The music of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast may or may not be on your radar. After a ten-year civil war that shredded communities and families, and a merciless hurricane in 1988, the coast and the Creole, Miskito, Rama, Sumu, Mayagna, and Spanish-speaking Mestizo inhabitants have seen their share of hardships. Like the ancient caoba trees in the battered plaza of Bluefields, traditions and cultural roots have endured. One of the most enduring of these traditions is the May Pole celebration, a unique hybrid of May month celebrations instilled by the British (who controlled the Atlantic Coast from 1700s- to the early 1900s) the African roots of the Creole people, and the cultural cross-pollenization created by weekly visits by boats ferrying timber, rubber, gold, and bananas to New Orleans, Galveston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
During the Somoza dictatorship (1930s-1979) members of this older musical generation, in bands such as Barbaros del Ritmo, shuttled around the country performing at nightclubs belonging to the dictator and his extended family. The Somoza family owned mostly everything important, so they were hard to avoid. In 1979, the Sandinistas ousted the Somoza family and began creating a new future for the country, which quickly spiraled into a bloody civil war. During this time, two groups Mancotal (fronted by the Mejia Godoy brothers, the bards of the Sandinista Revolution), and Soul Vibrations (an Atlantic Coast group) were Nicaragua’s musical ambassadors to the world. Snapshots of 80s era Bluefields music can be seen in musician/filmmaker Greg Landau’s documentary “Rock Down Central America.”
At the same time, the effects of the war destabilized the Atlantic Coast and forced many musicians to flee the violence to other countries, such as El Salvador, and Honduras. MC/singer Kali Boom, a child during the war, recounts stories of leading his brothers and sisters to safety in Limon, Costa Rica 50 miles down the coast through swamps and military ambushes, ON FOOT!
The Sandinistas were voted out in the early 1990s, and the Atlantic Coast suffered through 20 years of neoliberal reforms and neglect which made times even harder. During this time, more and more Bluefieleños left the coast, seeking work in Managua, or “shipping out” on First World cruise ships who were eager to snap up English-speaking workers from desperate circumstances. In the words of Dexter “Dex” Joseph, a singer for the Bluefields reggae band Caribbean Blue, working on ship “was like slavery.” Through all this strife, musical traditions survived maintained by neighborhood elders, barrio marching bands, and in the band programs schools such as the Moravian School.
Five years ago, two Americans, multimedia artists Edwin Reed-Sanchez and Zander Scott made their way down to Bluefields and linked up with older musical legends such as Mango Ghost and Sabu the Cat Man to stage a series of concerts, build a functional recording studio, and create the Bluefields School of Music, an institution that will allow local youth to study with the surviving legends of Atlantic Coast. [more info/donations here]
The videos below represent both the traditional May Pole style, as well as newer fusions with electronic pan-Caribbean dance styles like soca, dancehall, and reggaeton favored by younger coast artists like Kali Boom, Kila B, Papa Bantam, Mad Angels, and Lion, and American expat producer Evan Rhodes who is creating a fresh new club sound together with this music.
¡Ya tú sabes!
Mango Ghost and the May Pole Legends: Putchie, Claudio Hodgson Weil and Rene Cassells
“Song for Mango Ghost” by Osvaldo Jerez (Los Gregory’s)
Sabu the Cat Man LIVE! at Bluefields Jail