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The beginning of a new year is a time for reflection—on the past, on the future, on our goals, on our missteps and screw-ups. I am writing this in January and am trying valiantly to let go of the bad and mean-spirited crap of 2016 and move on. But I can’t seem to focus in on one topic, so I’m just gonna talk about whatever comes to my little brain and celebrate the diversity of our planet and of our music!

Let’s think about the many geographical and environmental and physical influences that people are subject to and which define our musical paths. Humans have always had to fashion instruments out of the available materials where they live. An Eskimo in a frozen land might make a drum out of seal skin, or a flute from fishbone. A rural farmer in Mexico discovered that a horse’s jaw bone can become a percussion instrument. An Aboriginal guy in Australia might make a didgeridoo out of a tree to communicate with others or to provide the bass line for an Outback jam session. Some Celtic guy figured out how to turn a sheep’s stomach into a bagpipe or how to make strings out of catgut. A Brazilian native may carve a flute out of soft stone or a drum out of a gourd. Instruments are often made to imitate the sounds of nature—bird songs or the sound of rain or thunder or migrating herds. We use our human voice to interpret natural sounds as well as to communicate, and we learn through trial and error and example how the different sounds can be woven together. Just as the people on this earth are diverse, so are our habitats and the materials they provide. Once people starting working with metal, things changed even more. Then we got horns and trumpets and kazoos and snare drums…

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Fiddlin'AroundTo the locals who love this place and live here all year long and to the travelers passing through, welcome to a new year in this beautiful and inspiring little part of the planet! Personally I’m glad to be done with 2016, ‘cause I think it sucked, and I found myself singing or playing the Blues way too often. It’s easy to fall into a rain-induced funk, and between the normal messy rainy season stuff and Otto, there was plenty of damaging and isolating weather here. And earthquakes. And volcanos erupting. The political crap of 2016 was alienating, divisive and chock full of lies, and the resulting anger and frustration throughout the planet over our problems was and is scary. We also lost a lot of great musicians last year and we will miss their emotional and spiritual guidance. I guess we need to snap out of our funk and quit drowning ourselves in the Blues…

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Fiddlin’ Around – December 2016

Santa FrogIf you live here and are a compulsive and insatiable book reader like myself, then you probably get frustrated with the fewer options and availability of cheap reading material, and are always checking out who has free book exchanges. But it’s frustrating when you find a good stash of used books, because their covers are mostly lurid, or gone, or are abstract art that has nothing to do with the content. About the only exceptions are cookbooks—they have yummy looking food on their covers—or Westerns. They almost always have a guy on a horse wearing a cowboy hat rescuing a beautiful woman from getting scalped. Most of the time you just can’t trust the covers, so you have to take the time to read that page in the front that tells you what the book is all about and hope that doesn’t spoil it for you. I’m old school—I don’t have a Kindle or any electronic devices or books on my computer—I still prefer turning pages and dog-earing the corners. I might highlight a passage or quote, but usually forget about it by the time I get to the end and pass the book on to a friend or to the library in Uvita that benefits the D.A.W.G. organization. They have a pretty darn well-organized library above Dr. Fernando’s vet clinic in Uvita, and they do good work rescuing critters around here. I’m wandering off my point, which is that you just can’t judge a book by its cover, and that applies to musicians in a big way.

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Hero Willie NelsonThere’s a home place under fire tonight in the Heartland, and the bankers are taking my home and my land from me. There’s a big achin’ hole in my chest now where my heart was, and a hole in the sky where God used to be.

There’s a home place under fire tonight in the Heartland – there’s a well with water so bitter nobody can drink. Ain’t no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can’t speak. Don’t they know that I’m dyin’, why is nobody cryin’ for me?

My American dream fell apart at the seams. You tell me what it means, you tell me what it means.

There’s a young boy closin’ his eyes tonight in the Heartland, who will wake up a man with a home and a loan he can’t pay.

His American dream fell apart at the seams. You tell me what it means, you tell me what it means.

Heartland album coverThese powerful words were written in 1992 by two of America’s greatest poets and prophets—Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson—and the song Heartland is on one of Willie’s finest albums, Across the Borderline. As it turns out, these lyrics are timeless. Banks, mortgage companies, soulless lobbyists and unscrupulous politicians are apathetic about the profound effects of their greed on the regular folks. The old oil money guys are stealing land again from the indigenous peoples, Mother Nature is routinely assaulted with no regard to all our futures, and friends and families are so torn apart and suspicious that they can’t drink from the same well. Or the same water fountain.

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Fiddlin’ Around September/October

Fiddlin'AroundThe Hollywood Hoopla and show biz aspects of the American political election process are often embarrassing, and music is almost always part of the staged background. By the time this goes to print there will probably be radical changes in the political landscape, but ‘ya gotta admit it’s certainly been a banner year for comedy writers, impersonators and late night talk shows. I’m going to try to stay away from personal ranting and raving, though anyone who knows me probably knows I’m way out in left field. So let’s talk about how and why songs get used by the guys and gals trying to win our votes. Apparently politicians of all kinds think they are entitled to chop up and claim as their own the songs that musicians and writers have labored over and which often have a completely different intention than how they are used.

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High Lonesome Sound

Fiddlin'AroundThere’s a feeling that can quietly creep over us and which is painful, but also kind of unique to each of us, which makes it even more powerful. I’m talking about being lonesome. Some sounds and musical efforts to explain this isolating and singular sorrow do better at defining this very un-definable word than words ever could. Musical sounds that can’t be described very well but we all know what they ‘feel’ like. Lonesome is the sound of one trumpeter playing taps in a quiet graveyard. Lonesome is the sound of an unseen paddle wheeler blowing its steam whistle to warn other boats on a foggy and dark Mississippi River. Lonesome is a train whistle somewhere in the distance on a hot summer night. Lonesome is Carlos Santana’s distinctive guitar echoing through a hushed and reverent stadium before the rest of the band kicks in. Lonesome is hearing two coyotes (some Native Americans called them ‘song dogs’) singing to each other across a vast mountain meadow. Lonesome is the sound of a frightened kitten abandoned in an urban alley. The great and often troubled Hank Williams wrote a song called I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry in the 1940s that perhaps says it best:

Hear the lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly. The midnight train is whining low, I’m so lonesome I could cry. I’ve never seen a night so long, when time goes crawling by. The moon just went behind a cloud, to hide its face and cry. Did you ever see a robin weep, when leaves begin to die? That means he’s lost the will to live—I’m so lonesome I could cry. The silence of a falling star, lights up a purple sky. And as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

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Fiddlin’ Around – July 2016


By Nancy Buchan

Rarely are health issues or our physical or mental well-being topics for songwriters or poets. We all know that life isn’t fair, that there is no justice in the world, and as Jim Morrison said, “No one here gets out alive!” Well, I did know a lawyer once who named his golden retriever ‘Justice’, just so he could feel like he had some in his life I guess. And why is it folks are always saying they’re sick as a dog? Even Aerosmith has a rocker with that title, though I’m not real sure what they’re singing about. “Sick as a dog, what’s your story? Sick as a dog, umm, cat got your tongue? Sick as a dog, you’ll be sorry—Sick as a dog, cause you really ain’t that young.” But most of the time songwriters stay clear of those gloomy and dire medical themes, universal though they may be. Of course there are always tasteless exceptions, like ACDC’s song The Jack, where they are really talking about getting the clap, or Joe Jackson’s blunt song Everything Gives You Cancer. Ted Nugent, who is often inappropriate, has a song called Cat Scratch Fever, Led Zeppelin put out a song in 1975 called Sick Again, and Van Halen sang Somebody Get Me a Doctor. New Orleans R & B artist Huey ‘piano’ Smith wrote a rollicking catchy tune called Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu in 1957, which was later a hit for Johnny Rivers. “I wanna jump but I’m afraid I’ll fall—I wanna holler but the joint’s too small. Young man’s rhythm’s got a hold of me too—I got the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu”. 

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Fiddlin Around Fools headerApril Fool’s Day was just a month or so ago and for once no one master-minded any mean or rotten tricks to play on me. Not even any little playful pranks. My friend Danielle and I have been pulling stuff on each other for decades, and we are both wary of even answering the phone if we see our caller IDs. So I guess I was actually the fool again, ‘cause I had an uneasy day just waiting for her to do something to me. Folks all over Europe, some parts of India and even China have hosted April 1st as a day of silliness and tricks and frivolity for centuries. Its exact origin is lost to the mists of time, though Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, written in 1392, is the first recorded mention of April 1st and foolishness. Many other chroniclers of ancient folklore have sited the unofficial holiday as a way for the lower classes to blow off some playful steam. Shakespeare even wrote a part for a fool in his play King Lear. He was the king’s confidante and counselor—and was actually a wiser man than any of the king’s other advisers or minions.

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Manuel & Nancy in Jaco

Manuel & Nancy in Jaco

How do you make the transition from reading the notated music in front of you on a piece of paper to closing your eyes and just playing the music that somehow occurs to you? I’ve been asked this question a lot, especially from classically trained violinists who for some reason can’t make the jump from reading music to playing without written music and improvising. In my case, in order to get heard around my house you had to start improvising. Everyone in my family played music—usually written music, but when the whole family got together, unless you could ‘wing’ it, you wouldn’t be able to join in the fun. There were too many people crowding around the piano to see the music anyway. But I was lucky in having this background, because it was normal for us to play without written music and it wasn’t really a big deal. It was just what we did.
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Fiddlin’ Around – March, 2016

Envision/Beach signLike an insistent, chattering monkey, I am always telling folks to get out and listen to live music. Now clearly that is somewhat self-serving, since as a working musician it is always more fun for me to play when there is an audience. I want people to listen, and re-act and hopefully enjoy when the band is cooking and the muse is with us. The coolest thing about a bunch of musicians playing together live and in person is that the music will only be like that once. One time only–unique. And the audience is part of the vibe and inspiration of that particular performance. Lots of recordings are called ‘live’–so and so band ‘live’ at some venue…. Well, it is obviously a recording of a live performance, and as such, it has been altered, enhanced, and changed in subtle or sometimes drastic ways. Modern recording and mixing technology is so sophisticated now that once you have recorded something it can be manipulated in a kzillion different ways. If the singer goes out of tune for a second–isolate the track and alter the pitch. If the drummer hits a cymbal in the wrong place–isolate the track and get rid of the offensive sound. If the guitar player’s solo isn’t great, well just delete it and have him play it over again in the studio. If the violin sound sucks, add some reverb or change the tone of the instrument to something you like. My point is that no matter how true to reality a recording may be, it is still just an electronic attempt at duplicating the sound and performance and ‘feel’ of the original. Course, since we can’t travel around or live our lives with a bunch of tiny musicians in our pockets, recorded music is the next best thing.

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Fiddlin’ Around – January, 2016

ViolinistsBy Nancy Buchan

During the first week of December the fine folks who run the Escuela de Musica Sinfonica de Perez Zeledon, a private music school in San Isidro, schedule the end of the year examinations for all the students who study and receive music instruction there. There’s all ages enrolled in the school, and this past year my dozen students ran the gamut from 7 year olds playing little bitty violins to teen-agers with tuner and metronome apps on their cell phones. They get nervous over the testing, not realizing that I am not judging them for their performance that day (unless they are arrogantly un-prepared and insolent about it—which has never happened to me here in Costa Rica), but that my grades are based on their overall abilities and progress. I wonder if they are enjoying themselves and try to evaluate if they have consistently gotten better. Do they appear to enjoy the process? Is this the right instrument for them? For the struggling student should I abandon the rigid classical approach for a friendlier, learn by ear method? Are they capable of the repetitive practice and focus necessary to learn the skills they need? And then it’s back to the most important question—are they having fun?

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Best wishes to all for a rockin’ good Christmas!

Santa FrogAnd may 2016 roll in gently and melodiously! There should be plenty of live music happening in our area, ‘cause whether you’re in the churches or the bars, the holiday season moves folks to sing and make music.  So, having spent way more time in bars than I have in church, I’m gonna talk about some of the rowdier and ruder songs of the xmas season. I really love weird xmas songs, and there are plenty of them out there. A shrink would have a field day with my holiday set list….

There have always been novelty type songs about xmas, like ‘I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus’, or ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ or ‘Frosty the Snowman’, and they are usually cute and kind of innocent and geared to kids. I get weary of those saccharine, happy little ditties, just like I get weary of the made-to-pull-at-your-heartstrings sad xmas songs. If you are crying in your eggnog over Elvis’ ‘Blue Christmas’, or the Eagles version of Charles Brown’s ‘Please Come Home for Christmas’, or Loretta Lynn singing ‘Christmas Without Daddy’, then you need to upgrade to some of the grittier yule time sicko material that’s out there.

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Fiddlin’ Around – November 2015

By Nancy Buchan

Led ZepplinThis last decade or so there has been an odd—at least I find it odd—urge to bring back the bands and performers who were so important to the soundtrack of our lives. I’m talkin’ tours with rock and roll dinosaurs—the hair bands that now have lots of grey, or none at all. The bad boys who survived but are more likely to be chewing Mylanta than ‘ludes. But there was a lot of musical freedom and excitement going on back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, when lyrics were important and melody still reigned. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the baby boomers want to re-connect with the music and spirit of those days, and they can now afford the couple hundred bucks for tickets, so make way for the dinosaurs! I saw a guy the other day with a button that said “I’m not old, your music really DOES suck! And pull up your pants!” Hard to argue with that.

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Reflections on the Rainy Season, or Maybe Reflections Because of the Rainy Season

Does the noise in my head bother you?By Nancy Buchan

There’s nothing like a nice soft rain to lull one into indoor inactivity. A book and a hammock are my first choice, but for those of you with a higher metabolism you might want to find things to do besides gardening, or hiking or any of the outdoor stuff here that is normally so much fun. So, keeping the focus on music, here’s a few things you can do while there’s a deluge going on outside.

If you are going for the book and hammock diversion, there are tons of biographies and auto-biographies out there about musicians. I’ve read bunches of them—from Frank Sinatra to Willie Nelson to Frank Zappa to Linda Ronstadt, and they are all interesting, even the ones about musicians I was never much interested in. Like Steven Tyler—who wins for the best title, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?

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Viola and ViolinBy Nancy Buchan

One of my best girlfriends and someone who regularly de-railed my train of thought and my life in general, was my viola playing friend Kitty. She was a bit of a classical snob, and I totally understand that, ‘cause most classical players work really hard to master the skills necessary to play that type of music and they are in an elite category. Kitty was particularly interested in the ‘Baroque’ style of music and the kind of odd-ball instruments used at that time. Music, of course, is a continually evolving art form, and when folks talk about ‘Baroque’ music they are usually referring to a pretty broad range of styles and techniques that came from Europe during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. ‘Course it’s the musicologists and historians who have named them that—they didn’t know they were Baroque musicians, they were just doing what musicians do. The so-called Renaissance period started in the 1400’s and the Baroque era lasted for 150 years or so, from 1580 to 1730.

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