Costa Rica, April 2019
I returned from Costa Rica over a month ago, and I still feel like I am processing the experience. I new that it was going to be amazing, but I was stunned at the connections I made with so many people. I hope to return soon for various reasons, one of which would just be to fill up on fresh fruit and patacones again.
On April 4th, I arrived in San Jose and was greeted by my past-professor from the University of Minnesota, Fernando Meza, who was ecstatic to show me his home town. I quickly got to work and prepared for masterclasses the next morning at the National Center for Music, where I met my new percussion friend Carmen Alfaro Mandez, who teaches there. I presented a 3 hour session to the percussion students about marimba, improvisation, and finding your musical path after college. I presented many exercises that I have developed over my years of playing, and invited students to play and try them with me. As usual, students were hesitant to play in front of the their peers, but they soon grew comfortable. I performed some of my own pieces that featured improvisation as well.
That night I was invited to join Carmen for a ladies night. I did not expect to go to a ladies night in Costa Rica, but had a total blast getting to know Carmen and her friends. It was a surprise bonus experience that made me miss my own group of girlfriends back home.
The next day I did the same presentation at the University of Costa Rica. This group seemed to really resonate with the conversation surrounding composition and improvisation, many students were excited to try out my exercises and talk more with me after the session. A few of them had grown up playing traditional marimba, but were now studying classical percussion and marimba. I felt honored to connect with them and share my point of view.
Later that afternoon, a group of musicians assembled at UCR to participate in a jam session/ recording session. Fernando called a few friends (he seems to know everyone in Costa Rica), and we ended up with a fantastic group of musicians who were willing to learn my tunes and jam for the afternoon. Many of my tunes are Latin-inspired, though I’ve never had the opportunity to play them with a full ensemble. We had timbales, bongo, congas, cajon, and drumset. Plus, electric bass and saxophone. I felt my compositions come alive that day. These musicians completely elevated what I had written and I know that my ears are spoiled forever by their fantastic playing. I hope to perform with them some day.
After a day of resting in San Jose, I rented a car and headed to Santa Cruz, which is the heartland of marimba folk music. Santa Cruz is a tiny town with a huge reputation for marimba music. I offered another masterclass at the University of Costa Rica in Santa Cruz, though I had to adjust my material to for a much younger group of students. All of the students there learn marimba before moving on to other instruments; it’s much like the way we generally start with piano here. It was fun, though challenging, to try and bridge the gap between classical and traditional marimbists.
After my class, the entire school gathered and performed on marimbas for me. It was such a joyful gathering, I felt like an honored guest as they seated me in the center of the performance to listen. I gifted them about 10 sets of marimba mallets to thank them for hosting me. The exchange was so dear, it moved me to tears as I thanked the small children for playing marimba for me. (many of them had to stand on boxes to reach the marimba!) I’ll never forget that experience.
Many of the instructors at UCR Santa Cruz were a part of a traditional marimba ensemble, and they invited me to observe their rehearsal for an upcoming gig. I was blown away by their music. I have never heard such loud, joyful, and exciting marimba music. They returned invited me to play for them in return, and showed great pleasure with my compositions. After I finished a particularly Latin-infused piece of mine, they shouted “marimbista!” (marimba woman!) I was invited to a social gathering after the rehearsal, where they talked about their music and the deep tradition of marimba in Santa Cruz. I got to ask tender questions like “what would it mean to you if a white girl from Minnesota learned your music and played it?”, to which they replied, “please do!”. The cultural connection and exchange was deeply moving to me. I felt that I experienced a rare insider’s view that no one would get by simply traveling to Costa Rica. Fernando’s connection to this group of musicians made all the difference, and led me to making amazing connections with the musicians. This trip has forever changed my point of view as a musician and marimbist.
Upon returning home, I am anxious to fold these experiences into my writing. I’ve already started a piece inspired by a great moment I had with Manrique Mendez Vega. He had heard me play one of my pieces that was very Latin sounding, and told me that “it needs some poison added to it”. Apparently they use the term “poison” to refer to the sounds of great Latin music. He certainly added some poison to my tune later that afternoon on the bongo. I hope I can add more poison to my future compositions too!
Thanks for reading! More coming soon,