Friendship, support in Greensboro

by Jordan Green

It’s 2008. Springtime. Sunday afternoon at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro. A mariachi band is setting up on the floor: vihuela, guitarrón, accordion, trumpet. Then there are the conga player, drummer and a second trumpet player from the band West End Mambo. The whole scene might be confused for a Latin music conference; it’s a party, for sure. Maria Vasquez is serving up plates Mexican tostadas, Cuban pork and black beans, Puerto Rican chicken and rice, and, perhaps in honor of her husband, Cesar Oviedo, a Nicaraguan casaba dish. There are a few grandmas with babies on their shoulders, and plenty of children.

He’s just finished a set playing bass with Braco, his Latin rock band. Later, he takes the stage again playing keyboards with West End Mambo, with Maria singing and playing some kind of wooden, hand-held percussion instrument.

It’s not a scene you see everyday in a section of the land that has yet to fully appreciate a flourishing Latin vibrancy in its midst. But there were friendships forged years ago that account for the full house and the half dozen bands that have volunteered their talents to raise money to help Oviedo, who underwent quintuple-bypass heart surgery last October, pay some medical bills and keep up mortgage payments for his home in rural Randolph County. There are a lot of blues guys here, most notably Bobby Kelly of Blues World Order, who was once Oviedo’s employer at the Music Loft. There are scene stalwarts like guitarist Sam Frazier and singer Rebekah Raker, both of them familiar haunts of this storied and beer-soaked music hall. Jazz players Turner Battle and Scott Adair will be dropping in a little later to check things.

“If Cesar was illegal we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Kelly is saying as he finishes a heaping plate of food in the courtyard behind the club while his wife, singer-songwriter Kristy Jackson, fetches a round of Yuenglings from the bar. “Culturally, it’s a little dicey. There’s a lot of musicians we don’t know about because their papers aren’t in order.”

Oviedo raised the bar when he showed up in Greensboro about a decade ago, Kelly says.

“Obviously, he knows Nicaraguan folk music, and when he lived in Las Vegas he had to learn mariachi – Mexican music,” Kelly says. “He’s a natural-born teacher. He’s a classically trained musician. He taught my son and John Parker how to play salsa – you know, gringos. Just like the blues, in Latin music there are probably a dozen different idioms. He knows them all. He’s also a recording engineer, which is what I am, so he understands that. He sort of carries that Miles Davis sensibility, that there’s only two kinds of music: good and bad music.”

Oviedo is not a citizen yet; technically, he falls in a category called “alien legal resident.” But he’s a long way from Managua, Nicaragua in 1979 – a time when a youthful revolution swept aside a decrepit dictator and scared the hell out of the American foreign policy establishment with a socialist experiment that helped reenergize the Cold War.

He’d graduated from high school and gotten accepted to the National Conservatory of Music in Managua.

“The thing about Nicaragua is it’s a lot of international stuff,” Oviedo says. “You’d hear the Rolling Stones, Santana, Michael Jackson. Mexico, Cuba and Colombia all have a lot of influence on Nicaraguan music. When I was in school, it was when the revolution happened. There was a lot of interchange between Nicaragua and Cuba. The conservatory was more classically focused. We started getting a lot of Cuban teachers. I was playing gigs, getting in trouble with the teachers; they didn’t like that.

“I got really, really lucky,” he continues. “In a few years, I got to play with some good people. I mean, I was good, but this guy was really good. He had someone drop out, so my friend, he said, ‘Why don’t you try out Cesar?’ We’re playing in a band called Praxis. We were playing whatever we wanted. This band was the top band of the Sandinista organization of culture and arts founded by Rosario Murillo. She was our boss.”

That would be Rosario Murillo, wife of President Daniel Ortega.

Sometimes Oviedo and other favored musicians would travel to the front to entertain soldiers defending the revolution against the Contra insurgency, and ride around armed with guns in case of ambush. For the most part, they escaped military duty. Oviedo says his position in the socialist power structure provided him more income than a surgeon that had studied for 12 years.

“We got paid a monthly salary,” he says. “We worked out of a cultural center, with all the dancers, painters and sculptors – all the weirdos. We were the spoiled guys. We didn’t have to write political music…. The revolution is a very contagious thing at that time. A lot of people got in. A lot of people, you don’t even ask them, and they would write a political song. You didn’t have to be in the party at that time.”

Privilege gave Oviedo an inside view of a revolution that was turning rancid. He saw how state-run television turned talent-less singers, who happened to know the right people, into stars. He had a friend, a fellow musician and lawyer, who falsified documents on behalf of the state security service to cover up politically-motivated disappearances.

“My decision to leave was because I was very disappointed with the people I was working with; they were the top people in the country,” he says. “I knew there was more crap, and I didn’t want to see more crap.”

He rejoined his mother and siblings briefly in Guatemala, and then hired a coyote to smuggle him across the US-Mexican border into Texas. His lawyer friend, who had worked with the security forces, was living in Mexico at the time under an assumed identity. They both applied for asylum from the United States. The friend’s case was resolved in a month. Oviedo, who could not honestly say that he would face reprisal if he returned to Nicaragua, would have to wait 15 years before he attained legal status.

He lived for a time in Miami and San Francisco, and then moved to Las Vegas to take a job playing tropical-styled big-band music in a casino.

“There’s something about the Latin culture,” Oviedo says. “In Latin countries, the musicians and artists are honored. If you go to a wedding, you’re the first one to be fed; you’re the first one to get a drink. They think if you’re drunk you’ll be happy, and you’ll make everybody else happy. If you’re drunk, you’ll play better. If you’re on drugs, you’ll be better.”

This is sort of the way things fell apart for Oviedo in Las Vegas. He helped put together a Latin jazz program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and hoped that his contacts with professors would help him get an American degree despite his undocumented status. It didn’t work out that way. He got married, and the couple had a daughter on Christmas Day of 1997. Their marriage was on the rocks, and Oviedo had fallen into a pattern where he was accepting cocaine instead of cash as payment for gigs. He was using four grams of coke a week, getting high every 24 hours and staying up three days at a time.

Daughter Chelsea’s birth was the event that made Oviedo take stock of the squalor that his life had become. He decided that from then on he would demand cash payment for his work. “They said, ‘That’s your problem: You changed; we didn’t,'” Oviedo recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not going to play anymore.’ They said, ‘Oh, you don’t want to work, we’ll make sure don’t work again.'”

He doesn’t say much about the assailants, just that “I pissed off the wrong people,” as he shows off the scar rolling over the curve of his elbow. His arm was broken, but after undergoing elbow surgery, he fully recovered his ability to play the bass and keyboards.

Rare is the man who gets the opportunity, presented as an open and free proposition, to take revenge. As Oviedo determined, there are also several reasons, most of them spiritual, to let the opportunity pass.

“These two Salvadoran guys showed up at my place,” he says. “Have you ever heard of MS? There was this one musician who was a friend. [He said,] ‘You know, Cesar, we’re going to help you.’ These guys were five feet tall. These guys were scary, not normal guys like you and me. They said, ‘We can do whatever you want. We can break their arms, or something else. They can be gone.’ These guys came from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. They drove four hours.

“My friend called me. He said, ‘They are paid already. You don’t have to do anything. They’ll be here a couple days. If anything happens, I don’t want to know about it.’ I don’t think they needed a lot of money. They do it because they enjoy it. I said, ‘You know, it’s very tempting.’ My ex-wife was freaking out. I said, ‘I’ll let you know.'”

With a newborn baby, a marriage in dissolution and two Salvadoran thugs awaiting direction, Oviedo would probably never imagine that 10 years later his daughter would be trying to teach her step-brother to salsa dance at the Blind Tiger, or that he would be holding a friend’s toddler on his lap onstage, playfully striking the keys with the little girl’s feet.

He had a friend in Pfafftown, who had helped Oviedo get into his first band in Nicaragua, and now offered him a place to stay. The two played in restaurants and private parties, often finishing by 9 p.m. For a musician accustomed to going to bed at 10 a.m. and waking at 3 the next afternoon, it was all a little strange.

“It was night and day,” Oviedo says. “You know the difference between small-town North Carolina and Las Vegas – Sin City, the City of Lights? I stayed here for a month, and went back to Miami. I said, ‘Uh oh.’ Miami was just a different jungle; it was just a different bad place. In North Carolina, people wave. ‘Hey, how ya doin’?'”

Since putting down roots in North Carolina, Oviedo has discovered the blues, bluegrass and the earthy strain of jazz that helped nourish John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, not to mention Maceo Parker. He’s found a supportive community of musicians and audiences enthusiastic about experimentation.

In some way, he absorbs it all. But there is one element for which Cesar Oviedo is the singular ambassador in North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad.

“That power and intensity, that expression of joy, the percussion,” he says. “It’s only in Latin music.”

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