Mayaguëz, Puerto Rico. 26 August 2008, almost 10 pm.
Puerto Ricans come in all colors, shapes and sizes, and everybody fits in. Were I sans backpack and guitar, I’d probably look halfway local, too. Matter of a fact, this afternoon an extraordinary set of circumstances led me to Juan Yambo – a twinkly-eyed twenty-something who looked a smidge like me, and proved to be exactly the right new friend for my freshly-hatched crazy plan.
No sleep last night – work to do, friends to see, packing to be done, all that. The shuttle collected me from suburban Rockville just after five a.m. and I napped the whole way to BWI. The woman at the gate eyed the little guitar on my back and asked if I were a professional.
“Yep,” I said, and confidently explained what I do as if it were what I already do instead of what I’m just barely beginning to do. “I’m traveling around the world making music with locals and filming it,” I announced. “Do you know much about the Puerto Rican music scene?”
Turns out she’s been a few times, and her father the percussionist is on his way to Puerto Rico to play a few gigs that week. She offers his email address. “His name’s Alex Acuna, used to play with Sheena E and Al Jarreau – you know them?”
Uh – yeah. Just a little bit.
“So what’s your plan?” she asks. My answer sounds ridiculous, because I’m totally unresearched, I know nobody in any of these countries, and my very best sketch at this point is a hopeful guess that I can actually get to a couple of places and find some cooperative musicians before I have to fly out in three weeks and go back to the touring routine Stateside – I’m due in Rochester, Dallas, Columbus, Chicago, and Ann Arbor before the end of September.
I stammer something about having been okay winging it before, dash off an email to her dad on the Blackberry, and get on the plane to nap for a few hours while the pilots get all sixty-four of us (American is losing money on the Baltimore to San Juan route) across to the little Caribbean island.
I was basically honest with her. I mean, I hadn’t really done anything this specific before, but I had traveled and jammed with musicians all over the place, so I figured that I could learn how to film it, too. My friends at Alive in Baghdad loaned me a camera, and Composite Acoustics gave me an indestructible carbon fiber travel guitar. The plan was coming together.
I’d spent ten years traveling internationally before coming back to the States to try the touring songwriter gig, and I figured now was a good time to go back to being part of the international community.
Community. The thing that makes travel make sense. It’s engaging conversation on the plane, sharing crackers with your seatmate on the bus, the roof you stop to thatch on a dusty Senegalese road just because you’re walking by and the guy needs the help. It’s the person who asks about your instrument who is dying to play, and you show them a few chords. And I s’pose community is the reason why it felt perfectly reasonable to fly to a brand new country with an elaborate scheme still lacking the foggiest notion of how to pull it off.
I walked right into it. Like literally.
We touched down just before noon. I went to the tourist info place. I ate unusually good airport food, then took a bus to the subway. Somewhere between the Rio Piedras subway stop and the bus that would take me to Mayaguëna, I stumbled onto the grounds of freakin’ Puerto Rico University. “Music Department” wasn’t even quite a fully-baked thought in my noggin’s oven before I looked up and there it was in front of me. Me and my backpack and baby guitar sauntered right in the front door.
Bulletin boards with Bic-scribbled “Bassist Desperately Needed” signs on blue-ruled paper, smart posters advertising masters programs in the United States, and the best part – there was singing. Some saucy alto was practicing jazz somewhere that echoed off the stone. Through a classroom window the orchestra was stopped to scold the French horns for something they goofed up, and students milled about carrying black instrument cases for their violins, piccolos, guitars, and whatever else they picked up as kids that they had actually stuck with.
The secretary tolerated my broken Spanish, and walked me to a practice room where a graduate student (the aforementioned Juan who looked a little like me) was plinking on a synth or waiting to teach a lesson to a student who never showed – I couldn’t tell. I said something in bad Spanish that I thought was: “Uh, so I’m trying to meet musicians that I can make music with and I’d like to film the process – like cultural exchange.” The last two words I know I got right. But he asked if I were looking for sheet music, so I tried different Spanish words until he responded in a way that indicated I’d communicated something correctly: “We have a traditional music group every Thursday morning at eight. You’re welcome to join us.”
Paydirt. For the next hour, we swapped songs and talked. He was enamored with my little forest-green guitar “oooh, carbon fiber,” and I got some good footage of him explaining the different traditional styles and methods of altering accompaniment and modal shifts. I slid him some of my thunky right-hand gringo mojo and he liked it at least as much as I liked how easily he integrated six-eight against four-four in his right hand style. My Short-Cut Capo made his eyes light up and might have made his brain hurt.
We end up on the subject of cultural imperialism, passed briefly over his last name (the Swahili for “hello”) which he reckons is something he got from some ancestor getting named that when they first showed up in this country “My parents are really dark,” he says. “I’m the lightest one in the family.” By the time he mentions connecting me with his friend the best quattro player in the country, and taking me to the big Saturday and Sunday night jam sessions, the secretary is locking up and it’s time to leave the practice room. Perfect timing. I shake his hand, promise to email, and head off to Mayaguëna, where I’ll catch the ferry to the Dominican Republic. From there, it’s Haiti and Cuba, then back in two weeks to meet up with Juan and his friends before returning Stateside.
Community filled in the gaps in places I hadn’t planned, making up for my “just-go-there-and-figger-it-out” attitude. I don’t even know if I could have planned something as good as meeting Juan. But I’m sure glad I did. Now it’s almost midnight, and I’m finally going to bed.