Jaime Gamboa’s Nicoyan Memories

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Hila y Reta (a way of saying “string of words”) is track number 12 on Malpais’s album entitled “A Distant Day.” It’s an assortment written by Jaime Gamboa. It’s pleasant. It’s lighthearted. It’s festive. It sounds like Guanacaste.

There is a line that says “give me the Nicoyan sun for all eternity.” It’s possible that when Jaimy wrote these lyrics he was thinking in verse, about what the words meant and how the they sounded together. But also, as any artist, he may have been expressing a perennial longing: Resting in Nicoya.

Gamboa isn’t Nicoyan by birth nor does he have a Nicoyan ID. He was born in the capital in 1964, but he was constantly on the move between San Jose, Heredia and San Ramon. His vacation destination, however, never changed. He always visited his family in Nicoya.

“Psychologically, our home was always in Nicoya. We were like gypsies. We were always moving from house to house, but the relationship with Nicoya was very powerful,” Jaime recalls.

The Malpaís bassist’s close relationship with Guanacaste was born of his family. That’s why, when you ask him where he is from, his convincing response is always “I feel Nicoyan. It’s my cradle. It’s the place where I want my bones or ashes to be returned to. Whatever is left of me, I would like it to be there.” 

The Pole and the ‘Chola’

Jaime is of mixed genes. His grandfather, Jaime Goldenberg, was born in Belarus. He came to Nicoya after the first World War and, as any good Pole would, pulled together the money to start to building his wealth.

During a motorboat trip from Puntarenas to Bolsón, he met the woman of his dreams: Esperanza Guevara, Jamie Gamboa’s grandmother, who was from town called Guardia in Liberia, Guanacaste.

“I still remember the corner of the room, the oil prints of my grandparents, the portraits painted like they used to do in the old days. The ‘Chola (An indigenous woman from Guanacaste) with light colored eyes, it was cute.”

The couple gave birth to Olga Goldenberg, Jaime’s mother, and to the late Fidel Gamboa. They also gave birth to renowned musicians Max y Paco Goldenberg.

Because of the genetic mix, Jaime has emerald-colored eyes. When he was a boy in Nicoya he was called Polaquillo, Spanish for little Polish boy. Others called him “the cat with boots” since he never took off his leather boots, not even for soccer games.

Besides his ear for music, he also inherited a passion for words from his family. His mother, Olga, is a poet and his father, the late Francisco Gamboa, was a journalist.

Jaime studied literature and linguistics at the National University, which is where he got his abilities to write songs for Malpais. While the band is working on a new album, Jaime has a parallel life. He’s also the marketing and communications manager for World Vision, a Christian organization that promotes the well-being of children.

A Sketch for Esperanza

In downtown Nicoya, where a Banco Nacional is located today, is the lot where his grandmother Esperanza’s house used to be. That was the house where Jaime Goldenberg, the grandfather, and his brother Fidel played ball and climbed mango trees.

When the air had

traces of blue,

the patio had space

for all the light.

Take me where you may,

grandma, to sleep,

if you were to return, take me there.

(Excerpt from A Sketch for Esperanza. Lyrics by Jaime Gamboa).

This is also where they started to live and breath music. Uncles Max and Paco would bring out the guitar, the recorder and a cuatro (a four-stringed Venezuelan instrument resembling a ukelele) and they wouldn’t stop playing music for hours.

Jaime and Fidel learned the Guanacasteacan repertoire from their uncles. They also explored other rhythms native to the province. Many of their mates from the Castella Conservatory used to ask them how they learned to play certain chords.

“We were very proud of our Guanacaste heritage. It seemed to us that we had something very valuable that and we felt it was something that was ours. That’s when we started to feel a certain distance from the cultural mainstream,” said Gamboa, who always speaks in plural voice, recalling his brother Fidel.

A few years later, the songs moved to Samara. Uncle Paco had friends there and it’s where they started to sing “very interestingly.”

“In those years, Sámara was a paradise for us kids.”

Jaime still dies laughing when he remembers his childhood journeys from Nicoya to Samara. It’s a trip that takes 40 minutes nowadays, but back then it was a four hour voyage.

“The road to Samara had 16 river crossings. We counted them. More than once the car got stuck on the way there, so we’d have to wait for the oxen to arrive to pull it out. There were always people stuck in the rivers. It was quite an adventure,” he said.

As he grew older the trip to Sámara became less tricky, so he’d go on his own without a penny in his pocket and sleep on a motorboat that belonged to Uncle Paco. He worked as a waiter at a local restaurant, which provided him with enough money to buy food.

The Guanacaste I know doesn’t have signs in English.

Jaime’s “Hilas y Retas” is not only written to pay homage to the province, it’s also a critique. Jaime himself can be critical, above all when he feels he is losing the Guanacaste that he knew growing up.

“It still angers me. They aren’t even speaking to you. ‘For Sale’ signs everywhere in English. Jeez. It makes me want to say ‘we are hungry, we need to sell. Property owners aren’t rich, but our culture, our roots are not for sale,’” he said.

For Jaime, many things that have changed, but others he enjoys just the same as always. One of those is talking with his Uncle Max in the hallway of his house in Nicoya, his favorite place in all of Costa Rica.

When Jaime takes the stage in Nicoya for a Malpaís concert, he’s not only thinking that the streets of this colonial city that watched him grow up, but also that they were and continue to be his muse for many “Hilas y retas”.