LEÓN – On a weekday night in this hot and dusty city, Philip Montalbán’s music draws in more foreigners than fellow Nicaraguans.
The reggae artist is standing behind a mic, surveying the Olla Quemada bar. It’s packed with English-speaking tourists who toss back beers and shuffle awkwardly to the music.
Montalbán looks pleased and, yet, he knows most of the people here didn’t exactly come to see him. They listen casually, visibly perking up when he sings a Bob Marley cover they recognize.
The scene changes slightly on a different night in Managua. Montalbán plays a threesong acoustic set before a small audience of wealthy Nicaraguans at the trendy Garabato bar-café. He finishes to respectful applause.
Again, the crowd isn’t there to hear him play. Montalbán was just the opening act for a younger, up-and-coming pop singer.
Making it these days as a musician in Nicaragua would be an uphill battle for anybody; there is barely a national music scene to speak of, pirated music floods the markets and imported reggaeton and bachata songs dominate the airwaves.
But the challenge to make it is even greater for a black reggae singer from the Caribbean coast. And, yet, for more than a decade, Montalbán has tirelessly worked to build a reputation and earn a dignified living on this side of the country.
“My wife tells me to do more covers,” Montalbán says. “I sing my own songs. I have to be myself. They have to like me for who I am.”
During a recent interview in his home in the Managua neighborhood of Las Brisas, the 48-year-old described his admiration for the legendary Marley, as well as his ongoing spiritual journey toward defining his own sound.
“We love him, but we wanna go through our own experiences,” Montalbán said, seamlessly alternating from English to Spanish.“Marley sang about struggle and the truth is we’re a minority here. My music has been revolutionary music. I am trying to sing the things that are in my heart, but it’s in my own style.”
Montalbán grew up in the tiny Creole and Miskito village of Tasbapouni in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, a part of the country historically isolated from the capital due to geographical, language and cultural barriers.
As a child, Montalbán learned to appreciate music from his blind great uncle, a man whose voice and guitar-playing made him famous throughout the village. By the age of 12, he began plucking at his own acoustic guitar, and played his first electric guitar when he was 18.
After high school Montalbán left the region for a few years to work on cruise ships. Later, to escape the violence that struck Tasbapouni during Nicaragua’s civil war, he moved to Managua. There, he married and began to study law at Universidad Centroamericana.
During these years in the mid-1980s, he returned to music. It was a way to relax his mind from studying and make some extra cash from weekend gigs. But soon enough he joined a band called Soul Vibrations and dropped out of law school.
Over the next few years, the band toured Europe, the United States and Latin America. Despite the backdrop of civil war, it was a good decade to be a musician in Nicaragua.
The revolutionary Sandinista government supported and was supported by musicians who created odes to Nicaragua and sang out against the former Somoza dictatorship and the U.S.-funded counterrevolution.
“In moments like those, the people preferred national musicians,” says Montalbán’s publicist, Jorge Pallovicini. “That was in the 1980s. After that, it seemed like the radio just wanted to play hits and all those hits had to come from outside.”
Soul Vibrations broke up in 1994. Within a few years, though, Montalbán was creating music again, now as a solo singer-songwriter. Since then he has released three albums, most recently “Viva la Vida” in 2005.
The songs – in English, Spanish and Miskito – share a common message about standing up for justice, equality, peace and saving the environment.
“He has a style that comes from his own Afro-Caribbean roots, and it’s very good,” said Marto “Menchú” Alvarez, a longtime Managua musician and member of the group América Vive. “Philip is a charismatic musician.”
Montalbán has made a name for himself over the past decade. In 2006 he became the first black Nicaraguan to win the country’s highest cultural award. He is also frequently invited to speak or perform at important cultural events or to visiting student groups.
Still, reggae hasn’t caught on among the country’s Spanish-speaking majority.
“Maybe they don’t appreciate it because not many major international reggae acts have come to play here,” suggests Thomas, Montalbán’s 19-year-old son.
Montalbán’s wife, Gina, is more blunt. “There are so few fans. It’s mostly foreigners,” she says, sounding tired. “If it wasn’t for Bob Marley, he would not survive in this country.”
But Montalbán is not Marley, and he doesn’t intend to scrape a living out of playing covers to drunk foreigners at tourist bars.
He wants to do more than survive. He dreams of penetrating foreign markets, creating a Web site, and finding a distributor.
Those dreams might be a little far off, but for now he’s staying busy. Locally, he has several concerts lined up for February, with plans to tour the East Coast in the United States in early March.
Montalbán is also recording a tribute to the City of Managua that is scheduled for release Feb. 5. And he is transforming a bedroom in the back of his home into a small studio, which when complete, he hopes can become Managua’s reggae studio. Until then, he’ll use it to record jingles that he can sell to local advertisers.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” he says. “I’m in this fight like the rest of the musicians in Nicaragua. You do it because you want to do something that makes your life worthwhile for this little lapse of time we’ve got.”
(With performances by Philip Montalbán and other artists )
Feb. 7, El Centro Cultural Ruta Maya, Managua, 7 p.m.
Feb. 8 at the Mercado Artesanía, Masaya, 7 p.m.
Feb. 9 TBA, León, 7 p.m.
OTHER UPCOMING DATES
Feb. 14: Granada´s International Poetry Festival, 7 p.m.
Feb. 15: The Escuela de Danza at la Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), Managua, 8 p.m.
To Contact Montalbán: 861-5519, or 600-4881