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Fiddlin’ Around – September/October 2017

Fiddlin'AroundIn the music world, funny is good. Funny is important. Funny is probably more useful and definitely more interesting than profound. I love songwriters who can make us laugh at our paltry little problems, or who can bring perspective to what we think are huge issues, or who can describe a piece of life in a way that brings us comfort and smiles instead of alienation and angst. My Dad, another musician, always told me not to take myself too seriously. He was right, and luckily for us, there are a couple of skillful songwriters around here who write about the humorous side of life and love, not just the so-called important stuff! John Prine, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett, Steve Goodman, Charlie Daniels, Robert Earl Keen, Kinky Freidman, Jimmy Buffett, Roger Miller, Ray Stevens, Arlo Guthrie and even sometimes Bob Dylan—they all know the value of laughter—and so do a couple of our local guys, Ben Orton and Ken Nickell.

BenJammin

BenJammin

Ben Orton is an excellent and generous vocalist and guitarist—I’ve been playing with him for several years now, and appreciate all of his songwriting, including his lighter and more whimsical songs. He’s got a song called Sell Your Stuff, which is of course a re-occurring theme and impulse for many of the first timers who find this beautiful area. The first lines of the song are,

Some say that it’s paradise—at the very least it’s very nice—and if you’ve got the nerve to make it real—sell your stuff and move to Costa Rica! Read More…


Songwriting

Fiddlin'AroundMusic lovers and certainly most musicians, whether they are singers or sidemen or drummers, love and value our songwriters. I give them all respect and thank them for educating us and for telling our stories and history. And for giving me something to play along to… They enunciate the dreams and hopes and fears and sorrows and happiness we all go through, and they help us realize we are not alone in those feelings. It’s impossible to say where the first snippet of a melody came from—maybe it was inspired by a lone and anonymous bird singing away up in a tree. Or from a chorus of frogs croaking after a rain, or the sound of coyotes talking to each other over a valley. When you put that most personal of instruments, the human voice, on top of a melody—you’ve got a song.

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Anthems

Fiddlin'AroundLike many of us, I watched the sickening images from the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, then I watched the benefit concert that she and other musicians played after the dust had settled a bit. The spunk and attitude from the mostly young girls who are Grande’s fan base was inspiring, and I was moved by her closing rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’. I’ve played or heard that song being played a million times, usually in positive and happy settings, but the sweet and kind of naïve lyrics will never be the same for me. It is, of course, from the 1939 movie “Wizard of Oz”, and was sung by a young Judy Garland about 5 minutes into the film when she’s trying to tell her aunt and uncle about a bad experience she had with the local mean old spinster.
Judy Garland, Over the Rainbow LPShe’s told to “Find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble.” So Dorothy says to her little dog, “Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by boat, or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain…..somewhere over the rainbow…..” A lovely song full of youthful innocence, is now an anthem because of an ugly thing. A profound and sad loss of innocence. It did get me thinking about how songs become anthems—and I figure I should fess up to my anthem experience.

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Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Row row row your boat music sheetThat is such a cool, Zen-like approach to life, and it comes to us in the form of an English children’s nursery rhyme. The song is actually a round—a musical composition in which 2 or more voices sing exactly the same melody, each voice beginning at a different time. The different parts of the melody coincide and fit harmoniously together. It is one of the easiest forms of ‘part’ singing, as only one line of melody must be learned by all the singers, and it can be repeated over and over. This simple ditty has quite a history—little kids sing it, Star Trek Five had Captain Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy singing it, another episode had a bunch of weird space kids singing it. It’s featured in the films Dante’s Peak, the Red Danube and even Hackers. Maybe it’s a metaphor for our passage here on earth—we propel ourselves with humor and joy in natural waters which bring us to the simple comfort of the abstract world. But the key word here is dreams.

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Marimba

Marimba headerBy Nancy Buchan

Last month the president of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solis, attended a celebration at a school in the Nicoya—an area, along with Guanacaste, that is somewhat known for the making and playing of marimbas. He was treated to some local students playing their marimbas, and then he designated November 30th the Day of the Marimba! Now maybe you don’t think that this is particularly big news, but I think this humble yet mighty instrument deserves a day of its own to be honored. It’s already the national instrument of Guatemala and of Nicaragua, so why shouldn’t CR get on the band wagon! The marimba has inspired political diatribes, survived governmental bans and modern updating, and it is still a unique and beautiful sounding traditional instrument that is very popular throughout Central America.

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Fiddlin’ Around – March 2017

Fiddlin'AroundYep, folks, these are some mighty strange times we are living in. It is not a very brave new world. It’s a world where alternative facts can be used to ‘prove’ any argument, and where long term planning and prevention and learning from our mistakes is not on the agenda. It’s like a bunch of 5 year olds disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing. “uh uh, no it’s not” “yes it is” “no it’s not” “yes it is”… After a couple of minutes and a couple of black eyes the original argument has been forgotten by the kids—but not the meanness.

Beethoven

Beethoven

So it is with some trepidation that I throw my hat into the political fact ring. But the facts I want to talk about here are about music and the role music plays in every society on this planet. America is not the only country who has to grapple with putting a price tag on art and music, but I am worried that everyone will lose if we do not support and help the creative types do what they do. Long after we have forgotten stupid tweets and egotistical rants and watching some loser getting their 15 minutes of fame, the music of long-dead guys like Beethoven will hopefully still be being played by a youth orchestra somewhere in Kentucky. Or Beirut or Stockholm or Singapore. Or at the music school in San Isidro where I teach. Beethoven will still be giving joy and meaning and beauty to the world long after we’re gone, and the skills and cooperation necessary to play and spread his music will still be relevant and welcome. But as with anything valuable, we must protect and insure that his notes are still out there to be shared.

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Diversity

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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Blues

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

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

Fever

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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Fools!

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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Improvisation

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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