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Travel in music: Chapter 11 - 2000, Panamá

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2000 - Chapter 11 | Panama was my second project with the bizarre company I had just joined but it felt like the first where I truly immersed myself into the ‘not just a job, a lifestyle’ catchy slogan they hooked me with (funnily enough, bullshit peddlers are quite good at tacky catchphrases - who knew?). Of course, it had to do with being in a place much further, much more exotic and much less familiar than Spain. In no small part, it also had to do with having a kindred spirit as my project director.

We did not have a dull moment. From the first day, when we smuggled our way into the rehearsals of a Hawaiian Tropic bikini beauty contest by posing as Paris Match photographers, to the last, we worked hard and played hard, just like the slogan suggested. We sailed the mind-blowingly gorgeous San Blas archipelago, meeting ex-hippie-singer-turned-eco-scientist-warrior Antoine on the way. We survived a hanta virus epidemic and an epic road-trip to Bocas Del Toro during the week long carnival celebrations. We laughed our way out of a tight spot with rural cops, after watching reruns of The Love Boat dubbed in Spanish at the police station. We spent an entire hour listening to a Taiwanese CEO without ever finding out if he spoke to us in Spanish or in English, nodding as he rambled. We flew over the Canal in a helicopter with the person in charge of commercializing the Canal lands. [Indeed, just a few short months before, the USA had officially returned the Canal and adjoining lands to Panama, by virtue of an agreement signed by Carter in the 70s. Up until then, a band of territory 16 km either side of the canal was not sovereign to Panama. In fact, it was US territory and Panamanians needed a passport and a visa to cross it. It also hosted the US Southern Fleet and was, therefore, replete with bases, barracks, luxury housing for the navy officers and canal personnel, surveillance buildings, and an airport.] We even interviewed the President aboard a plane, and made the cover of the national newspaper as a result.

It was a glorious time. Of course, the report we produced from these efforts had only insipid, bought-for vacuous quality, for that was not what mattered to our employers. Had it had any literary substance, I might have almost felt like a crossover between Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson following the footsteps of Ferdinand de Lesseps, George Washington Goethals and General Noriega while burning the midnight oil. Luckily, I was not after journalistic or literary fame. The agency was paying me to travel, discover, have fun and fall in love and that suited me just fine.

The musical discoveries were worthy too. Panama presents a unique mish-mash of cultures, for this small isthmus is not just a crossroad; it is a major universal roundabout where people of all races, color and creed have intermixed for centuries. Indigenous populations, of course, including some (the Kuna Yala of San Blas, for example) who have managed to keep their traditions surprisingly intact. Spanish settlers and chancers. African slaves and their descendants. English and Irish privateers, looking for better fortunes on land. Escaped slaves from neighboring Caribbean islands like Jamaica, Trinidad and others. Chinese, Indian and Caribbean imported labor, brought over to work on the Canal and associated railroad. US soldiers and engineers. Greek, Lebanese and Israeli traders. Adventurers, Mafiosi and slick financiers too. Panama is as diverse as the departure hall at John F. Kennedy airport.

Unsurprisingly, the music is eclectic too. Since it is an intersection between Caribbean and Latino cultures, it is the birthplace of Reggaeton. Even if what I danced to between two tank trucks hosing water on carnival revelers was not exactly memorable, it was still tremendously fun mixed with sweat, short skirts and crop tops. I was not very fond of the folkish Típico, either, despite the local devotion for it and the undeniable talent of Samy y Sandra Sandoval. I preferred the emotive brass section of Mambo legend Máximo Rodríguez y Sus Estrellas Panameñas or the infectious rhythmic humor of the ambassador of local Calypso, Lord Cobra and the Beachers, who sings in English. My absolute favorite, however, has to be Rubén Blades. A salsero of global fame, he also once made a run for the Presidency, between shooting two Hollywood movies. Not a very original choice to represent Panama, you might say, but when you have this much musical and lyrical talent, it is hard to overlook. Here is one of the sharpest, funniest and most corrosive social commentaries salsa has ever produced.


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