Today I received a nice surprise in my e-mail – an invitation to the Teatro Municipal in Arequipa, Peru. The event is in honor of well-known Peruvian classical guitarist Percy Murguia Huillca, who is being presented with a gold medal from the regional government. It was a fortunate misunderstanding that originally led me to meet Percy…
I was wandering the San Camilo market one afternoon, enjoying the
lively sights and sounds and stomaching the smells. It was the first of many markets I would visit in South America offering anything you could need, from a variety of fresh produce to a gut-wrenchingly inclusive selection of animal parts. On one end rows of vendors sold non-food items such as clothes, tools, and musical instruments. I played a few guitars, a charrango (Andean stringed instrument like a lute or mandolin – the legit ones are made with an armadillo’s shell), and a zampoña (Andean panflute).
A side note – It is interesting to note how
uniform the vendor booths are. Competition seems relaxed in a society more receptive to socialist values (for South America, capitalism has only signified the removal of resources since the conquistadors took all the silver – just ask Colombians drinking Nescafe instant coffee). There is a road near the San Pedro market in Cusco where 90% of shops are watch repairmen. All of them have the same catchy slogan, “We repair watches.” And in La Paz, stores are commonly named by the product they sell and the name of the owner. Should I have my juice at “Jugo Ximena” or “Jugo Guadalupe” today? Anyway, since this post is about a guitarist… I took the opportunity to ask six guitar vendors in a row where to go to see some traditional live music.
Or that’s what I thought I asked them. They all agreed, Radio Melodia, and I set off to take a look. But upon entering I quickly realized the misunderstanding. Four men paused, looked up at me, and then back at their microphones. Radio Melodia was in fact, a radio station, and I had just walked in on a live broadcast! When the music started, I was shuffled off to the intern’s office. I told him I was traveling with my guitar, and to my amazement he got on the phone and called Percy!
And so as a foreigner who could just get by in the language, I knocked on the door of a radio station in search of a live music venue, and fifteen minutes later the local, beloved classical guitarist was there to take me out for a beer.
In the five blocks that Percy and I walked to the restaurant, Percy must have stopped 10 times to shake hands with people on the street. He was humble yet confident, and thrilled to tell them about his friend from Boston who wants to learn the music of Arequipa. We stopped by the upscale apartment of the editor
of the local newspaper, although he seemed arrogant and didn’t want to be bothered. At the restaurant, Percy handed the waitress a CD of his own music, and she played it for us. He signed a score of his music for me and pointed to the notes to help me follow along. Afterwards he dropped me off at my hostel and took a few minutes to play my Martin backpacker travel guitar. That night Percy and I would attend a concert for the alumni association of his university.
Before the concert began we sat in a circle, Percy, me, and about 6 of his alumni friends. They seemed well-educated and well-spoken, members of an upper class of Arequipeña society. There was a certain humor to being an underdressed foreign backpacker among them. Shots of the Peruvian liquor pisco were passed around. Later, a single glass and a pitcher of Sprite and pisco circled the table. Each person took a turn downing a glass and passing it on. The pitcher stayed full throughout the night.
The musicians, all part of Percy’s group were incredible. The music featured guitars and singing, but notably included a cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument said to have originated from African slaves in Peru in the late 1700s. The musician sits on top of the box and plays it with his hands; different parts of the box produce different tones.
After several passes of the pisco pitcher, the host said “something something our friend from the United States!” and Percy and his friends ushered me up to the stage. Oh boy. I was given a guitar, and there I was at the mic, staring out at the crowd. I played the first two Eric Clapton songs that came to mind and some blues improvisation accompanied by the cajón (later described as “an interpretation of North American negro music” by the host!). It went okay… I was given a standing ovation – well, at least from Percy’s friends.
The next day I was sick. Real sick. Not hangover sick, well, okay, a little hungover, but this was “somebody’s getting too comfortable with South American street food” sick. I’ll spare you the details, but by the evening I was getting increasingly dehydrated, and couldn’t hold down those Cipro pills I had packed so responsibly. And in walks Percy. He just thought he’d swing by, say hey, play some guitar, no big deal… Well Percy ended up bringing me to the hospital to get an IV. He called the cab, checked me in, picked up my IV bags at the hospital pharmacy (because that’s apparently how it works there, pay as you go!), and argued with the nurse until she brought me an extra blanket. All of this while my main focus was find the nearest reasonable place to puke. At the very least he saved a janitor some cleanup, but really, it would have been a messy situation without him.
Percy stopped by once more during my visit to bring me to a house party commemorating the local holiday of a saint. He showed incredible generosity and hospitality in showing me a side of Arequipa few gringos get to see. I feel fortunate to have experienced firsthand Percy’s kindness, musical talent, and culture. Congratulations and thanks to Percy Murguia Huillca, a distinguished musician and an honorable man, on your Gold Medal achievement!
(Find more pictures from this story in South America Part 1 on the photos page!)