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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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Gary Sancho Esquivel

Fiddlin'Around headerGary Sancho EsquivelA wonderful and inspiring young man told me recently that MUSIC had saved his life—and that he could not live without hearing and playing classical music. Wow. I thought that was quite a statement to make, especially once I learned a bit about his circumstances and how he has gotten to this realization and personal truth. His name is Gary Sancho Esquivel and I want to tell you folks about him, ‘cause he is going places!! Hopefully to Utah!! Yep—that’s what I said—Utah!

Gary grew up as the youngest of 6 kids, and though his father was an elementary school teacher everyone else was expected to work on the family farm near San Vito, a nice town of about 14,000 people in the pretty foothills of the Talamanca mountain range. Colonization of this area (ignoring the indigenous people already there), was organized by the Costa Rican government in 1952 with the goal of populating the area with foreign settlers, many of whom came over from Italy. The town is about 170 miles southeast of San Jose, close to the Panama border, and the people there mainly raise coffee and other crops, or cattle. A nice enough area, but not exactly full of academic or musical opportunities.

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Fiddlin’ Around August 2018

Fiddlin'Around headerSunshine SupermanThere have been so many beautiful days here lately in our little corner of the planet that it’s prompted me to think about weather, and of course, how it relates to music. The sunsets are spectacular, the critters and birds are super active and the rains aren’t intimidating yet. When I started looking through my songbooks and searching my leaky memory, I noticed the words ‘sunny’ and ‘sunshine’ are in about as many songs as the word ‘love’. ‘Course some of these songs are about the lack of sunshine in our lives, or the absence of love. “You are my sunshine—my only sunshine—you make me happy when skies are grey!” No sunshine and no love is a double whammy and darned hard to recover from.

Then there’s the ‘Sunny side of the Street’, ‘Sunny Skies’ by James Taylor, ‘Sunny’, the band Cream singing ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, or Stevie Wonder’s beautiful song ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’. Jonathan Edwards sang ‘Sunshine’, Donovan penned ‘Sunshine Superman’, and we were all ‘Walkin’ On Sunshine’. John Denver’s love of the natural world and his song, ‘Sunshine on My Shoulder’ connected us to the elements. He described the fickleness of weather and life—both bring us happiness and tears. A guy named Terry Jacks had a #1 hit in the USA and the UK in 1974 with a haunting song called ‘Seasons in the Sun’. It was an unusual theme for the pop music world—a dying man fondly recalls his life and loves, knowing it’s all nearly over with. The Walker Brothers had a hit in 1966 with ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’. These guys had weather on their brains, because the next year they followed it up with ‘Walkin’ in the Rain’. Country music fans might remember Dottie West’s song ‘Country Sunshine’, a catchy upbeat song that was used to the point of annoyance in ads for Coca- Cola to help us feel that their product would make our lives happier. Well, when rum is added, I suppose it could work that way. At least for a while.

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Audience Etiquette

Fiddlin'Around headerIt makes me happy to play music, either as a soloist or with a band, and to realize that real, live people are actually listening! Seeing your musical choices and decisions connect with or move someone emotionally is a beautiful thing. I know there are fine musicians who don’t want or need feedback from anyone and who are content to play to the birds while sitting alone on their front porch, but that is usually not enough for me. Especially when the birds aren’t even listening. All musicians are acquainted with being ignored by people in the audience who aren’t paying any attention to us, and while it can hurt our feelings, we make excuses for them or try to act like it doesn’t matter. Well, I don’t think I’ve ever written mean things about an audience before, but sometimes you guys just don’t act right! There is such a thing as audience etiquette.

Audience member talking on cell phoneAges ago I was fixin’ to get on a plane headed for Europe on a tour with a blues guy named Coco Robicheaux, and for some reason that I can’t remember now, our guitarist was being replaced at the last minute with a guy who none of the rest of us knew. We had one small gig in New Orleans before leaving, and it was really kind of a rehearsal as it was our only chance to run through those tricky songs of Coco’s with the new guy. We had a small though attentive and forgiving audience, but after a couple of songs two women came in and sat fairly close to the band and proceeded to talk to each other throughout the entire performance. Loudly and about trivial crap. By the end of the night, I was so steamed about having had to listen to these women talk about their stupid boss, and their stupid new shoes and their stupid lives that I went over to them and told them I’d be at their workplace on Monday morning where I would sit on their stupid desk and play the violin. Serious righteous indignation on my part. So we go on tour, and after being ignored for like three weeks by the new guitarist, I was completely clueless and freaked out about why he and I were having such crummy communication and no comradery. The drummer finally fessed up to me that one of the women I had chastised was actually the fiancé of the guitarist and he now hated me for talking to her the way I did. Sigh. We all lost—the European audiences cause we were giving less than stellar performances, the promoters, the other band members for having to walk on eggshells the whole tour, and I was pissed all over again that he didn’t come talk to me with his grievances like an adult. All because these women just weren’t sensitive to what was going on.

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Fiddlin’ Around – May/June 2018

Fiddlin'Around headerUsually at some point in my articles I nag you folks to get out and listen to real people playing music together, and there are good reasons for my nagging! Now of course this is partly self-serving, as I play around here a lot and I totally prefer to play for people as opposed to empty chairs. Most musicians love it when an audience is receptive and having fun and getting into the music, but it’s also because something special happens during live performances. It’s a one-time-only kind of deal that will never be repeated in exactly the same way. A live show is always unique, no matter how rehearsed or scripted or pre-meditated it might be. Part of it is the energy and spirit coming from the audience. Part of it is the time and place. Part of it is the communication between the musicians. Maybe it’s about the moon or how much sleep the players got the night before or how many cups of coffee they’ve had or whether the guitar player is getting along with the drummer, but it will never happen exactly the same way again.

Edison and his phonograph

Edison and his phonograph

Thanks to Thomas Edison, a recording device was invented which brought music and speech to listeners with the proper equipment. Later, flat records evolved which remained the playback medium for the next 60 years or so. There were reel to reel tapes, and cassettes and 8 tracks and CDs. The radio brought previously recorded music to the masses, and nowadays there are many ways to hear music through the internet, whether it be live broadcasts or the recording some guy with a ukulele made in his basement. With a click on your computer you can hear radio stations from all over the planet, or download stuff from years past or last nights’ show. But standing in front of a speaker listening to a band playing live is still a special and wonderful thing.

I like doing studio work, but it requires a different set of skills, equipment and approach than playing live. Many times I have been called in to a studio to play just a few pertinent parts, never really hearing the whole song or knowing what it was about. The recording part of my career started back when actual tape was used to record onto, and the mixing part was as important to the ultimate sound as was the musical content. Sometimes we tried to record as many of the instruments and vocals at the same time, striving for a ‘live’ sound. Sometimes all the parts would be recorded separately onto their own track, cleaned up later of any unwanted noise, adjusting the volume levels and tone of the instruments or vocals, then it would all be finalized in the mix. Engineers who were really good at mixing would make notes about little details—where to turn up the singers volume for 5 seconds, or erase an unwanted cymbal crash or brighten up the horn parts for a short time. Back then, when you made a final mix it often involved several people manipulating the tracks, and sometimes the mix was inspired and everyone worked beautifully together. Sometimes it was lackluster and stiff or over-produced. I can remember the tension and cooperation between the studio engineers and the musicians when doing a final mix—there might be half a dozen people hovering over the mixing board, each with their role to play. Now you can do anything you dream up in the studio and there is no ‘final’ mix that can’t be changed. If someone sings one note that is flat, you can isolate that note on the computer, correct the pitch and save that adjustment to the computer and never have to worry about it again. Or worry about the singer hitting the right note. All the technical advances have in some respects made recording much easier, but you can also lose that ‘live’ enthusiasm and spontaneity in the process and end up with robot music.

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Fiddlin’ Around – April 2018

Fiddlin'Around headerYou can tune a guitar. You can play a tune on it. Some people can ‘carry’ a tune. Some people couldn’t sing in tune if their life depended on it. You can tune an instrument with ‘perfect pitch’ or with ‘relative pitch’. There are tuning forks and electronic tuners. What does it all mean?? Well, basically it’s all about adjusting an instrument to play a note which everyone has agreed upon. A pitch that is defined by the number of vibrations per second that are produced. Electronic tunerThat’s what is meant when someone says they are tuning to standard A 440 Hz—they have adjusted the A note above middle C on their violin or their oboe or their harp to produce 440 cycles. But if you think it’s difficult to get a group of folks to agree on where to go for lunch, then imagine trying to get millions of musicians throughout history to agree on a common note to tune their instruments to. I’m not even going to mention Middle Eastern tuning, or Oriental, or Indian, or even Louisiana home-grown Cajun music!

First I’m gonna talk about orchestras. There are four different designations within an orchestra. The String section, the largest of the four, includes the upright bass, (the lowest in pitch) cello, viola, and violin. Since the strings make up more than half of the total musicians in an orchestra, the violins are usually separated into first and second sections. The first section players generally deal with the slightly more important and difficult parts, and there could be as many as 15 violinists in each section.

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Fiddlin’ Around – March 2018

Rhythm and BoozeNowadays it’s not really politically correct to sing or write songs about drinking or getting drunk. And I get it — booze can wreck peoples’ lives, and it is at the root of many sad stories. But here’s the deal — even though people love to sing, most folks won’t sing outside of the shower without something to relax their inhibitions. A little shot of courage. So, after a few shots we join in on the chorus to Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, or we torture the folks at the local karaoke bar with a weepy rendition of Scotch and Soda. But looking back, it all started when we were teenagers on the band bus facing our fears with 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. Simple enough lyrics for teens or impaired adults to remember. Drunks do love to sing, and most often they love to sing songs about being drunk. It’s some kind of weird rule.

But there are some pretty great lyrics written either about drinking, or are written while drinking. It seems to be a universal impulse, as most countries have their favorite traditional drinking songs. Witness the Irish! They must have thousands of drinking songs, some of them going back centuries. And a sideways drunk Irishman has an amazing ability to actually remember all the words. The Star Spangled Banner, the U.S.A.’s national anthem, was adapted from an old English drinking song by John Stafford Smith! German drinking songs are called Trinklieder, and there are plenty of them. In Sweden there are specific drinking songs for Xmas, midsummer, and other national events. The Aussies love to swill and spill beer to their rowdy outback tales. Russians can’t do a shot of vodka without singing about it. The record of drinking songs dates to the 11th century, and they were probably around earlier than that. Folks like to sing with their pals, so every fraternity or sports club or ethnic group or tribe or bunch of pirates or sorority girls have their favorite songs. Broadway playwrights and country music singers and rock stars and folkies all sing about gettin’ drunk, and often these songs turn into anthems that everyone knows the words to.

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Fiddlin’ Around – February 2018

Fiddlin'Around headerTo the intrepid and adventurous travelers who have found their way to our lovely and diverse little part of the planet, welcome! This is a great time of the year to be in the southern zone of Costa Rica. It is officially the dry season, but Mother Nature is a fickle parent, and she has been known to sneak into our happy dry lives and unleash a deluge of rain upon us, her unsuspecting children. Even in February. Since I claim New Orleans and Dominical to be the homes of my heart, I must admit it’s also a fine time to be in steamy and sultry New Orleans…

Mardi GrasWe know all about celebrating weirdness and wildness in New Orleans — it is called Mardi Gras! This year the last day of Carnival season, also called Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday, falls on February 13th — the day before Ash Wednesday, when all the good (and bad) Catholics go to church and the priest smears ashes on our foreheads and we all pledge to give up something we love for Lent. So for weeks before, we drink a lot and eat delicious rich food to get ourselves in the proper mind set to fast. Christians celebrate Easter on a Sunday, as it was the day Jesus rose from the deaad, after being crucified on the Friday two days before. This was determined centuries ago in 325 AD, by a council of bishops who declared that Easter would always be on a Sunday, based on the lunar calendar.

In New Orleans we throw parties and parades to send off our friends who have passed on. We charge drinks on their bar tabs and hope the bartender hasn’t heard the news yet. We make elaborate costumes to wear during the several weeks of parades and partying leading up to Fat Tuesday. Sometimes our costumes make clever political and satirical statements, sometimes they just show a lot of skin. Some have feathers or beads or mechanical parts, but it is big fun and there are many local traditions that are kept every year.

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Fiddlin’ Around – January 2018

Fiddlin'Around headerAt the stroke of midnight on December 31st I’ll bet many of you were enthusiastically singing along to the song Auld Lang Syne. Some of you with lampshades or goofy hats on your head. Or with your optimistic arms around someone else besides your significant other. Many of you hadn’t been up later than 10 pm since last years’ festivities. And then there’s the amateur drinkers embarking on their first epic hangovers. But every year, throughout the world, we somehow manage to unite for a couple of musical minutes to say goodbye to the past year with this ancient tune.

Portrait of Robert BurnsAuld Lang Syne was written by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns in the year 1788, and was set to the tune of a traditional folk song. Besides being used to bid farewell to the old year, it is also sung at funerals, graduations, or at the end of group events or gatherings. Many scouting organizations sing the song to close their yearly jamborees, and it is meant to pay homage to old friends as it conveys a sense of longing for the past. It is a melancholy yet beautiful song which looks at the past with nostalgia, but also with a feeling of comradery about our shared experiences. Though most of us know parts of this song, so we’re able to tipsily sing along, I’ll bet most of us don’t really understand the meaning of many of the words or their origin.

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Fiddlin’ Around – November 2017

Fiddlin' Around headerThere’s a big ‘ole country music guy from Clover Bottom, Kentucky who nowadays owns and operates a fishing boat in Quepos and plays guitar and sings at a few venues around town. He’s got a quick and genuine smile, a beautiful and powerful voice and he’s written songs that literally millions of people have heard and love. He’s funny, been around a couple of blocks, is friends with country music legends and is respected by them in return. His name is Ralph Simms, though he went by ‘Buck Cody’ back in the early days of his career.

Ralph and NancyRalph came from a musical family—his Dad played dobro and had worked with the great Lester Flatt, and when Ralph was 17 he helped him sign with BMI Records in Nashville. His first song for them was called ‘Baby I’m Leaving’, and that’s what he did—moved to Nashville, put together a 5 piece band, and started playing wherever he could get gigs. Performing live was his main focus, and he spent years in the musical trenches, playing many hundreds of gigs from huge state fairs to seedy bars. He managed to find time to fulfill his BMI writing obligations and worked with fine producers like Larry Morton and with different notable publishing companies, including Prairie Dust Records. Ralph is one of those rare journeymen musicians who are at home on stage as a lead or rhythm guitarist, lead singer, background singer, arranger, and producer, and who also has successfully penned material recorded by other artists. He’s had several of his songs on the country charts, including The Fireman as done by Mac Vickery, and the huge hit version by George Strait of his song Amarillo By Morning. He’s played with many of the greats, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Thompson, Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Reed—just to drop a few bigshot names. He performed on the TV show Hee Haw, a cornball show about hillbillies which actually featured some great players and helped launch the careers of many still enduring musicians. Ralph was male vocalist of the year in 1984, his band won for best instrumentalists, and he’s had his share of fame and accolades—yet he says, “I’m happy to have made a living playing with great musicians who I admire and am moved by. I’m just a country boy from Kentucky who got lucky.”

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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.


Ben Jammin’

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…


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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