San José’s El Sótano catches a serious case of the blues

August 19, 2014

Raised in London, David Scott had already worked as a bartender, songwriter, musician, and DJ by the time he moved to Central America. But for the past two decades, Scott has been best known locally as co-founder of The Blind Pig Blues Band, the outfit that brought the blues to Costa Rica.

“The Blind Pig Band has played every live music venue in Costa Rica, including one with a plank of wood and two stools,” reads the band’s Facebook page. “We’ve seen more incarnations than the Vampire Lestat.”

“Unbeknownst to me,” joked Scott recently to The Tico Times, “it grew up into something that has been accepted as part of [Costa Rican] culture. All the kids that are interested in blues come down to experience it.”

So there is perhaps no one more qualified to help create an International Blues Festival than Scott, whose vocals will help open the two-night festival at El Sótano on Thursday, August 21.

“The idea started about six years ago,” recalled Scott. He doesn’t remember exactly who came up with it, but he is sure of one thing: “It was not my idea.” He explains that the impulse for the El Sótano event came from owner José María Alfaro. “This is a venue that we’ve never had before, and they’ve brought something we’ve never had before.”

The venue is perfect for an old-school blues performance: Built into the basement of a vintage building in Barrio Amón, the intimate, brick-walled bar perfectly matches the earthy little clubs that have gestated blues music for the past century. The festival is presented by AmónSolar, an organization that promotes the Amón neighborhood, its businesses and cultural activities. El Sótano has become a major venue for blues music in Costa Rica, with its regular jam sessions and blues nights.

The Blues Festival only spans Thursday and Friday, and there’s only one venue, but the lineup is astonishing: The first night will feature blues legend Steve Arvey, as well as Scott, who has collaborated with Arvey for many years. The second night will be divided among numerous artists, including The Blind Pigs, Calacas Blues, Navil Garcia, M.G. & The Blues Burners, and the J.R. Blues Band, among others. Some standouts include Hurricane Hawk and former Costa Rican Culture Minister Manuel Obregón, a renowned pianist.

“There have been many international blues fests here,” wrote Margie Flaum, the well known on-air personality for Costa Rica’s Radio 2. “But not for years.”

Her story is like an old song: Flaum came to Costa Rica on vacation about a decade ago and met Scott on the beach in Manuel Antonio. The two fell in love and were married. Together, they are working to publicize the festival, which they hope will appeal to both Tico and Gringo blues fans – plus newbies with piqued interest.

Costa Rica is not famous for its blues culture – certainly not compared to its marimba, ska, rock and Latin pop – but Scott and his many friends have managed to keep the genre alive and thriving. (Indeed, much of Costa Rica has the same sultry, easygoing atmosphere as the Mississippi Delta.) The very term “blues” means different things to different people, but it has its roots in African-American music in the southern United States.

“Of course, there’s West Texas Blues, and that’s where Texas Blues Swing comes from,” said Scott. “There’s Chicago Blues, with the big horn sounds. New Orleans comes from traditional jazz and the blues of Dr. John, to name one.” He paused and chuckled. “I could talk about this all afternoon. Just come down and see the show.”

The International Blues Festival plays Thurs., Aug. 21, and Fri., Aug. 22 at El Sótano, Barrio Amón, in San José, at 7 p.m. Cover is ₡5,000 ($10). Info: Festival Facebook page.

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