Cantoamérica, which is Calypsonian or “Caribbean Fusion,” as they describe themselves, will blow out 35 candles this year. Instead if cekebrating it with a birthday cake, they are releasing a new album named “Vuela Otra Vez” (“Fly again“) eight years after their last release, “Vientos del Caribe.”
The Tico Times talked to three of the nine members of the group: singer, guitarrist and songwriter Manuel Monestel, who has been part of the band since the start; trombonist Alfredo Chavarría, who joined the band in 2008; and percussionist José (Momo) Valverde, who joined in 2001.
TT: As you, Manuel, have been part of the band sice it was created, where did the idea of Cantoamérica came from?
MM: In the 1970s there was a musical movement called “The new Costa Rican song,” part of a larger, regional movement of Latin American identity, which tried to balance U.S. influence on Latin American music. We played Latin American music using Latin American instruments. I was playing with a group called “Tayacan,” directed by the great Nicaraguan musician Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy, who after a while went back to Nicaragua because of the Sandinista Revolution at that time.
After he left, the group came to an end, but some of us wanted to continue. That is how Cantoamérica was created in 1980 by Rodrigo Salas, Roberto Salas, Carlos Svedra, Bernal Monestel (my brother) and me.
Why Calypsonian music? Why the Caribbean?
MM: In 1978-1979 I started questioning what happened with music on the Caribbean side of the country, understanding that we have a Caribbean province populated and influenced by an Afro-descendent culture. We found that approximately 95% of the music heard all around the world has African roots. Without the African Diaspora there would be no jazz, no blues, no salsa, no cumbia, no merengue, no calypso, no reggae. So I thought there must be interesting music in Limón. I started making contacts, getting to know their culture, reading about that region’s music that so few people knew; casually all written by foreigners, because, as you must know, ‘Ticos’ don’t get interested in those things. So, there I discovered Calypso, found musicians such as Walter Ferguson, and understood there was a whole musical culture led by Calypsonians. That is how I decided to bring in that kind of music to Cantoamerica. The group started with a Latin American emphasis; now it is more Afro-American.
AC: I would’t like to label it, I mean, I wouldn’t say “we play calypso.” I think it is more like Manuel said, a fusion. I think that is an important and faithful reflection of what Costa Rican culture is: a mixed culture. I would also say that the great legacy of the group is the reinvindication of that mixed heritage which, from my point of view, has been historically invisible.
It seems to me that, not only in Costa Rica but worldwide, those fusions are very successful because, at some point, people feel identified with them, unless they don’t quite understand why. I’m sure that when people listen to Cantoamérica they inmediately identify with it. They feel Costa Rican.
MM: We are often described as a ‘World Caribbean Music’ group, and it is exactly that. A fusion of roots of our musical identities.
How would you describe the trajectory of the group?
MM: There are nine members; I am the only one who has been in the group since the start. We have toured through Asia, Africa, Europe and America, with approximately 28 international tours and 13 albums. We have worked with soloists and bands from Limón.
JV: For this new album we had the opportunity to visit Africa, where we could see our roots, the roots of the Caribbean. We worked with African musician Eleuthere Gabon Assouramou, who gave a special feel to the new album. You can find some African drums in some songs.
MM: A characteristic of the group right now, that I really like actually, is the participation of very young musicians. Most of them are less than 30. I like it because they bring young ideas, young energies. They give the group oxygen.
AC: Another thing to highlight about the group today is female participation. They give a very special touch to the group.
MM: They make us ‘politically correct’ [laughs].
AC: Basically [laughs again]. Well, more than that, I think that the female energy creates a balance, a very important energy in any kind of human group. And the album reflects that female influence.
José, can you describe the characteristic percussion of Cantoamérica?
JV: We play many rhythms such as Cha Cha Cha and bolero, but we are mainly focused on Calypso, which is a rhythm that does exist in our country and that we must exploit. Thus, our percussion is basically based on drums, timbales, bongo, large conga drums, effects and minor percussion.
José and Alfredo, what has your experience been since joining the band?
AC: I joined in 2008, and about the experience – I could talk for hours about it. I could easily compare what I learned at university with what I have learned in Cantoamérica. That says quite a lot. Manuel’s guidance have been really important.
JV: I started to play in the group in 2001, and I can say that Cantoamérica has given many musicians the opportunity to learn, be creative, and experiment. This has been a school for all of us. This is a group which through the passage of the years always keeps its charisma and joy. Before I joined the group, I used to listen to Cantoamérica and think, “So nice! I’d love to play with them” and, well, here I am.
AC: Cantoamérica is an emblematic group within Costa Rican music, and I don’t say that because I’m part of it, but because there are many generations of Costa Rican musicians who has passed through Cantoamérica and have carried all the learning they obtained to other different projects and groups. The most rewarding aspect is all that daily coexistence with musicians.
Tell us about this new album, “Vuela Otra Vez.”
MM: Most of the music is original, mainly written by me. When we use non-original songs, they are music of Calypsonians authors from Limón. One track, ‘Orire,’ is a mixture of our music with the traditional African song of that name. It expresses both cultural sides, African and Caribbean.
The name of the album has a double function. Frst, is the name of one of the songs which tells the story of a girl whose husband cheats on her and abandons her; the song encourages her to get free of her situation, to open her wings and fly, as the chorus says: ‘Vuela otra vez mariposa, vuela otra vez’ [‘Fly again butterfly, fly again’]. And, second, since Cantoamérica had several years of not releasing an album, the message is like: ‘Vuela otra vez Cantoamérica.’ We are back.
We received financial support from approximately 100 people to make the album, and we are really thankful to all of them.
What does Cantoamérica wants to communicate with its music?
MM: Costa Rica is a complex country, and I say complex beacuse it is a country that focuses on the outside instead of the inside. It still doesn’t value its cultural production, our ethnic-cultural roots. The country is still thinking about itself as a ‘white country’ and most of its radio is virtually closed to any national music. The country follows a mainstream which makes invisible all those movements that go against that, and groups such as Cantoamérica must try harder. It is gratifying to me to write my own music, the music we like and we want to play, and not write in function of commercial impositions and opportunism.
I don’t critize musicians who play covers, but I think that Costa Rica will not represent itself internationally with its music if we keep that way. You don’t go to the United States or England and play covers. The country must progress, look for its roots and base itself on those roots to create. I’m not talking about folklore. I’m talking about assimilating our real roots and transmitting them along with contemporary music, and relating all this to our history.
Cantoamérica is offering a free concert today at the National Cultural Center (CENAC) in downtown San José at 3:30p.m. More info at 2255-3188.