The Evolution of Barrio Musicians

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I’ve held on to the subject of my experience with the Instituto Nacional marching band because, as I’ve come to find out, it is a topic near and dear to us the Westindian kids who grew up in Panama.

The gift of being a Westindian boy playing the drum like a professional on a patriot day parade route has been an endless source of joy even today that I am a man of years. Although it was my first year of having anything to do with playing a musical instrument, it was really a big deal and there is a background to this for us the Westindian community of Panama.

I didn’t know it back then in 1952 but I had gotten caught up in the evolution of the Westindian people of Panama and the art of teaching and making music in Panama.  For any Westindian kid who wanted to learn to play a musical instrument as well as learn to read the language of music, if your family wasn’t musically inclined, you had to make a super special effort to teach yourself.

Although my dear godmother, an employee of one of the only novelty stores in Panama City, gave me a harmonica, my next step was much more daunting as I couldn’t find anyone to teach me to play it.

The same thing presented itself upon entering Primary School and we were taught a simple Spanish song that became a childish hymn for every child who entered Spanish School in Panama. “Los pollitos dicen pío-pío, pío…” became a classic when we Westindian were allowed to enter government schools after our people rose in protest over our exclusion as Prohibited Immigrants during the 1940’s.  From that moment on, the radio stations would become a source of our musical instruction in both English and Spanish.

Music schools then were almost non-existent. There were few options for us Westindian kids who had the desire but lacked the family background. There were some teachers who took in students in their private homes but these were few. I visited one such Westindian teacher in company with one of my cousins hoping she would take me in. I soon lost heart at her reaction, however, since she acted as though she had little enthusiasm for yet another kid with no musical background.

Then, there was my utter disappointment at being barred from the National Conservatory for no seeming reason except that I was wrong color.

The Salvation Army Church, however, would loom large in offering us barrio youngsters musical instruction. They offered music classes at night to young neighborhood men who did not own an instrument.  In fact, I met several of the young musicians who would later make up Armando Boza’s Band there as they learned and practiced on borrowed instruments for what would become their musical careers. Some of our great jazz musicians also had their start in the Salvation Army’s music classes right in Calidonia.

This story continues.

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