My rediscovery of music

January 2003


Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

Victor Hugo


I am at home wherever I make music.”

—used and abused cliché of musicians



How can it be that it’s taken me so many years to comprehend what I knew ever so well in my youth? In the past few years, first in Guatemala, then more recently here in El Salvador, I’ve rediscovered the soulfulness of making music. Not only have I found that some of the most genuine connections I am able to make with people come through music, but also that “David the musician” carries little or none of the North-South baggage that does “David the funder.”


I’ve long toiled in a profession (or professions?) in which scepticism and a critical stance toward everyone around me had its rewards, and my embrace of this posture has indeed contributed to some modicum of success. Yet music-making helps to break down (or at least circumscribe) the walls of distance that we otherwise so readily construct between ourselves.


Thus it has happened that, more than fifteen years after selling my cello in 1985 to help cover the expenses for my first-ever visit to Central America, I’ve returned to my musical roots. First, last year I acquired a very cool-looking Yamaha electric cello. And then a few months ago, I was lucky enough to come across a slightly beat-up, yet extremely sonorous, 100-year-old German cello. The folklore of that particular instrument, as passed down to me by its 84-year-old previous owner, is that early 20th century Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza had once provided this instrument to a Nicaraguan cellist, who—as fortune would have it (especially mine)—later migrated to El Salvador. (There’s also a very sad story to be told about a cello provided to me on loan, then stolen, but that’s history I don’t like to dwell upon.)


So, over the past 18 months, I’ve mainly been playing electric cello and recorders with a small ensemble that performs a genre of music that is generally described as “nueva trova.” The lyrics are only occasionally political, but more frequently we seem to be performing numerous slow Latin ballads about smitten lovers and broken hearts. We mostly do pieces by Latin American songwriters, like Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Pedro Guerra and Adrián Goizueta, but also manage to fit in some Salvadoran songwriters like Nelson Díaz and Guillermo Cuellar.


In May 2002, we were asked to open a concert by the great Cuban singer/songwriter Pablo Milanés—this mostly due to the reputation of our lead singer, Celia Morán. (See this review of the concert from a local daily newspaper—there’s a small mention of us at the very end of the article.) Since then, we’ve performed over a dozen times at clubs and cafes around San Salvador.


A couple of months ago, we finally decided to give ourselves a name—“Celia Morán and company” didn’t seem to give us any real sense of identity. Juan Carlos Berríos, who plays guitar and does backup vocals—and who also arranges all of our music—came up with the name Clepsidra, taken from a Jorge Luis Borges poem of the same title. In English, this is spelled Clepsydra, which was a water clock that dates back to ancient Greece around the 15th century BC.


If you’d like to download a couple of MP3s of songs recorded live by Celia Morán and CLEPSIDRA, you can try “Companera” (5 MB) as well as “Honrar La Vida.” (5 MB) As live recordings, I’m afraid they display the warts and all of our still-developing cohesion and skills as musicians. We may well do a more serious recording in the near future.


I’ve also played in various recorder ensembles over the last few years, but a couple of months ago—on the occasion of my friend Ruth Padilla-DeBorst’s birthday—I got together some musical colleagues to furnish her with an impromptu performance of various recorder trios. That encounter really inspired me to do more, especially since there’s quite a selection of relatively interesting—and not too difficult—baroque pieces out there.


In December, my two recorder companions, Lorena Lemus and Claudia Ramos, and I ended up playing for several Christmas functions. But the year’s finale was a brief Sunday afternoon recital of baroque and contemporary pieces, as well as some arrangements of Christmas Carols, which we performed at the best little hotel in all of Central America—the Posada de Santiago in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. Oh, and we sang a bit as well, to somewhat minor critical acclaim. (David, the owner of the Posada, said that Lorena had one of the finest voices he’d ever heard.) We’re hoping to do more of this in the year(s) to come.


Finally, I should note that I sang and played recorders with the Cantoría de Tomás Pascual on a CD of previously unrecorded liturgical music from colonial Guatemala, released in 2000. If you’d like to hear an a cappella piece from this project, click here (1 MB) or for a recorder quartet, here (690K). You can also read more (in Spanish) about the history of this music and the performers. Let me know as well if you’d like to buy a copy for $12 (which includes shipping.)