La Lengua Universal


Meet Olman Arguedas

San Jose, Costa Rica • March 9, 2011

A dear friend of mine offered me his precious guitar this February, 2011 (a completely separate story). Upon finding my new instrument, I saw that years of storage had resulted in a missing string and a broken tuning key. Were I in the US, it would have been no problem to Google some standard guitar store and ask for a repair, but I was not in the US.

Here in Costa Rica, finding what you need is a bit more adventurous. Google cannot begin to know every hole-in-the-wall shop nor categorize them properly, and beside that, there are basically no street names. People do not give directions the way we do in the States. They do not say, “Drive down Lake Worth Road, turn left on Military and then you will see 9875 Military Rd. on the right.” No, Costa Ricans will say, “From the cathedral of Saint Mary, go 200 meters west, 30 meters south.” The “mailing address” should you to actually find one online, would in fact BE 200 Meters West & 30 Meters South of the Cathedral Santa Maria. This may prove a bit problematic if you already have no idea where you are, let alone where you are trying to go.

Scrapping the internet search, I asked my amazing CouchSurfing hosts if they knew of any nearby guitar shops, and they eagerly provided a source. Unfortunately, at certain hours, my Spanish comprehension CAN indeed glaze over and I kind of missed . . . well, everything they said. They even wrote it down for me, but I managed to loose the paper, naturally. Thus several days later, aka, the second to last day of the available 2 weeks I had in which to complete my task, I realized that I still needed to get my guitar fixed.

On this second to last day of my trip, as my friend Chris Kendall and I wandered the market strips of San Jose, I happened to glimpse the neck of a guitar in a store window. Immediately darting into the shop (across a few lanes of traffic) I asked the staff if they could fix my guitar. Nope! But they knew of a place. The gentlemen kindly proceeded to phone a friend, get directions and write them out for me on a sheet of paper – which I promptly crumpled into my pocket. Luckily, I DID manage to recall the location of my stashed sheet the following morning, and called the number. After securing directions and wasting another good 2 hours or so, Chris and I finally set out – WITH my guitar – AND my camera – in search of the shop.

The Address:
‘From the Iglesia Dolores, 100 Meters West, 25 Meters South’

To me, these directions were the equivalent of, “There is a cow – don’t worry, you cant miss the cow – when you see the cow, go north about 30 steps, 25 if you have big feet. Can’t miss it.” Thankfully, Costa Rican taxi drivers understand Costa Rican directions, so once we got dropped off (and asked around a bit), the itty bitty, unlabeled nook in the wall wasn’t all that hard to find. 

Into the doorframe stepped a calm, grounded, fatherly looking man with warm features, wiping his hands with a shop rag.

Meet Señor Olman Arguedas.

n. to be so exceedingly happy that your face gets stuck in a somewhat ridiculous position.
Ex. A permagrin plastered itself to my face the moment the dust and paint thinner grazed my nostrils.

With gentle movements, Arguedas accepted my neglected guitar and looked her over with care while I described my situation. My eyes wandered around the small shop with distracted fascination as I spoke. Refocusing, he told me that he could finish the project and could get the tuning keys I needed from a friend if I came back in a few hours. Great, sounds like a plan – instead of leaving, I began moseying the garage-like shop.

In hindsight, he must have been a little puzzled at my apparent decision to actually stay in the shop, as I wandered around, eyes wide, running my fingers over the wood grains of partially finished pieces. I asked if it would be okay to snap a few photos and continued my exploration. Chris patiently sat in a corner, grin on his face, chatting with another passerby clicked away with delight. After carefully restringing my guitar, Arguedas piqued interest in my curiosity and joined me.

‘You like that machine? It is very old’ he said proudly in Spanish. ‘I use this sewing machine at home. I just brought it to the shop to clean it up a bit.’

‘This railing is over a hundred years old. I plan to use it to create the neck for that guitar.’

‘This guitar here – the neck is about a hundred and fifty years old. It’s made out of cherry wood.’

‘Those boards there are 40 years old.’

By this point, I could hear the gentle voices of the storytellers from This American Life in the back of my head saying, “An artist, a mystic; Olman Arguedas builds instruments of language and love, and every piece has its own story to tell.”

With the hands of a gentle shepherd, Arguedas proudly showed me the boards that would shape the backs of his next guitars. ‘Spanish woods. Those ones are from France. These I think came from…’ To be honest, I was so distracted by the textures of the woods themselves that I forgot the specific locations. But I do remember him saying, as he caught me eyeing the 150-year-old cherry wood guitar, that the older the wood, the better the sound. However, the wood and where it comes from is not as important as how the guitar is made.

My patient compatriot, Chris Kendall

I cannot recall exactly when, but at some point, wondering if maybe Señor Arguedas actually wanted us to leave for a little while, Chris and I decided to wander the surrounding area and scope out some interesting railings and other skate-worthy spots. It did not take long, however, before I started getting a anxious, realizing that I desperately wanted to interview and immortalize this fascinating person. Excited about the treasure of a human I had discovered we hurried back, and with my notebook and camera ready, I began inquiring about the life of a craftsman.

Sr. Olman Arguedas has been repairing guitars since 1968. As of March 2011, he had personally lived 66 years, and was young, vibrant and deeply captivating.

He has four children. Karla, an engineer; twins Cesar and Olman, an architect and graphic designer respectively; and his youngest, Paulo, a geologist. He described them with a pride that I have only ever seen in fathers.

I asked him to name a favorite thing about the work that he does. Like anyone passionate about the choices they have made, he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Everything. It’s art.’

I asked if there has ever been a guitar that he regrets selling. He shook his head and said that he will not sell a guitar if he’s not proud of it.

No internet, no mobile, he prefers a life of simplicity. “No quiero ser una maquina humana.” He says he doesn’t need a cellular in order to communicate. In Spanish, he said, ‘When you’re in the river or mountain, you don’t need a computer, a phone . . . you get in with the earth.’

I asked if crafting guitars ran in the family. ‘No,’ he shrugged. His father was a taxi driver. It was his uncle who worked with guitars.

When asked why he started working with guitars, he just looked at me a quizzically. Finally he said, ‘Well . . . why did you start to sing?’

Ah.  I understand. It was a natural development, something from within drew him unerringly. He loves wood, he loves music… it’s simply a part of who he is.

I asked if he had a favorite song.

He took hold of my guitar, looked it over with an expert, appreciative eye, and then cradled it as he began to pick out a melody. He looked up to see if I recognized the song.

‘Ricardo Mora, an international composer, the uncle of my wife, sat right there, on that very same stool, and wrote this song,’ he told me. ‘Have you ever heard of Caraveli? Noche Inolvidable? Puntarenas, Mi Puerto Querido or Carmen? You should listen to them.’

“La musica,” he said, “es el unico idioma universal”.

That statement, profound, was the beginning.

Señor Arguedas, it has been many years, but I still think of you often.  Thank you for sharing a piece of your magical life with me.  It meant more to me that you know.

Little gems, for fun…

“El Creador del mundo universal, Él es el número 7.
7 – Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, SI. Por eso, los críos entienden la música sin enseñarles. El chino, francés, alemán, la luna, jupiter…. La música y el Creador son el miso; son en complemento del ser.”

En la Biblia, 7, 7, 7 – está en todos lados el 7 – ‘kidush’ en Hébreo – ‘santo’.

7 empieza con:
1 – Espiritú, Creador
2 – Dualidad – Dios y hombre
3 – Verbo, Acción
4 – Materia
5 – Covertura
6 – Hombre
7 – Plenitud

“La música es igual a los números – es matemática.”
“El Hébreo tiene 22 letras. Empieza con siete y se termina con siete.”
“La escala musical, es idioma.”


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