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Limon Calypso Manuel Monestel’s Big Surprise

Costa Rican musician Manuel Monestel was in Panama City in late May to participate in a forum on black identity organized by the city government. Between presentations and round tables, he spoke with us about his interest in calypso, the future of this music, and the contributions his group, Cantoamérica, has made to the recognition of Afro-Caribbean identities in the region.

By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Cristian Pinzón

Manuel Monestel was motivated by curiosity. In the manner of a child asking “why?”, Monestel set out for the province of Limón, on his country’s eastern edge, to prove that Costa Rica was more than the white, Catholic, and Hispanic country in which he had grown up.

A sociologist, musician, composer, and researcher, Monestel is known for his more than 30 years of work with Cantoamérica, a group he founded in 1980 to share the richness of the Afro-Caribbean music he discovered in Limón. Starting in 1870, waves of people from Honduras, Curaçao, Panama, and Belize arrived to work on the railroad intended to link San José and Limón. A larger contingent of workers from Jamaica would later join this migration.

Monestel was born in San José, in the country’s central valley, and he grew up in a family of musicians, both amateur and professional. He was raised to the sound of his father’s boleros and sones, but he turned to American rock when he reached adolescence. The musician spoke to us during a break at the first International Forum on Negritude in Panama: Resistance, Resilience, and Recognition, held in Panama City at the end of May.

Monestel remembers certain aspects of early life with his parents that might explain how and why he ended up in Limón. For example, one of his elementary school friends was black and spoke Creole English and Spanish. “I admired him for speaking two languages while I spoke only Spanish.” There were also frequent Sunday lunchtime visits from Afro friends from Limón, something unusual in those years when Limón residents rarely left their province.

He was still into American rock when he finished high school and went to the university to study sociology. “For many years, I had a dual identity: sociologist on the one hand, and musician on the other. It bothered me to have two professions, two occupations.” Meanwhile, he joined the group Teyacán, directed by Nicaraguan musician Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy. In this group, he not only protested against dictatorships in song, but met the members of the musical wave then sweeping the Americas: Violeta Parra, Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque… “[Then] I realized that I was playing music that had nothing to do with my identity.”

After Teyacán broke up owing to the departure of Mejía Godoy —who returned to Nicaragua after the fall of Anastasio Somoza— Monestel decided to travel to Limón, where he discovered a Caribbean culture and a style of music, calypso, that he had only heard in the voices of people like Harry Belafonte. “I didn’t know there was calypso in my country,” he emphasizes, still showing surprise.

History tells us that the Jamaican workers who arrived to build the railroad had intended to stay only as long as the work lasted, but a financial crisis delayed the project, forcing many of the laborers to take up subsistence farming on lands adjoining the railway line. The project was saved by Minor Keith, a U.S. entrepreneur who succeeded in obtaining land concessions and a 99-year lease on operation of the train route. He used these workers to increase banana production. As Keith expanded his banana empire to Panama and Colombia, temporary residence became permanent for many Jamaicans. Although their legal situation would not be clarified until the 1940s, when the Costa Rican government granted them citizenship, their Afro-Caribbean culture had already taken root in Costa Rica and implanted its rhythms and customs.

It is said that people in San José knew little of Limón. “I first drove there on the toll-free highway in a tiny car, visiting small towns around the province. I was trying to become familiar with it. I read a book by an anthropologist who wrote about the oral culture of southern Limón (Talamanca), and mentioned calypso player [Walter] Ferguson. I got in contact with Ferguson through the author. I had stumbled upon the greatest calypsonian in Costa Rica! From that beginning, I started to meet other outstanding calypsonians and to realize that there existed a great world known as calypso.”

The discovery was especially important because, in Costa Rica, only the blacks of Limón speak of themselves as black, even though there are descendents of colonial-era blacks on the northern Pacific side of the country. That was when Monestel also confirmed that, although Limón is barely two and a half hours from San José, the capital really knows very little of the province’s people and culture.

Limón is a coastal province, with linguistic characteristics shared with the Afro-Caribbeans who live along the Pacific coast of Central America, from Bluefields in Nicaragua to Bocas del Toro in Panama. “The ties of African heritage stretch to Uruguay, which is an Afro-descendant coast; the peoples speak different languages depending on their Colonial experience,” he explains.

Monestel gradually integrated into the Limón community, although he was made to feel different at first. “They called me ‘pañaman,’ short for ‘hombre de España (Spanish man), meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘intruder’,” he recalls. When he began to sing calypso, they asked him why a pañaman was singing a Caribbean rhythm born in Trinidad and Tobago. He notes that over the years, he has become “part of the scenery,” and although he still travels from San José to Limón and back, he is thinking of buying a plot of land “after all these years.”

His career with Cantoamérica has been a long one, lasting 37 years. Of the original group, only Monestel remains, but the constant influx of new members has turned it into a sort of school attended by young musicians who want to learn something different. Although the group plays largely calypso music from Limón, Monestel has been clear that this music is not like that of the Limón calypsonians, nor is he trying to replace them. “The instrumentation of Cantoamérica is not typical of Limón calypso, but we do respect their rhythmic patterns and the words of their songwriters,” he said in an interview in September 2015 with the Costa Rican newspaper La Nación. “We are well aware that Cantoamérica is meant to strengthen our Afro-descendant identities. I think this is one reason we have lasted so long,” he added.

Cantoamérica has recorded a total of thirteen albums: the first, La nueva canción costarricense, was released in 1981 and the last, Vuela el amor, in 2015. The group has also been recognized for its promotion of Afro-Costa Rican music, and Monestel himself has garnered awards, including the National Popular Culture Award in 2010 and the Viva Prize 2010.

Monestel is optimistic about the future of calypso. When he first set foot in Limón and heard the old calypsonians, his initial thought was that the music would soon disappear. Then reggae became popular, making calypso’s future seem even more dire. But it turned out that “reggae came, but it didn’t stick,” after which calypso began to revive.

The same thing is happening in other places: “In Panama, Lord Cobra died and Lord Panamá is very ill. It seemed like calypso would also die, but there is a resurgence in Panama: they are making documentaries, talking about Afro-Panamanian culture. I think there is a new feeling in the region that calypso should be preserved. This is also happening in Nicaragua, where calypso is called ‘palo de mayo.’”

What is in doubt, at least in Limón, is the future of composing. There are young performers and an ongoing calypso workshop in the province. “However, I can’t say that calypso will continue to be what it is today, since music is dynamic; cultural and musical identities are not like museum pieces that never change.” Furthermore, Walter Ferguson is already 98, “and although I hope he lasts another ten years, it seems unlikely,” he says.

But the situation in Trinidad and Tobago is different. There, calypso is still robust and still strongly linked to identity. “Last year, the young (35 years old) king of calypso, Devon Seale, who is a magnificent artist, visited [Limón]. Calypso will not die in Trinidad, because it’s an institution there. It won’t die in Jamaica either. The question is what will happen in countries like Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, but I think we’re seeing a renaissance.”