The Maestro — which simply means “master” — ambled into a poetry reading at Ambrosia, the restaurant that has become the cultural center of the barrio. His slouched shuffle was a combination of the weight of the saxophone he carried in a black box on his back, his bad posture and plain exhaustion that was written in his sunken eyes.
Maestro — so called because of his saxophone playing prowess — is how everyone greeted him. As he walked through the crowd people shook his hand and touched him on the arm. I’ve asked a number of people his name, but nobody knew. Mention Maestro, however, and everyone nodded.
Although his curly hair isn’t in dreadlocks, it hasn’t been combed in a long time and is loosely knotted so it falls down the back of his skinny body. The lines on his leathery face are ravine deep. Neither his body nor his clothes have been near much water for a considerable time.
The lyrics of Kris Kristofferson’s song “The Pilgrim” spring to mind: “See him wasted on the sidewalk, in his jacket and his jeans, wearin’ yesterday’s misfortunes like a smile.” While the Maestro wouldn’t know the song as it is in English, he lives it.
The Maestro’s saxophone is his lifeblood. When he takes it out of the case he lovingly polishes it with the special cloth he carries in the box. Then when he puts the instrument to his lips and starts to play, people wonder how such a powerful sound can come from such a shrunken body. The music fills the room and stops the conversations.
It is raw talent released; he comes to life to play.
When his performance at the poetry reading finished, I asked Yoly – who owns Ambrosia – to please give me 5,000 pesos – about $2.50CAD – and to put it on my bill. When she shot me a quizzical look, I told her it was for the Maestro, because he looked sick. She nodded in agreement.
Frankly, I haven’t got a clue. But finding out about the Maestro’s life is enough to inspire me to learn more Spanish. And I had better do it soon as he is fading. Quickly.
In the two or so years I have known who he is, and listened to his music, he has aged about 10 to 15. He has taken on that grey pallor that so many street people get before they check out. One factor could well be the constant sipping of aguardiente – the local hooch that makes Uncle Walter’s homebrew look user-friendly. Combine that with harsh street conditions, a bad diet and sheer poverty and it cuts down a life expectancy. How old is he? 40? 50? Maybe, but he looks 65 plus.
The Maestro and I have developed a relationship of sorts. He asks how I am; I tell him I enjoyed his music. Then I give him a kiss on the cheek, sip him a bit of money, and give him a hug across the back of his shoulders. The conversation is over until the next time we meet.
Hasta luego, Maestro. Meanwhile, keep playing because it keeps you alive.