I am teaching Humanities in Nicaragua to a group of marvelous students from SUNY Geneseo this month. Our students study great books, live in host families, and visit volcanos and historical sites. After 4th years of teaching this class, Nicaragua has become of place of good music, natural beauty, great conversation, and friends that I will know for the rest of my life. I am always excited to return with new students and new friends.
Back home in the US, my mornings begin with my alarm clock. I customize my individual wake-up call according to my needs. It usually rings an hour or two before anyone else in my house is up and around. Waking up is a personal thing, an individual act, undisturbed by others.
By contrast, Nicaraguan mornings are a communal, civic activity. We arrived in Managua and quickly headed off to Ometepe Island. After settling in to our hotel, Charco Verde, and a nice dinner, we all fell asleep in a place that, by most measures, defines a tropical paradise. We were awakened the next morning with the low-throated roar of howler monkeys in the trees around us. You always hear them before you see them. Once you see them, it is hard to imagine how such a basso profundo, virtuouso voice could emerge from a monkey about the size of a beagle. Behind the leading bass soloists was a supporting chorus of birds that added pitch, harmony, and rhythm to the rising sun. The symphony of sounds, like the sun itself, arrives en masse without any subtle, quiet introduction to prepare us for the noise and light of the rainforest. Here, so close the equator, the sun hits the earth a steep angle. It rises and sets with a single, confident, gesture that more closely resembles the flick of a switch than the slow, gentle, contemplative sunrise of more northern latitudes like New York. Light and sound announce the beginning and the end of the day with little time for preparation or transition.
After visiting some 5,000 year-old petroglyphs, a private museum of pre-columbian ceramics, and a natural swimming hole called “Ojo de Agua” (the Eye of Water), we returned back to Charco Verde for a nice dinner on the beach. One of the waiters at the restaurant warned us that we shouldn’t be surprised if we hear fireworks and a marching band early in the morning. The “serenata” is a wonderful, Nica way to celebrate important life events. This particular serenata honored the birthday of the owner of our hotel/restaurant.
The morning lived up the warning. Around 4:45AM the fireworks began. Immediately following was a band consisting of two trumpets, trombone, clarinet, bass drum, cymbals, and timbales. The band and fireworks played off and on until 9AM.
If we had been back in Geneseo, the combination of fireworks and a marching band at 4:45AM would have violated the local noise ordinance and resulted in angry neighbors and a visit by the village police. Not here. We all celebrated the owner’s birthday whether we wanted to or not. This was both a private and public celebration. I have brought groups to Charco Verde for 4 years and never met the owner. With all the hospitality he has shown us, waking early to music in his honor was the least I could do. Truth be told, not everyone was happy. The howler monkeys and the birds spent their morning elsewhere. They returned by midday.
We made our way back from Ometepe and settled into the small town of El Sauce, our home for the next month. My first morning in El Sauce started like most other mornings over the years I have been coming here. The roosters start crowing somewhere between 4-6 AM, soon to be joined by a chorus of wild birds, horses, cars, chickens, birds, and dogs. A little later the sounds of children playing, recorded music blaring, and men singing joined the mix. But this day was different. There was a new sound coming from the house next door that my blurry morning mind couldn’t recognize. It sounded both human and animal. My first thought before coffee, sifted through my broken Spanish, was that I was listening to an elderly woman speaking in a thick accent. My friend Kellan later explained that the neighbors have a parrot. He interpreted one of the bird’s favorite, endlessly repeated words as being “fresco.” This word holds a double meaning here. It describes fresh fruit juice but also can be used to call someone “lazy.” We think that someone in the house must be frequently accused of laziness. I fear that the parrot doesn’t help the household vibe by nagging “fresco” so early in the morning.
Nicaragua takes Mother’s Day much more seriously than the United States. They go way beyond the greeting card holiday back home. Young men all over Nicaragua grab guitars or karaoke equipment, plant themselves on the street under the bedroom windows of their mothers and start singing songs around 5AM. This serenata has the effect of not only waking the mother with music that celebrates her role in the family, but it also tells everyone in the neighborhood who really loves their mother. This is both private and public. My son Matteo has been working here in El Sauce this year, and to his credit, he grabbed his ukulele and serenaded his host mother in the early morning. Sarah was thrilled that Matteo upheld the local tradition. It should be noted, that if Matteo choose to do this for his mother back in Geneseo, I believe that the early morning music would not be so well received. His mom likes to sleep late.
As the typical day unfolds, El Sauce vibrates with a mix of birds, conversations on the street, live singing, public service announcements blared on speakers from bicycles, church bells and songs, and recorded Nica music, both traditional and modern. My friend James Canning left his mark after a year in El Sauce with a short, recorded steel drum melody that plays every once in a while from the church steeple. I have come to recognize more of the tunes played by the churches, the stores, and the roaming cars and bicycles of El Sauce. This mix of loud, overlapping sounds is the identity of El Sauce for me. This an audio mix unlike any on the planet.
In the last couple of days, we had several power outages. It is easy to know if the power is out city-wide (not just isolated to your home) because all the recorded music goes silent. I knew I could go back and check my email as soon as I heard the music return.
In Nicaragua, music awakens the power of the morning sun, it celebrates birthdays, it broadcasts the love of sons for their mothers, and it signals to those of us in temporary need of digital affirmation that the internet is back.