Underground beats sound different in different countries. As obvious as that axiom may be, there is still room to be astonished by our world’s variety. Nothing could prepare the audience at El Castillo Saturday night for a series of didgeridoo solos, accompanied by a guitarist playing Meringue rhythms and coaxing girls to Salsa dance. It was like many aspects of greater Costa Rica — mottled with outside influences — but that night’s performance led the crowd into a hush. For me the experience was especially unusual. Instead of acting in my given capacity as an observer, I took up the challenge of analyzing the event from the inside. I was the didgeridoo player.
Five in the afternoon, Saturday the first of August, at a vacation home belonging to a very generous family:
I wandered into the courtyard performance of a talented Costa Rican musician playing guitar and singing. He was covering songs from across-the-board. With a perfectly acquired American accent, he seemed to emanate countless years of diligent rehearsal and performance. Around him towered sound-reinforcement equipment, loud enough to muffle the pounding rumble of a nearby shore-break. Plastered around a clear blue swimming pool, a gathering of diverse family members tapped out beats with their flip-flops and bare feet. I sat down and drank coconut water straight from the husk. Before I could fully kick-back and relax, I was spontaneously summoned by the organizer of the event.
“Get up there and play,” he insisted. I had been spotted sitting prone with my didgeridoo propped against the table, and would have to pay the price for idleness.
Play didge with a guitar? How?
“Alright,” I said diffidently, and walked up to the now quiescent performer. He shook my hand and humbly introduced himself as Don Carlos.
I admitted to him immediately that I had no clue what key my instrument was in. I just bought it a few days days before in Flamingo. He shrugged and asked me to play a sustained note. As I did, I could see his fingers working lightly over the guitar strings.
“It’s in D,” he revealed.
I had only a moment to nod and smile before he began strumming. It was go-time. I looked down sharply and concentrated on the rhythm, trying to match it while circular-breathing. Within a few measures I had found a beat which worked.
There was an immediate fusion of musical styles. The pool-side listeners had never heard it before, and they were silent the whole time, except for utterances of shock and the flicking of camera shutters.
As the performance progressed, Don Carlos suddenly ceased improvising, and began playing Pink Floyd’s, “Another Brick in the Wall”. It went well with the bass rhythm rolling from my didgeridoo. Those who were listening appeared to shudder with the intensity of the amplified beat.
At intervals when Don Carlos hit higher octaves I would produce my own high pitched trills. Each beat on cue, it sounded like we had rehearsed the whole song. Sensing the end, I watched Don Carlos for the finale. In a quenching surge, he improvised a new finish. With one accord, we halted on the same note. Stark silence ensued — then applause.
I hastily bowed and slipped away, back to the coconut.
Later after the whole show was over Don Carlos was breaking down his setup and I meandered over to offer some help. Like most musicians with their precious gear, he was hesitant to have any assistance. I was hesitant to break his stuff, so we agreed on not helping, and he grinned heartily at the intent of my offer. Unexpectedly he countered with a new proposition.
“I’m playing a gig tonight, you want to go?” He asked.
I looked around. I needed some kind of way out. There was none.
“Ah, well. I should see what my friend’s doing — I’m pretty much only here because it’s her family reunion,” I stammered.
He shrugged. “The place is called El Castillo. I’ll be there late.”
That was all I would see of Don Carlos if I had really wanted. There was much more to consider; it was my last day in Costa Rica.
Eventually I found myself walking up to flashing lights and dancing figures, partially concealed within a hazy knot of chaos and people. El Castillo was a lively venue on Saturday nights. On the stage, I saw Don Carlos doing what he did best.
I had to wait until he noticed me; there was a crowd. I sat at a table near the front and propped up my didge. He would notice that. I ordered a beer and waited.
He finished the song he was playing and quickly introduced me as the Australian guy with an unusual instrument. Instantly we were back to the same groove as before, like we had never even stopped.
The song ended and I was assaulted with applause. I strode back to my seat, but wasn’t there for long. . .
I was called up again, and this time given the mic. I introduced the crowd to an old creation myth of Australia which correlates didgeridoos with the origin of the universe. The crowd was listening intently as I finished. Then Don Carlos and I began to jam. Instead of playing something well-known like “Another Brick in the Wall” he began playing his guitar like a percussion instrument. Together we played a simple tribal drumming rhythm that evolved into a march, which transformed into Merengue. I had never heard myself play to such a beat, nor had I thought it possible with such an instrument, but when girls began Salsa dancing I knew it was happening.
We played for an indeterminate amount of time. It was only after a gradual decrease in the tempo when we knew we should end it. On the same note, we halted. I was out of breath and in need of liquid — preferably beer.
Don Carlos went on playing until midnight, as he did every other Saturday night at El Castillo. When I turned to leave, he stopped me and asked if I would play again tomorrow. It was a painful question. I didn’t live there, and I was leaving in the morning. I wanted to tell him the experience was beyond my comprehension, but I left things simple and just said thank you.
I walked away into the moonlight, playing a little more as I strolled down the beach. While playing, I was deep in thought. It was always great to mix it up with local musicians. It made me feel differently about traveling. I was no longer a tourist, I was a local from another location.