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Manuel Obregón: Infinite Musician

Costa Rican composer, musician, and producer Manuel Obregón studied piano as a boy and went on to perfect his technique at the University of Costa Rica and in Madrid. He also studied jazz and flamenco in Barcelona and Switzerland. Motivated by his musical research, he brought together fourteen Central American musicians in Orquesta de la Papaya, Orquesta de las Misiones, and Orquesta Río Infinito. Obregón is a tireless researcher and studies Latin American music in many of the continent’s major cultural corridors.

By Gladys Arosemena Bissot
Photos: Lourdes Mora, Pablo Cambronero

This has been a year of great challenges and rewards for Costa Rican musician Manuel Obregón. Although it’s the middle of winter, the morning is quite warm. Outside, as they say, the sun burns hot, but inside Obregón’s house in San Jose, its rays enter respectfully through a delicate patio. Every corner of the room is filled with music that reminds us of our roots and encounters. It’s the perfect moment for a conversation with a musician who transcends the borders of his native Costa Rica.

At what age did you realize you wanted to be a musician?

At age 18, when I left school, I began my musical career. I always loved music, but I’d never explored it professionally. At that time, it was the easiest way to communicate. That, and the fact that I possessed the facility needed to do it, were the factors that I took into account when deciding to pursue a career in this field.

A number of musical influences are apparent in your work. Which are your favorite and biggest influences?

Several have been constant. Nature has accompanied me on all my records, from the first recording. It’s an important part of your environment when you grow up and live in Costa Rica. And, undoubtedly, Costa Rican and Central American culture play a part. I think Central America has been the other musical passion in my life. The major Latin American cultural corridors have been a huge influence on my work.

What motivated you to create Orquesta de la Papaya?

Orquesta de la Papaya grew out of the need to know more about our roots and create meeting places, which didn’t exist at that time, to share traditional music. We managed to bring together musicians from different countries who share the same concerns. This led to a number of initiatives, such as the Papaya Music label, and other groups, including the Orquesta del Río Infinito.

I understand the musicians in Orquesta de la Papaya didn’t know each other before this process began. How were you able to link people with such diverse interests and backgrounds?

There was a selection process. At the time, I traveled a lot as a solo pianist, but I also was part of several well-known Central American rock groups, like Café con Leche. In this context I had the opportunity to meet various musicians who played Central American music. So we formed an orchestra of musicians who, while unknown to each other, were well known in their home countries. This was the case with Lenin Fernández in Guatemala, for example, and Ramón Eduardo Cedeño, the Honduran guitarist in Orquesta de la Papaya, and Ormelis Cortez and Yomira John from Panama, and the rest of the musicians in the orchestra. And Costa Rica was the site chosen for the meeting.

Aside from Yomira John’s extensive musical knowledge, what was the importance of including her in the orchestra as the female voice of Central America?

Yomira brought much more to the group than just being the first woman. I met her when she performed at the Festival del Bolero in Cuba. The musicians who were to accompany her didn’t show so I offered to play and so began a friendship that has lasted years. Yomira understood from the beginning the importance of strengthening an orchestra of this nature. She was living in France at the time, and then moved to Central America. She’s been a part of major projects because of the many aspects of her expertise: her Afro-Caribbean influences and her knowledge of Central American mestizo music and music history. She was the ideal person, and many other women followed her and have also brought their art to the orchestra.

What led you to transcribe the piano works of Agustín Barrios Mangoré?

I’ve always lived and studied with guitarists. In the 80s, I moved to Madrid. I studied piano, but most of my friends were guitarists. Almost everyone went to Spain to study guitar and, in fact, there were many Costa Ricans in the city learning to play. They performed Mangoré’s music and it captivated me from the start. So, little by little, I began to play it on the piano, mostly as an experiment. Later, as years went by, I took a chance and recorded the first album of piano transcriptions of the work of this great guitar virtuoso.

Mangoré had close ties to America. He only toured twice in his life, but each tour lasted ten years and took him through several parts of the continent. He stayed a long time in each country and his extensive travels gave him a deep understanding of the culture in each place. So in his work there’s a kind of reflection of American music that touches us all when we hear it, and which includes all the influence of our first peoples.

Out of this exchange arose others in your life. Is there any link between Orquesta de la Papaya and Orquesta de las Misiones?

Orquesta de las Misiones is a transition between Orquesta de la Papaya and Orquesta del Río Infinito. After Orquesta de la Papaya took off, I got calls from a number of places asking if it would be possible to create other orchestras of regional integration using the same format. So I began by visiting the Jesuit missions, which cover the territory that is now Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, where the musical culture is immense. We formed the first orchestra and presented it in Paraguay. This established a form of travel, and Orquesta del Río Infinito grew out of this. You have to keep in mind that when you travel through the Bolivian part of the Amazon there are almost no roads or airports and rivers are therefore the natural choice for travel. Orquesta de las Misiones grew out of this and evolved into Orquesta del Río Infinito.

Why did you choose to travel through America by river?

First, because rivers are major cultural highways; they made it possible for our ancestors to travel. And most of our countries were formed around them. Just look at the importance that rivers like the Mississippi, the Orinoco, the Magdalena and, of course, the Amazon have had on cultural development in these regions. The Amazon, for example, has influenced the culture of seventeen countries. Rivers are the first to appear on a map; in fact, man-made boundaries have not changed the culture of the rivers.

Another important reason is that many indigenous languages use the same word for “art” and “nature.” I don’t think you can separate art and culture, because when the natural environment disappears, culture goes with it. This is the legacy of the rivers; hence the importance of protecting watersheds.

What is a Orquesta del Río Infinito tour like?

Orchestra tours always require a preproduction period in which the team visits the region, makes the necessary contacts with cultural and environmental organizations, processes permits, and analyzes the navigation systems and the kinds of vessels available. This is done a year before the orchestra is to travel and is essential, given the fact that the team consists of many people.

Our first trip was to Paraguay, from the Uruguay River basin to the Amazon, with Orquesta de las Misiones. We’ve traveled on rivers like the Iguazú, from Rosario to Buenos Aires. Fortunately, it is much easier to travel the Amazon basin nowadays. Boats now have cabins and the river offers 3,700 navigable miles, with tributaries and watersheds that make the trip much easier.

The important thing about a trip of this nature is the way it is shared by the artists and communities. We’ll spend one to three days in each community, depending on the weather and what happens there. We’ve incorporated potlucks, which have made travel much more rewarding. We prepare a meal, share with local artists, and open a space in which to listen to them. This is the only orchestra designed not only to perform, but also to listen to other artists. Why is it important to listen to them? Many of the musicians are relatively unknown elsewhere. It’s important to make them visible and recover the link between navigation and culture.

What did you bring back from this last experience in the Amazon?

Our visit to Río Negro, Manaus, in northeastern Amazon, and a community called the Maraã, made us realize the enormity of the Amazon basin. We’re talking about nearly 2,700,000 square miles, which means a huge potential for getting to know our rich ancient history. Unlike what many people think, the Amazon is inhabited by people who have lived a long time in harmony with the environment. Economic pressures threaten the forest; the important thing is to give value to the preservation of culture and the idea of the forests as a whole.

I understand there were instrument-making workshops.

We always try to have these workshops because we travel with several luthiers. This time, we traveled with a number of guitarists and materials were donated to build instruments in the communities. Our luthiers share their techniques, but local musicians provide important knowledge. We learned a lot about how these old instruments are made. By reaching out to communities in so many countries, knowledge multiplies.

People say we’re rescuing culture, but I think it’s the other way around: it’s culture that will end up rescuing society. It’s important to point out everything we still have to learn from these cultures and the natural environment. Many of the solutions we seek now and that come from the fields of science and medicine, or the spiritual realm, can be found in this mix between culture and nature. For example, “tree” and “art” are the same word for indigenous people. The tree is what connects the earth with the sky and the artist fulfills the same function. That link cannot be separated.

Musical research is one of the pillars of your work as a musician. What academic satisfactions has that path brought you?

It is extremely gratifying to know things that are not taught in universities, things you have to learn in the places where they actually operate. People ask me why I play concerts in impossible places and I tell them it’s because that’s where things are happening. You can’t just stay in theaters or in places where conventional events occur. I think the musical history of Central America would be different if it weren’t for groups liked Orquesta de la Papaya and many others that have sprung up around it. In the past few years, projects inspired by these trips have flourished. We’ve learned so much.

The advantage of music is that it speaks for itself. If you listen to an album by artists who are no longer with us, you hear all their knowledge reflected there. Some speak of a musical Americanism. The truth is that we are a continent that still doesn’t know itself well. Sometimes we find it hard to imagine ourselves, and when I speak of a continent, I mean from Canada to Patagonia. Despite this, the American borders have never been an impediment to singing the same song in all our countries, and this happens only in America.

You’ve received a number of awards this year. Where is your musical path headed next?

Undoubtedly, this has been a complex year for decision-making and there were some major awards. The truth is the doctorate at the Canadian university got me writing, and looking for things that may have led me to value the past and rethink where I want to go. Most of all, after the trip to the Amazon, I think there has been one constant in my career: the freedom to explore new areas. I’ve been writing things inspired by dreams. This new type of composition allows me to abandon mental frameworks that I set for myself. Sometimes you think of yourself as a classic folk musician when, actually, those barriers don’t exist. Even after the break I had in the Ministry of Culture [of Costa Rica] for four years, I was able to pick up my projects again, and that’s good. Things have to have their own life, without always having to be present.

At the end of the interview, Obregón plays one of the dreamlike pieces that have seduced him. In his dream, women walk through a desert singing the notes. That scene plays over in my mind, but I picture him navigating rivers, playing among forests, and building his dream of an America more united by the ties of an indelible musical legacy.

For more information about Manuel Obregón’s discography and music, visit www.manuelobregon.com.