Entertainment, Opinion

Caliche: The singer-songwriter who started a new way of making music in Guanacaste

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Translator: Arianna Hernández

40 years ago, a young man born into a poor family in Refundores de Villarreal, in the Santa Cruz area, revolutionized the way traditional Guanacastecan songs are composed.

Up until then, most music lyrics produced in Guanacaste were very focused on portraying the landscape and traditional local scenes, generally linked to love stories. Some clear examples are Luna liberiana (Liberian Moon), Serenata romántica (Romantic Serenade) or El huellón de la carreta (The Cart’s Big Track). On the other hand, folkloric dance groups were tired of dancing to the same pieces: La botijuela (The Hidden Treasure- a dance from colonial times), Los amores de Laco (Laco’s Loves) or el Zapateado (Hispanic tap dance).

In the 1980s, Carlos Rodriguez Santana, know simply as Caliche, began to write lyrics focused on characters from the town, such as Tio Julian (Uncle Julian); describing traditions such as Herencia (Inheritance) or Mi Cristo chumeco (My Tanned Christ); and above all, about protecting nature: Un canto por la vida (A Song for Life), Descuajaron la montaña (They Uprooted the Mountain) or El guaco (The Laughing Falcon). He did it with simple words, with very local expressions, with a totally rural farmer’s pen.

Carlos used to always carry a dog-eared notebook in his bag, which he carried strapped across his body or on his back,  where he wrote down expressions that he heard from older people and inspirations or verses that came up at any time.

Musically, Caliche dusted off the most traditional rhythms of Guanacaste, the parranderas, generally reserved for cimarrona bands, and composed very happy songs with fresher lyrics, with social and human content, full of details that portray the identity of Guanacaste.

Some of his songs immediately became like hymns at bull riding events and at fiestas in all of the towns. Folkloric dance ensembles began to put together choreographies, to the point that there isn’t a dance group that hasn’t performed one of his pieces.

Manuel Chamorro’s voice is still golden, and he has plenty of energy to talk about his life and career – something unusual for a guy from Liberia who made it big in the 1950s and ’60s.


A Committed Singer-Songwriter

Those of us who knew him still cry for him 25 years after his death. Caliche was a young man who was always smiling, sweet, kind and with a special sensitivity towards simple people. He was always keen to observe the customs and people’s way of speaking in his town.

With his red scarf on his head, around his neck or wrist, his bag, his bicycle and his guitar on his back, seeing him on any street in Santa Cruz was common. He composed his songs in installments. He wrote some verses, gave them to his friends to read and then modified them. He put them to music and sang his rough drafts to people he thought could make observations. Many were proud to have suggested something for his creations.

Caliche had hideouts, many homes of friends and families where he felt good. He often went to Maruja’s in the Buenos Aires neighborhood, where he ate, talked for a while with her and Jesus, left his bicycle and picked it up days later. Likewise, he’d go to Beti’s in the Panama neighborhood, Sabina’s in La Danta de Arado, Ernesto’s in La Garua, as well as to the towns: Ortega, Santa Barbara, Lagunilla…

Caliche was like a traveling minstrel, as Guadalupe Urbina called him. He would take his bike or hop on the bus and go, one, two or three days to talk to people, sing his songs in his friends’ homes and spend time with his friends.Photo: Courtesy: Hernan Gutierrez

He was totally like a traveling minstrel, as Guadalupe Urbina called him. He’d take his bike or hop on the bus and leave for one, two or three days at a time, to talk to people, sing his songs in the homes of his friends and spend time with his friends.

Caliche didn’t just write about community organization, as in the song Ostional; he was also a community leader, president of the Villarreal Integral Development Association. He didn’t just write about nature; he was also the founder of La Gran Chorotega, a foundation to promote what later became Diria National Park and Las Baulas Marine Park in Guanacaste.

Carlos didn’t just write verses about protecting the forests; he also went to put out fires in the Diria forest. He would talk about youth because he was a youth promoter for the Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Institute (IAFA for the Spanish acronym). And he didn’t just defend leatherback turtles; he also worked as an environmental educator with children from his community.

Was a singer-songwriter committed to what he wrote about. He composed about 40 songs, recorded two cassettes and then his friends recorded unreleased pieces. His work is registered and copyright protected.

A Dreamer

Along with others, Caliche participated in a movement of composers and performers of Guanacastecan music formed in 1985 thanks to the radio program “Así es Guanacaste” (This is How Guanacaste Is) on Radio Chorotega.

This radio station was founded in 1983, which was devoted fully to promoting Guanacaste’s identity in its early years. Little by little, ranchera music was replaced by music from the region and that was a trigger for many groups and singer-songwriters to rise to fame, including Caliche and others such as Los Alegres de Lorena, Balo Gomez, the Contradanza trio and dozens of popular performers, marimba players, oral narrators, ballad singers, bomba reciters (traditional rhyming limericks with a punchline)

Those years between 1983 and 1989 were the rebirth of regional music in Guanacaste. And it’s no coincidence that those were the years when Caliche composed most of his songs.

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Bernabela Ramos Park’s amphitheater in downtown Santa Cruz is named after him.Photo: César Arroyo Castro

Musically, Carlos began singing with a very Andean style and his first lyrics were songs dedicated to organization, youth and rural farmers. Since then, the general concepts of justice and peace were very present in his creations.

Later, he focused on traditions, especially fiestas and bull riding. He gave value to people from the town and wrote at least 10 songs about protecting nature. Carlos dreamed of a different world. In that world, poor people, good people, animals and forests were his favorites.

The Traveling Minstrel Takes His Leave

On August 24, 1997, the sun hadn’t yet risen and Caliche, with six other friends, got into the back of a car heading to Liberia. He had spent the whole night awake in Lourdes de Abangares. An organization that opposes open pit mining had organized a vigil and Carlos, who had shown solidarity with their fight, participated by singing.

Minutes later, they had an accident and the 41-year-old singer-songwriter’s physical life ended. He is remembered for his joy and simplicity, for his contribution to Guanacaste’s musical heritage and for inspiring new musical talent in the province.

Hernan Gutierrez Oviedo is a journalist, cultural manager and compiler of oral traditions from Guanacaste. He has written several books, including: Las tallas de tío Julián (Uncle Julian’s Tall Tales), Guanacaste nuestra casa (Guanacaste Our House), Me lo dijo el río (The River Told Me) and La hazaña de los Pataspeladas (The Feat of the Barefooted Players). He was a producer at Radio Chorotega in the 1980s, when he met Caliche and shared not only cultural projects but also a great friendship with him. He was a founder of Los Chocuacos, a group of close friends of the singer-songwriter who took on the task of recording the music that Carlos left unpublished and protecting his copyrights. He is currently working on a biography of Carlos Rodriguez.