viernes, enero 20, 2012

Soul on Fire

by Tom Peifer

“So fine, yeah, send those chills up and down my spine.”

Transitions seem to draw our attention in myriad ways. Sunsets. The multi-colored leaves of autumn in some climes. The first rains and ensuing rebirth of green across the fields and forests of Guanacaste. We seem transfixed by all, even reveling in the symbolic death and birth of the man made unit called a year on our calendar. I guess it’s as good an excuse as any to roll up the rug and put on your dancing shoes. Along with a couple hundred other lucky souls, I surfed into 2012 at Hotel Playa Negra, swept along on pulsating river of R&B music, courtesy of Miss Sasha Campbell and the Groovemakers.

Faithful readers of the Howler may remember an interview I did with Sasha several years back, after she sang at the wedding of some friends in the same venue, under the same palm thatched rancho. (See “Distant Soul”, The Howler ???) At the time, transition was the name of the game for the young struggling artist and single mother. But, looking back, it seems that life was gearing up to deliver a much heavier dose.

At first, it appeared that the stars were aligning and her career was going into orbit. Talent recognized, contracts signed and she disappeared from the local scene to sing at the legendary House of Blues on the Sunset Strip. Ever farther from my favorite musical muse, I’d get the occasional photo of Sasha in the back of a limo, on her way to sing at events like the after-hours party of the Grammy awards. As it turns out, the bright lights and big city unleashed the darker side of the force that knocked her rising star out of orbit and back down to a ‘hard landing’ on a cold, unfriendly planet.

‘Something’ about managers, publicists, contracts and the jive world of corporate reality that never enters your mind when you are humming a tune, swaying to the beat and experiencing the primal allure of rhythm. She returned to Costa Rica literally with her tail feathers between her legs, reputation in tatters, shunned by former associates and soured on the whole idea of singing again. On one visit to the restorative waters of our deserted beaches near my humble abode she deferred from explaining the juicy details of what exactly had gone down. Her priority was to spend time with her growing daughter at the beach and just chill out, no doubt building up the will to move ahead, to open new doors and scale new heights. Little did I know just how quickly this Phoenix would arise from the ashes.

OK, granted, it has been a couple of years. Many of us know how fast that goes, mired as we are in the slower pace of life in rural Guanacaste. Over the course of a couple of cycles here in the wet-dry life zone, Sasha bounced back. In a big way.

Supported by a steady gig on the popular morning show Buen Dia, she was getting together and rehearsing non-stop with a new group of musicians. Having reclaimed her spot in the lineup at the venerable Jazz Café, she began to add new venues on a regular basis. Since my trips to San Jose are few and far between, Facebook became our main means of regular contact. Then a week or so before Christmas, in the little square chat box on FB, she dropped the bomb: “I’m coming with my musicians.”

OK, it was true that a kick-back visit had been agreed upon for a couple of months. It’s easy to appreciate the need for a little R&R from life in the fast lane. But this was turning out to be a bit more than I had bargained for. I started imagining a highly amplified rendition of “Purple Haze all in my brain…” booming out of my visitors cabina until the wee hours, scaring off the wildlife, outraging my neighbors and keeping the tormented host in a state of bleary eyed insomnia. God, I’d even needed to buy more sheets and mattresses. I hit the anti-anxiety pills and waited for my pulse to slow down.

Worse, I had no further recourse to get explanations, negotiate, nada, because the truncated exchange had taken place in the wee hours just before my Facebook friend went live on the AM show. As the Xanax kicked in and the smoke curled into the airspace overhead, I had a bit of an insight into my own psychological quirks: Paranoia and projection sometimes block the creative thoughts that produce positive results. When the cerebral tectonics went quiescent for a spell, a hunch rose out of the subconscious magma and I called Lito Fernandez, the owner of Hotel Playa Negra.

Just because my thought processes had calmed down that did not mean that Lito’s had woken up. After telling him that Sasha was coming with her ensemble and confirming that he had yet to sign a group for the annual New Year’s party, he politely suggested that a cup of coffee would do him well in order to ponder the possibilities. I made the hand-off, put them in touch on-line and hoped for the best. Over the next few hours they cut a deal. I headed off to buy more sheets after receiving the next cryptic message on FB: “We are 12 in all…”

All in all, during the few days between Christmas and New Years, I saw a lot more of the fiestas in Paraiso than my show biz visitors from San Jose. They were perfectly content to focus on the beach and relaxation during the heat of day. Meanwhile, I was keeping plants watered and reacquainting myself with the soothing virtues of alcohol after a nine-year dry spell.

Given all the goings-on, the big night sort of snuck up quietly on everybody. From a ringside seat under the rancho at Lito’s, I could sense the growing anticipation as Doña Diva took her sweet time getting into position with her band. The rest, as they say, is history.

As the house lights dimmed a sort of middle-eastern tune came on over the sound system. Perhaps a second or two of uncertainty in the crowd before we were dazzled with the sinuous belly dance by Cristibel Leandro who twirled with flaming torches around the dance floor. It was a spectacular opening but I got the impression that the crowd was a bit mystified as to the exact genre of the ensuing presentation.

The slow, staccato, snare drum lead-in to the pulsing, funky and all-too-familiar bass chords of that Stevie Wonder classic, Superstition, banished any doubt that soul music had indeed returned to Playa Negra. Big Time. Heads started bobbing to the beat and I got more than a few nods and smiles from friends as the reality began to sink in that we were set for one hell of a show. Halfway through the second number, my friend Matt—an accomplished keyboard and marimba player–nudged me and remarked: “the guy on piano is super hot.” A few songs later he admitted: “I was wrong, he was only warming up…”

As the evening wore on, we were treated to more mesmerizing dance routines by both Cristibel and the lithe and lovely Ruth Fonseca. But nothing could overshadow the dominant voice and the tight arrangements of Sasha and her band. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” occurred to me more than occasionally as the year 2011 entered its waning minutes. What a joy to bear witness, even from a distance, to a friend’s success in navigating the rapids and overcoming the obstacles that life manages to throw in our way---and come out looking like a million dollars and smelling like a rose.

The countdown to 2012 started within the Credence Clearwater song, “Proud Mary”.  Slow at first and gradually building up steam and tempo, the last seconds chanted out in a frenzied crescendo, the packed dance floor providing an impromptu choral backup.

As we drifted off into the night, with little awareness of the transitions that 2012 will bring, we could at least be grateful for rollin’ into the brand new year on a rhythmic river of soul, dance and the uplifting power of music.

Tom Peifer is an ecological land use consultant with 16 years experience in Guanacaste. Phone: 2658-8018.

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