When Nelly and Arend started to sing “Your Nobility” during a concert in Liberia this year, they noticed that a woman in the audience started to cry.
In the course of my life, ever since I met you
I have sheltered a hope just for me
And though I’m always overcome by a sad conclusion
That has left my poor heart in torment
It was one of the best known songs by Nelly’s grandfather and Guanacastecan composer Sacramento Villegas and, for the woman in the audience, it was her mother’s favorite song. “Her mother just passed away,” Nelly says.
That day, the pair of musicians realized the impact of their work, which consists of recovering the compositions of Sacramento Villegas and give them their own musical stamp: an electroacoustic rhythm that fuses Costa Rica’s Caribbean roots with those of the Pacific.
Mr. “Mento,” as he was known, wrote symbolic songs about Guanacaste, such as “Your Nobility,” “Bolsoneña”, and “Soliloquy on the Tempisque.” But, according to Nelly, her grandfather, who passed away 20 years ago, didn’t leave behind recordings of his music, so they decided to take on the task.
A Musical Inheritance
Nelly’s ID isn’t from Guanacaste, but destiny made Guanacaste and music part of her DNA. Her father, a music enthusiast from Nicoya, and her mother, one of Mr. “Mento” Villegas’s 13 children, met in San Jose, where both had moved to study and work.
Nelly’s Afro-Chorotegan roots are evidenced in her face. She has chocolate skin, thick lips and curly hair. And she cultivated her music abilities every afternoon when she and her sisters would sit around her father and his guitar to sing Mr. Mento’s songs, such as Soliloquy on the Tempisque, which speaks of Mr. Mento’s hometown.
Oh beautiful Filadelfia, contemplating you at night
The memories of yesterday fill my mind
Of my dear school, my childhood games
And of a home so sweet it filled me with love
Nelly and Arend are music professors, just like Mr. Mento, and it is clear to them why they do this:
“It’s so the new generation knows that Costa Rica makes quality music,” Nelly says.
Rediscovering Her Roots
As a girl, Nelly used to come to Guanacaste during breaks from school and spent her days between Nicoya, where her father lived, and Liberia, where Mr. Mento grew as a professional.
“During break, they would drop us off at my grandparents’ house,” Nelly says, adding that she didn’t have the opportunity back then to study her grandfather’s musical influence in depth. “There were a lot of us grandchildren and they always kept us busy with something.”
“It has been nice to research more and more about my grandfather’s life, his work and the people who loved him,” Nelly says as she holds a cup of coffee in her hands and recalls the story behind “Your Nobility.”
There is a reason your love will not be mine
Sad reason for my beautiful illusion
It’s your nobility that contrasts with my life
My poor life that breaks my heart
“He lived for a while in Alajuela and he fell in love with a teacher, who used to be from the highest class, so he saw that relationship as something out of reach for him. The story says that he told her that he had to go back to Guanacaste and plant beans, so he came back and never returned to Alajuela. They say that she came to his funeral and cried more than my grandmother,” she said, laughing.
In Guanacaste, those who knew Mr. Mento are getting to know the new musical duo little by little.
“The fact that the group can manifest Mr. Mento’s work through the voice of his own granddaughter is fabulous,” says Ligia Zúñiga, president of the Guanacaste Museum and former student of Sacramento who heard a Nelly and Arend concert.
The Pair that Propelled the Revival
The idea of reviving Mr. Mento’s compositions wouldn’t have been possible without Arend Vargas, the musician with whom Nelly formed the group NellyxArend.
“Nelly taught me her grandfather’s songs and that was when I asked her how it was possible that no one [outside of Guanacaste] knew about that music. That’s when a lightbulb went off,” Arend says as he looks at his complice, Nelly.
Nelly and Arend released their first album last year called “Irrational.” It has nine songs, three of which are compositions by Sacramento Villegas. Another three are original songs they wrote with they help of other friends and three others are covers.
In August, they launched their second album, a deluxe version of Irrational and they are already working on a third record that will be released in 2019.
“The idea of this album [the next one] is to make Guanacastecan music,” says Arend. They will include at least three more pieces by Mr. Mento and one by Donald Juárez, a Nicoyan uncle of Nelly’s who gave them a song that he had written.
Despite the multiple concerts they have given in the country and in Guatemala, the most significant show for Nelly was the one in Guanacaste, in the backyard of her uncle’s house.
“It was nice to show them everything I was doing with a legacy that is not just mine, but theirs too.”