Travels to Music

Una historia de / A Tale by Dolores Flores Babilonia


he first time I traveled to music may have been at my parents’ house. I was lying down in my room sweating through a tropical summer afternoon while my dad sat in his usual spot on the sofa in the living room listening to Alfredo Zitarrosa on vinyl. I must have been, what, ten? Eleven? Zitarrosa was singing to Soledad, although at the time I wasn’t able to fully understand the lyrics: “Look, Doña Soledad, just think a bit / Doña Soledad, what do they mean by freedom / You might die; that depends on your health. But you don’t want to know how much a coffin will cost you.” 

My second voyage was on a trip up the stairs in the Faculty of Artistic Expression building at the University of Panama. I had taken just a few steps when a clear, sad, and powerful soprano voice singing that classic Panamanian bolero “Old Panama City” rang out from above: “Old Panama City, your sacred ruins / whisper words like prayers / on quiet nights…” That was when I realized, or recognized, that music is more than rhythm, background, or melody for me. Above all, it was and is words and context, stories and feelings. A way of traveling through life.  

Let me explain. A song called “Because You Went Dancing” was very popular in Panama in the 1970s. It was considered a cheeky, exciting song at the time, but it wouldn’t get modern listeners out on the dance floor, despite the really catchy beat. Times change and so do the messages we get from the world around us. These various messages guide our journey through life. 

Some years ago, I spent a few days at my aunt and uncle’s house in New Jersey. It was before the attack on the Twin Towers. One night we went to a restaurant-bar in an old neighborhood. There was an outdoor patio and I felt cold even though it was summer. The tables were warmly lit by lamps. I don’t remember the name of the neighborhood or the restaurant, but I do remember the jazz trumpets laying down background music. My memory is of sad trumpets. 

I think it’s clear that I lean toward nostalgia. A nostalgia nourished by music, among many other things. Chile, for example, smells of sand and sea to me. That might be because Atacama and Valparaíso amazed me, but that’s another story. Right now we’re talking about music, so I’ll tell you something about that. Having just arrived in the Chilean capital of Santiago, I decided to go to sleep. Suffering from jetlag, I retreated for several hours to a hotel room with black walls, black furniture, and black curtains. The atmosphere was gloomy, but conducive to rest. I did indeed rest for a couple of hours, but then I got up. I hadn’t come to another country to sleep.  

I went out into the street to get a look at the Lastarria neighborhood. I walked, looked around, and stepped into several shops, while mentally tracing the return route. I came to a plaza where the sounds of an accordion, voices, and guitars rose out of the ground. My heart leapt – it sounded so beautiful! The voices wove together in a cheery melody, and I realized that I was listening to some type of local folk music. I kept walking and found that the music was drifting up from a metro station; I went down the stairs just to listen. That was my welcome to Chile.  

A different country, a different music: Belize. The Placencia Peninsula, a tongue of land that disappears under the smallest of waves, is home to the Garifuna community of Seine Bight. You can’t stroll amid its wood houses on stilts without being reminded of Caribbean history, which tells us that the Garifunas came to Central America after being expelled from the Island of St. Vincent at the end of the 18th century.  

My mental voyage through history ended —or perhaps it is more apt to say it began— when a man by the name of Alphus Calvin Moreira offered me an improvised “concert” of Garifuna music. Maracas in hand, Moreira started to sing, with another four people —two adults and two children— chiming in to the beat of drums, turning up the heat of the midday sun and reminding me of the drums of the Congos in my grandmother’s native town of Escobal. A heritage of Blackness. Two different geographic poles. The same power. 

Since this letter is meant to bear witness to what travel —near or far, terrestrial or even metaphysical if you like— gives us, you can’t talk about music without mentioning Cuba. I went to Cuba shortly before Fidel Castro died, and these stand out among my many memories: a group of men singing lustily in a small plaza in Trinidad; me singing the legendary song “Guantanamera” with a bunch of tourists in a hotel one night; the mind-bending frenzy of a nightclub show in Havana…but above all, that man, guitar in hand somewhere near Topes de Collantes, who came up to me and asked, “Would you like a song?” 

Since I had grown up listening to Silvio [Rodríguez], I requested “Oil Painting of a Woman in a Hat”: “A woman got lost / to know delirium and dust / This beautiful madness has been lost / with her tiny waist under me. My way of loving has been lost / traces of me have gotten lost in her sea.”  

Cuba is music. And as Cuban writer Leonardo Padura noted, there is water everywhere. 


Editor’s Note 

Panorama of the Americas would like to hear our readers’ travel tales. Send your anecdotes, stories, or reflections on travel or places you’ve visited in 800 words or fewer to redacció

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