Fine Arts Brass Tour of Costa Rica, February 2004
- Monday 16 February
- Tuesday 17 February
- Wednesday 18 February
- Thursday 19 February
- Friday 20 February
- Saturday 21 February
I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I saw every minute of Monday 16th February 2004. Having had no sleep from the night before and the added bonus of travelling through several time zones thus adding to the hours in that day, it meant the 16th was worth a total of thirty hours to me before it passed into the 17th. I didn't get to bed the evening before as I'd decided to tidy up a few loose ends on the computer before the trip. At the time they seemed important. I eventually got finished at 04.20am and as my alarm was set to go off only half and hour later, I decided to not bother with sleep. I figured a boring nine 1/2 hour flight would be plenty of time to catch up. I was wrong.
We set off half and hour late which very nearly proved disastrous for us. As per usual on a Monday morning, the M1 and M25 turned into one long car park. At one point we rang the American Airlines hotline to ask about the NEXT available flight leaving for Miami. As you'd expect, the cars eventually began to clear after 9am and we got to the airport soon afterwards. We were just in time for the helpful attendants to point to the latecomer's queue. Here we were made to wait for yet another hour! Finally, at five to ten, with only a further twenty minutes before the plane was due to leave, they decided to check us on to our flight. It didn't take them long to realise we were a touring music group and so they immediately reached for their excess baggage calculator. Luckily for us, time was not on their side and four of us were happily checked on board flight AA57. Unfortunately for Angela, the automatic check-in system closed down before they could issue a boarding pass for her. I'm sure it helped having a strapping lad like Sam with us whose 6ft 4' frame managed to persuade the staff to reopen their flight! Consequently at 10.10am with ten minutes to spare, we were escorted though Heathrow airport directly with our baggage to the flight with the added privilege of a free ride on one of those airport buggies. As we sped to our gate I was mentally crossing this experience from my 'things to do before I die' list.
The five of us were sat together for the next nine and a half hours and the beautiful Miami sunshine was a welcome sight to all when we touched down. I hadn't managed a wink on the flight. After a few picys at the airport, Stretching our legs at Miami Airport en route to Costa Rica
we were ready to set off again to our final destination - San Jose, Costa Rica.
After another four hours in the air, we touched down on time in San Jose. We were greeted at the airport by Oriel Willock, the British Ambassador's No. 2. Within seconds his accent had appeared familiar. It turned out he had grown up in nearby Acocks Green, Birmingham and had been in Costa Rica for around two years. Amazingly, given the climate, he seemed not too bothered about a return to Birmingham! I thought it strange that even after just a couple of years, the hot sun and cold beer had made him lose all sense of patriotism. The lucky so and so. He saw us safely to our beds that night and the chance to lie flat for the first time in two days seemed almost too good to comprehend. I can't remember turning the light off.
As was to be expected with a six-hour adjustment, I woke, bolt upright, at 6 am local time. Feeling like midday to me, I made it down to breakfast and met the others. Every one looked better for a good nights sleep and we prepared for our first official engagement - an interview and performance on Costa Rican TV Channel 6 to publicise our concert the next evening. Angela and Carol were wheeled into the makeup room only to immerge half an hour later looking like a couple of fake-tanned beauties. Make up girl miracle worker at Channel 6
I was first in for the chaps, and wondered just how many other unfortunates had had the grotty make up sponge wiped over their face that day. The instant orange glow looked ridiculous stopping at my jaw line as it did. I was told by the producer that our 'slot' on the show would amount to around eight minutes in total which was to be made up of an interview with me about out visit, followed by us playing a number or two. Whilst waiting behind the cameras observing the current guests on the show - a couple of exercising female bodybuilders with their large cleavages bouncing up and down as they ran on the spot - my would be interviewer was keen to impress on me that London was his favourite city. I wasn't sure if I was nodding in agreement with him or in time to the girl's activities. By the time we were shunted to our positions a few minutes later, my interview had been cut completely and we had 3 minutes and 15 seconds to impress upon the Costa Rican public the virtues of Fine Arts Brass. Suddenly the lights in the studio hit overdrive and the presenter garbled a minutes worth of Costa Rican Spanish - I could make out brass and FAB in his missive - and then he turned to me and said, "Hello Simon - you are going to play what to us" I blurted something about Harry James and his Carnival of Venice" and we were off with the camera investigating our nostrils as we played. We got about a minute into the piece when the TV lights went down. Immediately, the cameramen began packing away their gear - we were 'off air'. We carried on regardless and our last note was greeted by a simple handclap from the presenter. "Great - thanks very much" he said. I assured the despondent faces in our group that this event was, make no mistake, the big time! As we left the studio the make up girl appeared again and handed us a wet wipe for our face. Like a beaten sportsman, I wiped my face of the bronze tan and deposited my trumpet back to its case; "that's showbiz", I thought.
Our afternoon was free today and we all headed off to town to get a bite to eat. San Jose is rapidly become a big tourist destination. Our first choice of restaurant offered us "English Fish & Chips". We declined the opportunity and headed for another restaurant across the road. Whilst savouring the refreshing taste of the local beer (with a logo on the bottle that bared an alarming resemblance to something designed by the Nazi party) I reflected on the trials and tribulations of touring with a brass quintet. I decided it wasn't all bad as I kicked off my shoes - toasting my feet in the midday sun. I also reminded myself of the same thought I had had a few years earlier as I supped my post lunch espresso. Why is it that in all coffee producing countries, you can't get a decent cup of coffee? I had thought the same thing in Columbia back in 1996 and remembered the answer given then by a bartender - "we export all the good stuff my friend" he had said.
The evening was spent at the British Embassy as guests of Georgina Butler, our Ambassador. FAB and Georgina Butler (British Ambassador of Costa Rica)
She had arranged a reception for us of other Ambassadors with the entertainment provided by us and her very noisy squawking Peacock - Max. After introducing us, she was careful to leave the microphone switched on to make sure all could hear us. We only made it past the opening fanfare of the William Tell Overture before the feedback and Max's Squawks had combined to drown us out completely. It was decided immediately that the mic should be switched off, and Max shooed away before we continued. As the Argentinean Ambassador has come across earlier in the evening to say hello and advise us how much he was looking forward to our concert, we decide to play our arrangement of Piazzolla's Libertango for him. He was the first to applaud at its conclusion with a tear in his eye. We finished our little performance with Salt Peanuts and with shouts of 'more' we decided to play our Carnival of Venice again. We left the stage with our glasses full of the finest champagne and many appreciative comments not least from the Russian Ambassador who assured us he'd be present at our concert the next evening. I said if I saw him there we'd play him some Russian Music. He eyes lit up at the prospect. I just couldn't remember if we had any with us as I shook his hand to complete the deal.
After many pictures with the respective guests - although interestingly the American and German Ambassadors weren't invited - we made our way back to our hotel and the comfort of the cocktail lounge. For the second night running I didn't remember turning off the light...
My wake up call at 6 am came as a complete surprise this morning. On the advice of other guests in the cocktail bar the previous evening, I jumped out of bed to let the shower run for a good ten minutes to ensure the water would be at least tepid before entering. It wasn't even remotely warm after 15 mins, so I jumped in anyway and had an invigorating cold shower to start the day. It appears to me that the hotel's hot water thermostat must be set to UK time, because by midday here the opposite is the case and the waters temperature could split the atom.
Luckily our Costa Rican driver's timekeeping was in keeping with my own and our 6.45 am pick up meant we were all still drinking coffee in the breakfast room at a quarter past seven. On the way to our first engagement of the day we were inadvertently listening to what was to be this first engagement: Real Rock FM, 'Costa Rica's one and only English Speaking Radio Station'. We were to be the guests of David "The Dude" Scott. David's style of DJ work is perhaps more in keeping with the 1970s Radio 1 style of Tony Blackburn. Everything I said was met with Grrrrrrrrrrreat! He asked me questions about the concert, such as what we were going to play etc. our 'chat' was interspersed with tracks from our A - Z of Jazz CD and other 'classics' from his 'rock' collection. FAB with David 'The Dude' Scott Costa Rica 107.5 FM
It all seemed to go really well and he invited his listeners on air to call up and ask us a few questions. One chap did do and simply asked us if we were as good as The Canadian Brass? I'm sure he was put up to it!
At five past eight we were back in our minibus and heading to the second event of the day; an appearance on Channel 7's breakfast show. This, we were assured, has the largest viewing figures in Costa Rica. This time we were to play in the garden at the studio and my immediate thought was to play 'Come into the Garden Maude' but I couldn't help feeling the irony would be lost on our Costa Rican friends. Instead we decided upon a rendition of Chick Corea's La Fiesta. The presenter appeared from the outset to be considerably more professional than the previous day's incumbent. The show was more in keeping with the BBC's style of broadcasting where everything is timed to the second. Our brief was for 10 minutes and this is what we had. I was interviewed about our visit with the presenter translating back to Spanish on the spot. Then we were live on 'prime-time' Costa Rican Channel 7. FAB play live on the Breakfast Show Channel 7
Our school's concert the same afternoon was undoubtedly the most rewarding event we'd done so far. We played for the Academy of Arts in San Jose. This specialist school is funded by the state for the poorest but most talented children. Unusually, there seemed to be an abundance of trombone players in the audience (as opposed to the 'more normal' trumpet players). We gave a mini recital of our most flashy pieces and although they were slow to ask questions at first, when the duck was finally broken we were inundated with questions of double and triple tonguing, trombone flexibility exercises, how to practice in ensembles, stamina - quite honestly the list was endless! As a result our planned forty-minute visit, turned into an hour and a half! There's no doubt in my mind that this sort of work is badly needed over here. The principal of the academy was insistent on knowing when we would be returning to them. I assured her we'd give it our highest priority, although to be honest I couldn't really foresee a return visit within the next five years. After the brief cola and cake they'd laid on for us, we headed back to the hotel. We had decided that our free day on Thursday (tomorrow) would be spent white water rafting on the Pacuara River. As one of the stipulations for the trip was that you had to wear shoes that would not slip off easily, the local sandal shop in San Jose received the trade of four of our members that afternoon. Luckily I had my trusted boat shoes with me, but even so I was still anxious about the trip. The early start this morning was beginning to catch up on all of us, so we all retired to bed for an afternoon siesta.
We met again at 6pm for a quick rehearsal in the venue for tonight's big concert. Considering where we were, I was surprised to be playing in such a beautiful venue. The stage is set at the Melico Salazar Theatre
The Teatro Melico Salazar is a 'one size fits all' venue. It struck me as a place originally designed as an opera house (a large orchestral pit was the give away) but it obviously also doubled as a normal concert hall and a theatre. It wasn't that dissimilar to the Royal Opera House with its many separate boxes surrounding the stalls and large balcony above. It was also strange that the audience were in complete darkness for our performance. It almost felt like we were playing to ourselves as we were completely unaware there was anyone watching us. I had seen Nicholas Baker (a local concert promoter here in San Jose but originally from London) just before we went to stage to ask if it would be alright if I could introduce our pieces. I was concerned that we'd be forced to play our complete concert straight through. We always like to introduce our pieces in concert. It's use is two fold: it makes us more acquainted with our audience but more importantly it give us a few extra minutes break between pieces. With the sort of programmes we play - we need it! He assured me that at least 60% of the audience would understand me, so I thought what the hell and took to the microphone. Nick was obviously correct as a few of my 'gags' were hitting the right spot. For me, the surprise of the evening was how well the audience took to Joe Duddell's Still Life. I suppose given the rhythmic nature of his minimalist style and the fact that rhythm plays such a central role in the local music here, I shouldn't have been surprised. However, the applause was much more than a polite ripple. I made a mental note to drop Joe a note on our return and tell him. We finished the 1st half with our Gershwin pieces and as per usual, they went down a bomb - lots of whoops from the audience. The second half was equally well received and I could tell from the smiles all round that our concert had been a success. The girls received two lovely bouquets of flowers at the end of the concert.
Nick Baker (Nicko to the locals) took us to a local Chinese for a wonderful post concert meal. Nick's brought along an old friend of his who had studied with him at RADA. I later found out that Andre was also the music critic for the biggest newspaper in Costa Rica. I said I didn't mind if he hated or loved us, I just couldn't bear an indifferent review. He assured me that he would meet with my wishes and write a completely bland 'crit'! I found out during the meal that Nick's daughter had studied at Warwick University where I teach trumpet. It really is a small world. We were all in our beds by 1 am. What a day it had been - I was asleep before my head had hit the pillow.
My alarm call at 6am was not welcomed. The thought of leaving the comfort of my bed to travel for two hours only to be thrown about on the white waters of the Pacuare River was not making me leap up and at it. I did wonder if I should just back out now and go back to sleep. My third cold shower this week soon got me in the mood. As we made our way out of San Jose it really began to dawn on me just what a beautiful country Costa Rica is. We passed the two largest volcanoes in the country on route and our tour guide was particularly taken with the fact that we could see them so clearly today. Our guide turned out to be the daughter of an English lady who had worked at the British Embassy for over 30 years. She asked us about our concert the previous evening and said that her parents had enjoyed it very much. Our route this morning also passed what seemed to be miles of fern-growing plantation . These, we were told, are exported to Holland and then on to the UK for shops like Ikea to sell. We also passed some of the many coffee plantations Costa Rica is famous for. The scenery really is something else, but then again, the mix of hot and wet is perfect for anything to grow well. Our guide also said that the volcanic rock here also makes for the perfect soil for growing. After an hour on the road we stopped at a log cabin in the mountains for breakfast. Breakfast stop off on route to the white waters
Our table was already set with freshly squeezed mango juice and a selection of just about every sort of melon you can imagine. After we'd eaten this, a plate of the local rice and beans with scrambled egg was deposited on our table. I remembered Oriel telling me of this local cuisine. It's a meal that's eaten at any time of day. I also had my first decent cup of coffee here. The coffee we were severed this morning was just nectar. It was so smooth. I reckon the log cabin owner had sneaked a few bags for his customers from the nearby plantations.
Our journey continued for another hour or so until we suddenly seemed, without warning to venture down an extremely steep dirt track. I was reminded of a similar trip Steve Roberts, Simon Hogg and I had taken in Cameroon back in 1996. It was the first time this morning that we seemed to descend. Our journey had all been up hill all the way until now. I figured the fact that we were being thrown around so much in the bus on this downward journey must be to warm us up for what was coming later. The journey down took us around twenty minutes. When we finally came to rest, there seemed to be a silence in the bus for the first time since setting out. Our team were particularly concerned about covering themselves in sun block. We all knew we were going to be fried today as you couldn't get out of the sun even if you wanted to! Our first activity was to be fitted out with a helmet and lifejacket. Most people were feeling quite nervous. I know I was. Another guide gave me my helmet and helped me to adjust the straps on my lifejacket. After she had finished I felt trussed up like a chicken. The next stage was our safety talk. After Manuel had finished this, I couldn't decide whether the emergency actions he was describing might happen or would happen. Quite frankly I did actually think about getting back on the bus and meeting the others down river. Our mission today was to negotiate 38 white water rapids over a total distance of 30km with one break - a stop for lunch. We all boarded our raft with our guide, Kathy. I looked around and everyone was concentrating - making sure the commands issued by Kathy would be met with the correct action by us, her paddlers. We sat in the formation of Steggs and Sam at the front with Angela and me behind and Carol behind Ange. FAB on the Pacuare River
Kathy was at the stern as the rudder of the boat and our cox. Over the next four hours we were shouted a series of commands in order to pass though each rapid as smoothly and as safely as possible: 'Forward', 'back paddle', 'right back', 'left forward', 'lean in', 'get down', 'over side right' and 'over side left' all required a certain action from us. It was bliss and a real challenge. I'm sure it'll be the nearest I'll ever get to serious nature for a while as we saw Toucans Herons and Vultures on route. We managed to stay afloat throughout and with the exception of two very close calls - one where Richard, Angela and Carol all ended up in the middle of the boat completely beyond their control - it all passed without major incident. Not quite to plan on the Pacuare River
At the halfway point we stopped for lunch prepared by our guides before continuing down river. I remember reading in a Sunday supplement back home of a hundred things to do before you die. White water rafting was listed in the top ten. Enough said.
The two hour bus journey back to the hotel was enough for us all to keep our eyes open. We got back to our hotel exactly 12 hours after setting off. I'd decided against the sunblock earlier in the day. How I regretted it later that evening as I turned into a lobster. I could hardly move when we met up with a Costa Rican Trombone Quartet later in the bar of our hotel. FAB with the Costa Rica Trombones
It's always nice to hear other musicians chat about how bad the music scene is in THEIR country we do enough moaning about the UK scene. We were all safely tucked up in bed by 11.30 apart from Sam who'd hit the sack on getting back to the hotel after the rafting: 7pm!!. It was to be yet another early start in the morning.
To my dismay, I found out that the shower only gets hot if you have the bathroom's extractor fan on as well! I'd had three morning showers by this point and finally I was enjoying a hot one! As we were checking out of this hotel this morning, it was the usual story of trying to get everything back into the suitcase. As I finally got the last clasp closed, I realised I hadn't included my gig suit which was still hanging in the wardrobe. In spite of it all, I still made breakfast before Oriel and Juan turned up at the allotted time - 7.15am. We were spend our final two days in Costa Rica in Perez Zeledon; a town in the south. The three hour journey was one of the most beautiful drives I've ever experienced. I know I've said this before, but this country really is something else. One minute we were so high up in the mountains that the clouds were beneath us. It was like flying in a plane. The next minute the sun shone down upon us as the mountains towered high above. Always, the greenery all around us was breathtaking. As we arrived at our destination we passed some local people walking by the side of the road. It really strikes you how the people here live completely different lives to our own. I mentioned to Oriel how happy and contented every one seemed. He agreed and added that they have everything they need so the priorities in life are so different to our own. We drove to our hotel and checked in. I was perplexed as to how all the public areas looked so modern, clean and like most holiday resorts I'd been to, but the hotel rooms were shabby and run down. Everyone in the group thought the same thing. It's a hard life, but someone has to do it -
the pool at Perez Zeledon
As we had an hour to kill before lunch we decided to have a little rehearsal in our room. We had a quick blast through a few numbers we'd decided to do in this evening's concert. It didn't take long before the heat forced us to stop. It's so much hotter down here than San Jose. I remember Oriel saying that San Jose is positioned in a valley so the temperature is cooler. I decided to give the sun a complete miss today because of the burning I received yesterday on my hands and arms. Lunch was spent in the company of the director of the local music conservatoire and his translator (who turned out to be a piano student at the conservatoire). The British Embassy had decided to send us down here because no music group had ever been to visit this conservatoire before - in spite of the thousands of artists that had visited Costa Rica over the years. It was quite obvious just how grateful the director was for our visit. After dinner we were driven to the conservatoire. We were ushered into their main ensemble room, packed with students eagerly awaiting our arrival. They gave us a huge welcome and on closer inspection they appeared to be of all ages. I'd have said the youngest was seven or eight and the eldest were in their thirties. There was just enough room in the centre for the five of us to set up. We decided to play a couple of pieces to get started. Each was met with a prolonged applause. I had to start speaking to stop it. Immediately after we'd played, we set to work listening to the individual brass players who were to play to us. On the whole the standard was good. I'd have said the younger players in the group were of the same standard as their contemporaries back in the UK. It was the older players who lagged behind. We heard in total 5 trumpets and 1 trombone. Whilst the trombonist was being put through his paces I sent Oriel off to the photocopy shop to prepare a spare set of parts for one of our ensemble pieces. I was also introduced to a local composer/guitarist who had written a piece for our visit. We decided to play it through. It was quite pleasant and the composer seemed amazed we could just give a performance of it 'just like that'. When Oriel returned we got an ensemble of students together and played through the music whilst getting all the other students to clap along. Afterwards we were swamped for autographs. I noticed Sam chatting merrily to a couple of the older girls like some famous pop star. We returned to the hotel with just enough time to change for our evening concert. The concert this evening took place in the local cultural centre and our audience included the British Ambassador and the Costa Rican Ombudsman. (We were told later that he would be the next Costa Rican president). All my introductions were translated by one of the student trombonists. Every piece was met with whoops and cheers from the crowd (of about two hundred). I think this may have been the first concert they'd ever been to.
We eat back at our hotel that night - I had a seafood stew which was fantastic - and we then decided to hit the town for cocktails. I think I was the only one who remained sober retiring for the evening at a respectable 1.30am. Sam finally got to bed at 6am I found out later. He thought he'd met the love of his life in one of the local nightclubs. Sadly it wasn't to be, and by lunchtime he was back making new 'friends' at the pool.
I didn't make breakfast this morning. I knew we'd be travelling through the night on route to the Dominican Republic so I thought I'd treat myself to my first lie-in of the trip. Check out was 12pm, I made it by a whisker. We spent the afternoon relaxing by the hotel pool and I got to taste some fresh coconut milk as one of the trees was being harvested. Fresh Coconut milk
We set off back for San Jose at 5pm. Unfortunately it gets dark here quite quickly so the journey back was not as interesting as the previous day. On our arrival in San Jose, Oreil took us to a good fish restaurant he knew. I got stuck in straight away with some of the local octopus. Oreil and Juan (the embassy driver) took me to the Del Ray bar this evening. This bar is notorious in San Jose for the best place to pick up escort girls and is mostly frequented by North American sex tourists. Oreil told me that these middle-aged men tell their wives that their Costa Rica trips are for the purpose of fishing. As a result you can buy tee shirts in the bar that extol the virtues of 'Blue Martin Fishing Tours' in order that their wives can be convinced of their activities on their return. They do look like legitimate fishing tours. It made me smile - you didn't have to cast off your line too far to reel in a real beauty in that place! It was off to the airport immediately afterwards and as the main road was closed, we had to take a detour though a local shantytown. We passed a large factory called American Open Space. Oreil told me this site enabled a series of American companies to make and produce goods for sale back to the US without having to pay tax to the Costa Rican government. That could be the reason why we were stung for a $26 exit tax to get out of the country this evening - they had to get some money somehow. Before getting on the plane I managed to spend the best part of $100 in a Costa Rican gift shop at the airport. I saw a rough guide to Costa Rica here too. On flicking though the pages it dawned on me that our visit here hadn't even scratched the surface of this wonderful country. I promised myself as the plane took off that I would come back here one day.