Nicoya, Entertainment

Max Goldenberg: Songs Guanacaste Style

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The musical legacy of this Nicoyan family has been handed down from generation to generation. Max Goldenberg Guevara learned to play the guitar from his mother´s brother, Adam Guevara, learning to play by ear just as his uncle had done. In turn, his own nephews, Jaime, Hector, Camilo and Fidel Gamboa Goldenberg (the late guitarist and lead singer of the band Malpais) and the sons of his sister Olga, spent their vacations having guitar jam sessions on Uncle Max´s front porch. . As the boys grew, they made their own contacts in the music world, and brought these friends with them to create a truly artistic environment.

Musician and songwriter Max Goldenberg, who turned 70 on March 3, was born in Liberia but he grew up in Nicoya, raising livestock with his father. However, 30 years ago, when the livestock business was bad, they decided to dedicate the family finca to nature recuperation. Now deer roam the wooded property, where they also cultivate an organic garden and operate a carpentry workshop. Goldenberg is also experimenting with raising stingless melipona bees for medicinal honey. 

Growing up in the heart of agricultural Guanacaste, these traditions and a strong identification with nature and the climate of rains and droughts naturally influence Goldenberg´s lyrics. “I try to embody this Guanacaste feeling of life in the field,” he expressed.

His lyrics also cultivate a double meaning, very typical of Guanacaste, dripping with comical social criticism. He considers it an obligation to denounce social problems, but uses humor as an ingredient so as not to offend or to be too harsh. “Between serious and joke, you tell the truth,” he affirmed. As we sit on his front porch, filled with rustic wooden furniture made in his workshop, surrounded by flowers and trees, he announces that he wrote the lyrics to a song earlier that day, stands up and disappears into the house. He returns with the lyrics typed up on a few sheets of white paper, sits and begins singing them, tapping out the rhythm on the table with his hands.

It is titled “La u-rraca,” an ode to the blue jay and at the same time a commentary on the low quality of private university education. The rhythm is a traditional Guanacaste parrandera. He sings:

Soberana vestida de azul/ Es un simbolo de libertad/ Animosa, curiosa, vital/ Su denuncia es un grito-verdad.

This roughly translates to “sovereign dressed in blue, is a symbol of freedom, spirited, curious, vital, your denunciation is a true shout.”

Goldenberg confessed that he didn´t start writing music until later in life, in his mid-30s. During what he describes as the “euphoria of youth,” he was a street musician, serenading girlfriends and brides, and he began to drink heavily. When he sobered up and could reason well again, he began composing, drawing on the tools of popular music to create his own style, and now he says he is relearning how to play guitar from musicians with more training than him.

Goldenberg has four daughters, 8 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren. You could say that he and his wife, Sonia Zuñiga, were high school sweethearts, only he was a student still and she was the French teacher at the Nicoya High School. Nevertheless they were the same age, since Goldenberg had to repeat a few years of school. They have been married for 50 years, and although he admits it was difficult at times because of his drinking, their life together now is happy.

He frequently wears a French beret, inspired by a photo of his father wearing a beret in Belarus, which he found after his father´s death. He also has a small diamond earring in his left ear, which he pierced about 7 years ago to identify more with young people.  He says that for the past few years he has been taking better care of himself to not grow old too fast, for example eating fruit in the mornings as a light breakfast and surrounding himself with family, animals and tranquility. “I live very happy, this is the secret,” he remarked.


Where He Plays

Goldenberg has played nationally and internationally, visiting Berlin in 1973 when the wall still divided east from west, as well as representing Costa Rica in Spain and in Cuba last year during a Hispanic cultural festival.

If you´d like to hear Goldenberg, he frequently plays on Friday nights at La Fulana Cosa, a family restaurant next to his house, about 2 kilometers outside of Nicoya en route to Santa Cruz, with his brother Paco and a German violinist, Yetty Kern.