I would have preferred my first post of the new year to have been forward looking, but I’m compelled to have it be about my friend Choco who passed away on Dec 31, 2009 at the vital age of 42.
The exact timing of his leaving us on that day is not clear to me and I wonder if it occurred while I was immersed in the merriment of bidding farewell to a difficult year for many – 2009 – and the welcoming of a year that holds so much promise. Sad to think that while I was celebrating life, he was losing his. One of those things that makes you wonder.
As far as I understand it, Choco was on a small boat about to, or in the middle of serenading his girlfriend Rita who lives on a houseboat in the small northern dutch town of Groningen where he lived. He was romantic like that. This time, on that fateful day, he somehow fell into the freezing water of the canal in which Rita’s boat was moored and unable to swim, my Costa Rican friend drowned. My heart goes out to his family and his girlfriend Rita.
Choco was a joy to be around. He was always smiling, always finding ways to deal with whatever challenges life sent his way, and as a professional percussionist, there were many. Yet I never knew Choco to be any other than a lover of life. He loved his profession and he was happiest when he was playing his congas.
I can’t remember how I met Choco or exactly when, but it was in the late 1990’s when I lived in Groningen. Choco taught percussion, particularly bongos and congas, and he became my teacher. He would always call me by last name with a spanish pronunciation. “Ga-Les” he would say, “You have talent, but you need to play more. You need to practice.” Always with a smile on his face and love in his heart.
I think I respected and even admired Choco for following his heart, and he did that by following his art, his art of playing his congas. He would always say that unlike a guitar or a piano, the congas were not a complete instrument, meaning that the music of congas was best enjoyed as an ensemble of other instruments. This was no diminishment of his instrument, but rather a tribute to its role in making music.
For him, even though his instruments like the bongos and the congas were not necessary for a band to make music, their inclusion took their music to a new level, and percussion itself was the spine around which the body of music was formed.
I saw Choco give a vivid demonstration of this one night when he joined me at the Buckshot – my favorite bar in the Netherlands. It was an outstanding dutch summer evening. It felt like 23 degrees Celsius, and was about 10pm with the sun at a steep angle casting everything it touched in a lovely red hue. There was a live jazz quartet playing as Choco turned up and sat with me on the sidewalk in front of the bar. The musicians nodded their recognition to the great percussionist and Choco beamed back his wide smile.
Then they began playing their next number which had a distinct latin flavor and Choco was obviously inspired. He reached into the duffel bag he was carrying, produced his prized bongo drums and walked up to the band. There was a split second pause between him and the lead guitar player/singer which seemed to be where Choco was either granted permission to play, or made it known that he would be. Choco sat down and placing his bongos between his legs, began playing.
It was magical.
His hands moved like lightning over the skins of the bongos, and if the band sounded good before, they sounded absolutely magnificent now. From a lifetime of practice, Choco seemed to know exactly when to sit back and when to explode his bongos so that it all fit together perfectly. When the song was over the leader of the band bowed to Choco and said his name out loud. Everyone applauded and Choco could not have been happier.
This was who Choco was: spontaneous, talented, passionate and a lover of people. Choco seemed to instinctively feel the connection with people and everything he did in his practice of music, indeed in the practice of his life revolved around his connection, his contribution to other people.
Farewell my friend. You died as you lived; bringing joy to the lives of the people around you. I will always think of you whenever I hear the congas, and I will smile as I do now.