Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tucson Rising: Music After The Madness; Remembering Salvador Cardenal

A Musical Bond--Salvador and Katia Cardenal, Jackson Browne,  and Ted Warmbrand; A Remarkable Gathering of Musicians For a Good Cause On March 10

As a teenager in the early 1970s I attended two Alice Cooper concerts which included a guillotine and the gallows. My personal “shock” activities included blowing up plastic model cars I built with firecrackers. As an adult I’ve gone to four Salvador Cardenal concerts featuring his poetic compositions about love in all its forms. I still haven’t written a love song, but at least I don’t blow up stuff anymore.

Salvador Cardenal, who died at the age of 50 on March 8, 2010, was one of Nicaragua’s most beloved and influential songwriters.  He and sister Katia, with her stunning vocals, performed as Duo Guardabarranco.  Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne met the duo in Nicaragua on a solidarity visit in the 1980s. Browne was won over by their amazing songs, and later sponsored tours for them in the U.S.

In the late 1990s I met folk musician Ted Warmbrand shortly after moving to Tucson, and we've occasionally got together to play our banjos. For decades Ted has sung for justice at picket lines, marches, vigils and rallies while organizing concerts featuring movement musicians like Pete Seeger and Sweet Honey in The Rock. Ted met Salvador and Katia on their first U.S. tour, which led to a close professional and personal relationship. He has organized eight Duo Guardabarranco concerts in Tucson alone in addition to several U.S. tours. Ted has also spent time with the duo in Nicaragua, including one extended visit to help archive their music. 

Raising Support For The "Fund For Civility, Respect, and Understanding."

Through Salvador Ted got to know Jackson Browne, who Ted called recently to ask to come play at a benefit concert in Tucson on March 10, that will support the victims’ families and community at large in the aftermath of the January 8 massacre in Tucson, where six people were killed and many more wounded including Congressional Representative Gabby Giffords. Browne, who has a long history of supporting social justice and environmental causes, heard the call and agreed to come. Ron Barber, Gifford’s district Director, who was also injured in the shootings, had the idea for the concert which will poignantly happen just two days after the anniversary of Salvador Cardenal’s death.

Salvador and Katia Cardenal with Ted Warmbrand, during a U.S. tour in the mid-1990s
I first heard Duo Guardabarranco play when I lived in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The country had a revolution underway that the U.S. government sought to destroy. While Salvador and Katia developed as musicians within the context of the Nicaraguan Revolution,  their gentle, uplifting music transcended revolution, offering a spiritual respite from the terrible toll wrought by decades of violence.

Salvador described his music this way, “My sources of inspiration were always beauty and injustice. To make beautiful things with words, sounds and protest pain, terror and the unjust. To defend what's beautiful and just with music, poetry and paint. To join the arts together as brothers in order to have an impact on the inertia of humans, and spread seeds of conscience and inconformity with a world in ruins because of human causes.”

Before reading further I encourage you to listen to one of Guardabarranco’s great songs, “Dale una luz,”  which paints a vivid portrait of their native country. The lyrics are posted over images of Nicaragua--if you don't understand Spanish the music is equally compelling:

I’ve been fortunate to catch several of Guardabarranco’s performances in the Tucson area, but my most unforgettable experience with Salvador Cardenal was the last time I saw him in 2005. I had returned to Nicaragua for a brief visit and Ted had given me some materials to deliver to Salvador. I was staying at a house in Managua with friends Paul Dix and Pam Fitzpatrick, who were working on a book about the victims of Nicaragua’s Contra war.

Salvador agreed to come pick up the materials, so I looked forward to meeting him and having a brief chat. Instead he blew in like a cultural hurricane bringing food and about ten of his recent paintings to show us. And Salvador brought along his guitar, which led to a performance just for the three of us, playing his new songs about nature-- he had deep concerns over the rampant ecological destruction in Nicaragua. I gave him the materials, but Salvador had delivered a more extraordinary and wonderful package, unwrapping all he had to offer, nothing held back. I learned this was no exception—he was always like this.

So it might be said that Jackson Browne is staying true to their common mission, by bringing his own musical magic to Tucson next week, thanks in large part to his friendship with Salvador Cardenal. Browne will be joined by many others including Alice Cooper, who lives in Phoenix, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Dar Williams, Keb’ Mo’, Ozomatli, Jennifer Warnes, Joel Rafael, Calexico, and many more.  I’ve already got my ticket. (see link below for more info). 

The Road Ahead and Evolving Paths

The concert will be a big step forward after the horrific events of January, but it is still a long road ahead. Arizona continues to live in its own vitriolic context manifested through the nation’s most draconian anti-immigrant laws championed by a radically conservative state legislature and law enforcement officials like Sheriff Joe Arpaio.  Mexico has even issued travel advisories to its citizens visiting Arizona. 

New gun control legislation stands no chance in Arizona which already has some of the most lax gun laws in the country. The legislature is pushing for a new law allowing concealed handguns on college campuses. The lack of historical memory is troubling. In 2002 a disgruntled student gunned down three professors on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson.

photo at right--A positive face of Arizona: No More Deaths volunteers Steve Johnston and Maryada Vallet  bandaging the feet of an injured migrant (

Governor Jan Brewer and Joe Arpaio may represent the arrogant storm clouds of intolerance in Arizona, but many others are leading the way towards a brighter horizon; people like twenty-year old Daniel Hernandez, Gabby Giffords volunteer intern, who rushed to his stricken boss to treat her wounds and provide comfort, and has helped console everyone with powerful words of wisdom spoken from the heart. Hernandez will be among the speakers at the concert on March 10. 

While Alice Cooper used mock violence in his earlier concerts, the effects were were quite harmless, similar to watching a Dracula movie. His song, "School's Out," an anthem of youthful rebellion,  is still very popular among youth. But Cooper has evolved from those days. In 2001 he was asked by the British Sunday Times newspaper about how his current religious beliefs contrast with his days as a shock-rocker, and responded "Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that's a tough call. That's real rebellion!"

Melvin and Me

While I had my fling with rock music, I eventually gravitated back towards the traditional music of the area where I grew up. When we were kids my father used to take us every year to a big fiddlers convention in Union Grove, N.C. to hear songs that had been played for generations, in stark contrast to contemporary pop music’s half-life of a few months. 

As the festival grew bigger it also metamorphosed into a combination of Mayberry and Woodstock. One year I remember us kids staring at a long-haired young man resembling Jesus as he waved his arms skyward while mumbling incoherently.  I think that was the last time our father took us to the festival.            

Melvin Slaydon at "Mayberry Days" in Mt. Airy, NC, fall 1999
I made my first banjo in high school from a kit to get credit for an independent study course. Then I heard about the Friday night jam session at Joe Guyer’s gas station in Popular Springs, N.C., a few miles from my hometown of Elkin. The first time there I met a fiddle player named Melvin Slaydon who also could play some banjo. We would make music together for the next twenty-five years.

Melvin’s existence evolved around playing the fiddle. His only formal employment had been priming tobacco in his younger days, which left him bent over and arthritic. He and his wife Mallie were so poor people let them stay in old houses for free. They drew enough from Melvin’s disability check to eat out once a day, and then would sit in their car for hours in parking lots talking with folks—a lifestyle they thoroughly enjoyed.

I played with Melvin at festivals, nursing centers, and in people’s homes. Once we both won first place at a fiddlers convention (there was only one other person beside myself competing in the clawhammer banjo division and I had been playing longer).  
Link For March 10 Benefit Concert in Tucson 
Link For Documentary "Salvador Cardenal Barquero, Vida y Obra" (in Spanish) 

To go directly to the part of the documentary where Ted Warmbrand is interviewed, and Salvador talks about Jackson Browne, click here:
Link for Song, "Dias De Amar" by Guardabarranco, performed in Nicaragua at a Latin American Music Festival, 1989 

Website for Duo Guardabarranco:
Link for Book "Nicaragua: Surviving The Legacy of U.S. Policy" by Paul Dix and Pam Fitzpatrick; Comes out in May; can be ordered now. 

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