write this, the folks from the Envision Festival are cleaning up the area and the beach after days of relentless partying to techno and dj and live music. They will be donating money and effort to local charities and everyone’s consciousness will have been raised. Well, in theory anyway. They’ll be slamming down fruit juice and smoothies and doing their yoga stretches and exchanging phone info with the other survivors. Up the road by Quepos the cowboys who participated in the local rodeo are sore from dancing to Cumbia music and battling bulls and are probably drinking shots of chili guaro to get them through their day. We are all feeling a bit beat up and weary, but most of us will be back at it next year, ‘cause the impulse and the drive to dance and sing is the same no matter where you are or where you’re from!

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Fiddlin’ Around – March 2019

Time header
Time fliesTime flies when you’re having fun…Time has passed me by…Time has taken its toll…Time stood still…I don’t have Time for that… She’s gotten better with Time…that’s a Timeless melody…to everything there is a Time… We all talk about Time as if we had a clue what it’s all about. We try to manipulate time or control it, or measure it, or define it—and we certainly write lyrics and songs about it. My personal favorite saying about Time doesn’t really mean a damn thing—it just looks good scrawled on a wall. ‘Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like bananas…’

Songwriters have penned some truly cheesy and simplistic things about time, but they occasionally hit on some profound thoughts that we can all relate to. The Stones wrote about being “Out of Time” (it was never played live—and is only on the UK version of the recording “Aftermath”). They also wrote “Time Waits for No One” and optimistically that “Time is On My Side”. Their fascination with the subject also resulted in “The Last Time”. The Doors asked the world to “Love Me Two Times”, Cyndi Lauper wrote about “Time After Time” and even vapid little Brittney Spears wants “Baby, One More Time”. That great band Chicago asked the big question—“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Cher had a hit with the song “If I Could Turn Back Time”, which she has apparently spent a good chunk of her life trying to do, at least physically! Clint Black wrote “Killin’ Time” and Ray Charles can make us weep with his song “Crying Time”.

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Fiddlin’ Around – February 2019

Fiddlin'Around headerEnvision festivalEnvision Fest time is rolling around again, and most of us here in Dominical are happy for the diversion and happy to witness the folks attending the fest’s commitment to global and spiritual ideals and progress. Over the years I have met many young people with lofty goals who came here hoping to meet others with the same interests, and clearly this festival is not just about the music. Actually, it’s not even mainly about the music—it’s about yoga and meditation and healing arts and dance and permaculture and visual art and global awareness and eco-consciousness and alternative lifestyles. But browsing through the bios of some of the live musicians, I must confess that I do not understand a lot of the labels that are used now to describe different types of music. I have nothing but vague ideas of what global bass is, or glitch hop, or psydub, or what makes it sacred drumming as opposed to plain old drumming.

2 guys playing drums and fluteIt’s hard for me to relate to relentless rhythms and electronically produced sounds. I’m not going to apologize for that—I’ve enjoyed a lifetime of melodies and meaningful lyrics and harmonies and exploration of sounds produced by actual people, not machines. To me much of the techno stuff is just taking a cheesy 60s style drum machine from the mediocre band at the local Hotel Notell and elaborating on it. But I will defend anyone’s right to listen to what they want, and truth be told I can sometimes be found dancing along…

There are several stages at Envision, and the beautiful yet functional designs used to showcase what is happening on them is inspiring. Outstanding artistry and imagination goes into their making. You’re gonna have to go to the Envision 2019 website and read up on the different acts and which stages are used for techno or dance or acoustic or reggae so you can find the musical medium you like. The Sol stage is described as having big band music, but I am pretty sure they aren’t talking about Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman. But I’m clueless about what it is. It’s hard for me to tell by the names whether it is a DJ or a band or a combination of both. I am happy that reggae music still has a place at this festival—I like reggae and over the years it has been an important genre both musically and politically. There will be plenty of jamming going on—especially with drums and flutes and homemade instruments. To me, sitting on the beach with a bunch of others banging on stuff and being mesmerized by a bonfire is time well spent!

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Fiddlin’ Around – January 2019

Fiddlin'Around headerHallelujah brothers and sisters—we have survived another trip around the sun, so HAPPY NEW YEAR to us all! Despite global uncertainty, intolerance and animosity, the manipulation of information, wildfires, floods, earthquakes and personal frustrations, a bunch of us are still here! What we need to do now is to notice the optimistic new beginnings around us! Like a kid’s first piano or flute or violin recital. Little girls in their finest frilly dresses, nervously tuning up and looking for their friends in the audience. Little guys squirming in their new duds and shiny shoes. Proud families, turning out in herds to applaud and cheer for everyone. Gawky teen-agers, walking onstage with newfound poise and purpose. That first glimpse that the hours spent in focused practice actually turns into MUSIC—something that makes everyone feel closer and happier. That thrill—that pride—that awareness of being part of a human artistic brotherhood—it never goes away, and every musician remembers their first experiences and new beginnings.

Boy playing violinI see the transformation that happens with my students at the Escuela de Musica Sinfonica in San Isidro. At the beginning of the year many of them are shy or maybe intimidated by the amount and power of the new experiences they are having, but once they settle in they eagerly look forward to the new and exciting paths they can take musically. An incredible spirit dwells in our school—it’s full of inspiration and wonder and laughter and noise and wonderful chaos. I have literally ‘seen’ that proverbial light bulb go on over their heads when they master a little bit of Bach, or finally get comfortable enough with the posture of holding a cello to actually become one with it. As adults and mentors, we need to nurture and nourish these kids to follow their musical dreams, ‘cause a whole world of ‘new beginnings’ will be opened up for them. Different cultures and history—pride and discipline—art and beauty—love and compassion.

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Fiddlin’ Around – December 2018

Fiddlin'Around headerSan Jose topeWelcome to all you travelers who have shown the good judgement and the necessary spirit of adventure to visit this beautiful and diverse part of the world! December, and the holiday season in general, is a fine time to be here. The rains will have subsided, everything is still green and lush, and the local musicians are waking up from their long naps and tuning up. If we can all manage to remember what Christmas is supposed to be about, maybe, just maybe, we can remember to be kind to each other! And laugh and sing together!

Last month my article was about music and horses being sources of emotional and physical therapy. For the un-initiated, there are horse gatherings and parades and exhibitions that go on all over Costa Rica this time of year, so if you hear about a Cabalgata or Tope happening somewhere, go see it! It is an amazing thing to witness dozens—sometimes hundreds—of magnificent animals and their riders all spiffed up and showing off their skills. There are excellent horsemen and women here, and often they are riding pretty spectacular looking South American and Spanish bred animals. It’s big fun to watch or participate in for everyone from Gramps to little kids, and they prepare for these events and look forward to them all year long. The granddaddy of them all is the Tope in San Jose during Christmas—literally hundreds of entrants parading through the streets. They broadcast it all day long on the TV, and it is big fun to watch or participate in, even if horses ain’t your thang…

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Fiddlin’ Around -November 2018

Fiddlin'Around headerWoman on a horseHorses and music have been the two most consistently wonderful and important and therapeutic things in my life. When I was a kid my parents scrimped to pay for violin lessons and the expenses for the beautiful mare my Dad indulgently bought me, but they wouldn’t let me gallop away until I had practiced the violin. In my case the apple didn’t fall too far from the parental tree—my Dad was a classical and jazz violinist and a bit of a clown, and he was also a member of the U.S. Horse Calvary and was a fine rider. I used to think I was Annie Oakley reincarnated….

It is well documented by scientists, health care providers, shrinks and educators that music has healing powers on many levels. Folks with physical or mental challenges can be positively affected by either playing music or listening to it. I’ve talked about this before—lower blood pressure, better diabetic numbers, pain management, increased attention and memory. There are many reasons why music is beneficial to us humans, besides the obvious facts that it is fun and communal and makes us think and feel deep emotions and get up and dance.

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