The Musings of Afro-Latino Reggae Artist Phillip Montalbán
Articles + Essays
by Tiffany Austin
Afro-Latino Reggae artist Philip Montalbán amusingly refers to the term “African/English/Spanish” to describe his long-standing presence in the music touring industry and also to refer to the African and/or Caribbean presence largely located on the Atlantic coast in his home of Nicaragua. Based in a transnational figuring of ethnicity and music, Afro-Nicaraguan musician Philip Montalbán calls what has been explained/profiteered/idealized as globalization as “the world getting closer.” And that is what his reggae infused Latino music does, attempt to connect multiple cultures and bring messages of spirituality and love, injustice and connection, closer. Amalgamating Mestizo, Afro-Caribbean as well as the indigenous cultures of Miskito, Rama, and Garifuna, he also displays use of their languages in his music. Albums range from showcasing a mix of Creole English and Spanish to his presenting specific Miskito words in song lyrics. In our conversation, he refers to his first song as an example: “Won’t you drink some catfish pilala, drink some catfish pilala.” It was about a soup, a fish soup. So, you see, ‘Won’t you drink some catfish’ and then pilala is a native word. It’s a native world of the Miskito people, a native people of Nicaragua.” Montalbán speaks about his use of the language as partly revealing the cultural importance he places on his upbringing in Tasbapauni, a fisher town north of Bluefields (a region inhabited by a large number of the African and Caribbean descended population) on the Atlantic coast in Nicaragua, being originally influenced by his actor/mother, singer/grandmother and performer/great-uncle. “He would go and play, and I would go with him. But he was getting blind, and he was old, so I couldn’t learn from him. So, I used to just walk with the guitar.” Then there was the church—the Moravian church—that influenced Montalbán, just as gospel influenced many soul singers: “I was uplifted, you know, in church, when the organ plays in the church.” These church experiences led him to buy his own guitar through money earned from planting beans in the community.
Far from planting beans, when I spoke with Montalbán in Miami although he lives in Managua, Nicaragua, he was busy working on his latest project, which is in Spanish and categorized within the Latin Reggae genre. He reveals that one of the songs is tentatively titled, “Borderless” or “Sing from Terre without No Bars.” And referring to the theme of the song, he explains, “One day I would like to see where you can travel freely—be a world citizen. . . . I’m not thinking to change the laws of nations, but the idea is . . . music and arts should be something universal. We can go out there and meet each other and exchange. That’s the idea.” Yet Montalbán, as African, Latino, and Miskito identified, speaks of a way of seeing the world that does in fact impact policy and laws—how we can foreseeably see borders and border crossings inside and outside of nations. And this is connected to his musical influences subsisting of his family, community, the Moravian church (German Moravian missionaries settled in the Bluefields area in the mid nineteenth-century.) as well as the imported calypso of Trinidad, and reggae of Jamaica. Specifically, concerning reggae, as the Caribbean coast town exported lobster to Jamaica, the music of reggae was imported into his community during the 1970s. Alongside these musical influences there was the Spanish popular music and U.S. imported popular and country music playing on the radio. And ask him about his historical musical influences in comparison to what he listens to now, and the answer varies, from classical music, soca, Palo de Mayo (a Nicaraguan music based on the Maypole tradition) to Latin Reggae.
What is also fascinating that comes across in our discussion is the influence of storytelling on Montalbán, from his early interest in poetry to continued interest in reading varied genres (especially yoga based philosophy, belying media implanted perceptions of practitioners of the practice). He also describes his early attendance at community events in Tasbapauni where family members like his grandmother and great-uncle would perform: singing, reciting poetry, and acting. He iterates, “I grew up into that environment and where people sing music of their experience.” He refers not only to the traditional stories like those centering Anancy but also “common” stories of the community: “Something happening in the community, so people just build some story. Then people would act it. Somebody got sick, and they had to be healed by an obeah man, and then you stay in the bed and you’re trembling. And then somebody come and rub you down . . . .Every community has an artist, if we look around…who could maybe write, and who could maybe dance, people who could sing, people who could maybe paint. Every community has this . . . .So I grew up in a community that was rich with storytelling . . . .So that’s where I came from.” And Montalbán’s form of storytelling can be viewed as the storytelling of the relation of different cultures, of connecting social issues with conceptions of love and beauty. More than performing for large crowds on tours, a certain joy arises most simply when he has a chance to perform for young people, continuing the storytelling tradition of his early community: “That’s why I enjoy a lot talking to the youth, talking to schools. I enjoy that a lot, sometime more than playing because sometimes there’s something, just a question, and we get into something. And it just feed them and feed me right away. We go right there, you know. But we have to find ourselves.” Accordingly, when discussing his music and his desire for its effect on audiences, he aptly relates, “Beauty comes out when someone can express themselves freely.” Montalbán’s form of expression seamlessly moves through different languages—“African, English, Spanish”—speaking to the selves of identity, then to the crossing of borders—connecting our utterances through beautiful music.
Tiffany Austin currently teaches rhetorical and creative writing at the University of The Bahamas. She has published poetry in African American Review, Callaloo, Obsidian, pluck!, Valley Voices, and Sycorax’s Daughters, a speculative literature anthology. Her photo essay “A South in Sound” was also recently published in TriQuarterly.