On the #468 bus on the way to the concert, we were briefly entertained by a fat, mustachioed gaucho comedian, feigning naiveté in his recent encounters in the cosmopolitan capital city, speaking in the accent and idiom of the country simpleton, making incisive commentary on contemporary Uruguayan life, like, “Somos un pais de contradicciones. Nos dicen que No Te Va Gustar, pero nos gusta,” which being interpreted is “We’re a country of contradictions. They tell us we’re not gonna like it, but we like it.” The joke is in the context, available to the audience there assembled, who all knew that that No Te Va Gustar is a band, one of Uruguay’s best and most successful, who began playing around the turn of the century and who’ve recorded a half dozen studio albums and a trio of live DVDs, who’ve toured extensively in the Americas and Europe, playing in small clubs and vast arenas, and who were tonight performing the fifth show in a six-night stand at the Trastienda Club, a cozy theater for about 1200 fans. That’s where Karina and I were headed, to the sold-out show, excited to see one of our favorite bands play their innovative mix of rock and ska with a touch of Uruguayan murga. I had first seen them play almost a decade ago, for free, in a giant tent sponsored by the Montevideo city government as part of the month-and-a-half-long Carnaval celebrations. Karina had seen them just a few months ago, in Salt Lake City, Utah, just a few miles from our home, where they’d stopped off (unaccountably, it seemed to us) for one of a half dozen dates in their brief U. S. tour.
That tour is where this brief essay gets its gravity, moving beyond concert review or new music recommendation (though I do recommend the band; you can listen to/watch them on the internet to check my endorsement): After Salt Lake City and the greater San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, the group flew east, played Washington, DC, then made their way north to New York City for a pair of shows. Forty-year-old keyboardist Marcel Curuchet, a later entry into the band, a kid from Colón, whose younger brother went to high school with Karina, rented a motorcycle to explore New Jersey and drive himself to the Big Apple. Just shy of the Lincoln Tunnel, on the Jersey Turnpike extension near Liberty State Park, just a few miles from where I grew up, he crashed the bike, striking the concrete median with enough force to leave him in critical condition in the hospital. Rallying to his side, his bandmates cancelled the show that night and sent a flurry of messages home to family, friends, and fans in Uruguay.
Then it was a tense couple of days while doctors gave all their efforts to revive him, yet Marcel remained comatose. His mother and four-months-pregnant wife traveled to be with him, and his stunned bandmates posted brief, pained updates that kept people like me hoping for a good outcome, but on Saturday, July 14, Marcel Curuchet passed away.
Their next concerts, in Miami and in Montevideo, were all cancelled, which brings us to the series of six make-up shows in September in El Cordón, downtown in Uruguay’s capital city. With varying levels of heavy-heartedness, the faithful gathered to feel together the excitements of life tinged by the knowledge that there were eight musicians on stage instead of nine. Karina and I, who would not have been in Uruguay for the originally scheduled shows in July, took advantage of the postponement.
Amidst the joyous noise, the jumping and singing along, here is what I noticed: When you’ve got eight guys on stage, not everybody’s busy all the time. Gonzalo Castex, whose job is to play various percussion instruments besides the drum kit (played steadily by Diego Bartaburu), often seems pensive, angling back to observe the crowd and soak in the vibe. Martin Gil, the trumpet player, (who shares my birthday, March 26), sometimes sings lead and often sings backup, even during moments when the rest of the brass section is blowing, but Mauricio Ortiz only has so much sax to play, and Denis Ramos, on trombone, hams it up whenever the mouthpiece is away from his lips for even a second, like a kid who’s basking in the long realization that he’s in a rock band… playing trombone! Guitarist Pablo Coniberti seems quite busy, as does Emiliano Brancciari, guitarist and singer and creative force behind the band’s many hits. As for keyboards, many of Marcel’s parts were subsumed, sometimes by triggered samples, sometimes by the bassist, Guzman Silveira, who occupied Curuchet’s usual perch at the right-back of the stage, next to the drums, and played on a small synthesizer. As far as the production was concerned, Marcel wasn’t entirely missed, other than in an emotional way, and the concert went off without a hitch. A grand time was had by all, almost, mostly. The unspoken context made it impossible to enjoy things all the way, in the same way as before.
In the days after the show, I’m left pondering a bit about luck, a topic that’s often on my mind, especially when I’m in the company of my Uruguayan in-laws, who believe me the luckiest man in the world (I’m no Lou Gehrig, putting a sunny face on impending tragedy; things are still sunny for me). Before we left to catch the bus, Karina told her sister Graciela the story of how we’d gotten into the sold-out show simply by sending an email to the band’s manager lamenting that we’d have no chance to see them play and asking if there were any other concerts programmed before the end of the year. I wasn’t entirely asking for a pass, but I wasn’t not asking either. So I wasn’t really surprised (but I was well-pleased) when he wrote back offering to put me and Karina on the guest list that very night. For Graciela, this was yet one more confirmation: “You see how lucky you can be when you speak with a funny accent in this country?” Though my accent hadn’t been at all apparent in my email, I had to agree. One shining opportunity after another brightens my path forward into sufficient success and general contentment. But on the other side of my mind, I try to find the space to sympathize with the fellows on the stage, who actually knew and loved and lost their friend, who’d no doubt launched into the North American tour with high hopes and a giddy sense of adventure. Surely this had been motivation for Marcel when he took leave of the group to embrace the open road, feel the sun and wind, chart his own course, even if for a few hours.
One never hugs one’s own good luck so affectionately as when listening to the relation of some horrible misfortune which has overtaken others. — Alexander Smith, from his essay “Christmas”
So here’s another contradiction beyond what you’ll like or dislike, beyond relative measures of fortune, a more significant one: that while we each seem indispensible while we’re here, once we’re gone, the shows go on, the band plays on, we become background and scenery, memory, the way things were. The role we played dissipates or is absorbed, and while those we knew and loved carry an ache in their hearts, they continue to live and breathe and play their instruments with gusto, singing with soul and life, as the Uruguayans say, until they, too, become expendable.
At the end of the encore, Emiliano Brancciari made the first and only mention of the band’s fallen comrade, dedicating to “Curucha” a song they’d written years before Marcel began playing in the band. Like so many things, given a new context never imagined when it was first created, the song adapted without changing to suit the current need. With a frenetic energy, the band and crowd lifted our voices together—
Come back home whenever you want
There’s always a place for you at the table
—like we were singing to raise the dead.