As Álvaro wandered the sweeping courtyard of his hotel, a colonial relic that had been renovated with a pool in preparation for the imminent wave of tourists, he had no choice but to accept the matter for what it was. The situation was grave. Very grave, he realized, aimlessly running his hand through one of the lobby’s marble fountains, stirring the peso coins below the water’s surface.
“Is there something I can do for you, sir?”
The concierge, a silver-haired man perhaps twice Álvaro’s age, referring to him in the formal tense. It felt strange to Álvaro that the concierge insisted on using it, keeping a distance, even though, earlier that evening, stumbling back from a drunken stroll along the fortress wall, Álvaro had overheard him talking almost affectionately to a couple in what he ultimately deduced was English.
“I am having difficulty sleeping,” he said at last.
The concierge furrowed his brow. “Is there an issue with your room?”
Álvaro laughed, in spite of himself. The second-floor suite was enormous, likely having belonged once to the hacienda master or some other figure of high rank. What impressed Álvaro most wasn’t the four-post bed with the family crest carved into the headboard; not the large wooden balcony swathed in thick vines and bright carnations; not the view of the street below where, lost in daydreams, he observed horse-drawn coaches giving tours to young lovers interlocking their fingers, seemingly intoxicated by the romantic aroma of the Caribbean. No, none of that, but rather the sleek air-conditioner affixed seamlessly to the antiquated stucco wall, humming luxuriously despite the scorching heat outside.
Instead, he said: “I’m not accustomed to having so much space.”
“President Pastrana insisted that you have plenty of room, so you’re comfortable, so you can practice without distraction.”
“Yes, he’s a very generous host.”
“However,” continued the concierge, “I could arrange for different accommodations, if you prefer.”
Álvaro considered the offer, glancing up toward the suite, where his saxophone sat like a patient dog. The room might as well have been that nightmare alley of his youth, which he dreaded crossing, a pit bull raging at him along the length of its gate as Álvaro made his way to the conservatory. It wasn’t long before he began to wake up earlier and take a longer route to class. And yet he couldn’t help but keep an eye out for that beast.
No, it wouldn’t do—the appearance of ingratitude, the losing of status. He would have to confront the instrument one way or another. For his sake, for the nation’s.
“Sir?” asked the concierge.
“No, no thank you,’’ said Álvaro. “The room is more than comfortable.”
“Perhaps a little panela water, then. With cheese and lime.”
“I think that’s a good idea.”
The concierge smiled, signaling to the porter nearby, who quickly drifted over and took the order, firing off an at your service, then disappearing down a softly lit corridor. Only in passing and when at others’ service—at the plazas, cooking egg arepas on portable grills; along the beach, braiding dry hair and massaging sunburnt shoulders—did Álvaro ever see the Black residents of the city.
“One of the girls will bring it up soon. Is there anything else we can do for you, sir?”
“No, that’s all. Thank you.”
“Well, then,” said the concierge, guiding Álvaro to the staircase with a gentle press upon the back. “Until tomorrow.”
“Have a good night,” said Álvaro, ascending the steps.
Álvaro looked again at the fountain and felt a pang of awkward sentimentality remembering how, as a child, he took a break from working at his father’s fruit stand to play in the fountain at the plaza in Alameda. Actually, it was a performance, he told the concierge. A documentary crew was there, and they had asked a group of boys to strip down and swim in the fountain, scrounging for coins the crew had tossed in. Of course, neither he nor the other boys had ever done so before; people did not squander change in the Cali of his childhood. Caleñans would sooner die than part with the fruits of their labors—unless asked to do so for the good of the Church—back then, today, even.
“It’s different from the coast,” Álvaro concluded.
“Well,” said the concierge, “here in Cartagena, things are less about how we are different and more about how we are the same.”
“In what respect?”
“One Colombia, united—”
“For peace,” said Álvaro, finishing the campaign slogan to end the narcotrade. For weeks, the message had been recirculating across all major broadcasts in preparation for Bill Clinton’s visit to the country, as political pageantry, a proper send-off for Pastrana’s final lap. It had been the two leaders’ hallmark achievement when both men were in office. Even Álvaro repeated it to himself at times, unaware, while wandering the cobbled streets of the old city.
“Just think—before Plan Colombia, when we asked foreigners for help to fight the insurgents, for relief in the form of simple bread, they would give us stones.”
“And now,” said the concierge, pointing to the fountain with his lips, “now they give us change.”
That’s Bob Fleming—Mr. Sax—spinning on the record player from across the room. The warm and heavy tones floating from Father’s tenor; Mother’s fingers grazing your scalp. The air is thick with the aromas of Sunday lunch: smoked pork and prickly cumin, the soft scent of warm rice.
“It’s like a dream,” you tell Mother, head nestled in her lap, watching the whorls bend against your eyelids in time with Father’s melancholy playing. Mother laughs. “Even in your dreams, I’m cooking. And when do I rest?” You both muffle your laughter so as not to interrupt the mood, and you feel it, between that gentle conspiracy and giddiness and Father’s doleful groove, this open path linking worship and music; and how, later, the choir members’ faces seem transfixed at morning Mass. The same glow hits your uncles playing accordion beneath the bodega awning, their cheeks rosy from aguardiente. As Father, with cigarette kisses and sandpaper chin, looks at his horn, at Mother, at you.
Was there ever a time when this house wasn’t packed with family? Mother, Father, uncles, a grandmother—upstairs, downstairs, someone always lingering by the pond just past the gate, crunching across the gravel yard, smoking on the terrace where Mother yells if she catches them stinking up the laundry drying on the line. The tiny room where they all dodge elbows while practicing their songs. On days off, the adults cook, make music, take turns teaching you riffs or upstrokes on the drums, octaves on the Yamaha, suspended chords on the guitar. Grandmother’s eyes, milky with cataracts, aim at the wall as she guides your fingers onto the frets. Always accept when an uncle offers guidance. Between sets, between instructions on the accordion or drums, they gently tug your arms: “Stretch that wingspan, Álvarito.” Or: “One must picture where the stick will land before release.”
Nothing is as captivating as Father, who, despite chafed hands from years with crops, can skip across the saxophone’s brass topography with grace. Through that flurry of notes, that flutter of movement, he pulls open an infinite horizon, a country, mountain peaks and thick woods and rough surf, only to collapse it all and compress it faster than it was built.
Wake when it’s still dark, follow Father to take the slow bus ride up to Alameda, yawning during the first of many such trips. Rain patters the zinc roof of the open warehouse as you pass souvenir shops raising their metal shutters and large cases of meat slowly being filled with bloodied ice. Father’s corner is in the back, across from a lunch counter bound by plastic stools—whose friendly owner gives him a discount—and behind an asshole herb specialist who doesn’t, not even when he’s sick.
“Is this where I go to school?” He doesn’t answer and instead places a small paring knife in your palm.
“Like this,” he says, whittling away at the thick green hide of a soursop, artfully exposing its soft, white pulp.
And you realize, then, that it isn’t the instrument, but rather the one playing it who makes the music.
There’s a lot to do at the fruit stand Father runs: produce to sort, floors to wash, change to make. No time to play. Coffee breaks are spent recalling music scales or practicing multiplication, dizzy from the fumes of Father’s cigarettes, which he indulges in more often after selling his saxophone one Christmas. At night, Mother pries your fists open and massages oil into the strained muscles. Skin falls like confetti to the floor. On Sundays, put on a brave face to practice with family, stifling a grimace whenever some complex melody hurts to play. There is no instrument you can’t adapt to, no tune you can’t carry. Your uncles form a band and the Sunday lunches are less frequent—though still joyous—until there’s not much playing, but plenty of drinking. When the adults loosen themselves—ashtrays full, glasses drained—it is sweet Álvarito and his talents that convince them the nation hasn’t gone to the dogs just yet. They talk sullenly of the country and the bloodshed. It will be years before this time is christened the “Decade of Terror.” Hold on to it as something else while you still can.
All of a sudden, a fresh pack of reeds in the tiny studio, a black leather case in the hallway, a seasoned musical stand not too high off the ground. That day, Father misses Mass and later comes home carrying a used soprano saxophone, bought with pooled uncle money. It’s considerably smaller than his, and less well kept, but when that first blow hits the mouthpiece, air flows through the curve of the saxophone’s throat, vibrating from the bell.
Father says, “This is yours, Álvaro.”
“This is ours, Álvaro,” said the president, with a sweeping gesture.
Álvaro gazed out at the vast blue sky and waterline. He considered the view from the terreplein of the San Felipe Castle, strategically located at the highest elevation outside the city. From the stone-and-brick parapets, they could see the city’s historic center, surrounded by the thick fortress wall, and beyond it the shimmering glass towers, a kind of second city, rising along the peninsula in the distance.
The president had summoned Álvaro to the fortress that morning. He’d emerged from the labyrinthine tunnels to find a flurry of workers dressed in the fashion of Palenqueras, arranging linens and centerpieces as stagehands fiddled with lights and tapped a microphone. A large banner lauding the success of plan colombia, which Clinton helped launch toward the end of his presidency a few years earlier, was slowly being raised behind the stage.
Álvaro had turned to find President Pastrana approaching him, bodyguards closely in tow. And, with a handshake and quick pleasantries, he’d instinctively followed the president as he led them away from the chaos toward the batteries along the roof’s southern edge. A rush of air rattled the flag hoisted nearby, and it was at that moment, as it flapped with gusto in the salty breeze, that the president had extended his arm out toward Cartagena, and said: “This is ours, Álvaro.”
They were seated in adjacent embrasures, now stripped of the cannons once used to defend precious Castilian assets. From this vantage point, their military could have defended any foreign incursion, whether by land or by sea. It was fitting, then, that the president had chosen to end his term here, with recognition of the United States and its aid to the country. Bill Clinton, the guest of honor, would close the festivities with a speech to business owners and investors that would kick off a phase of growth, the president explained.
“Those buildings are the end of the drug war, Álvaro—something no other president has ever done. We can see our future taking shape in the skyline.”
“The future,” Álvaro echoed. “You must be proud, sir.”
“I am. Walk with me.”
Álvaro dutifully trailed the president, picking up his pace to match the leader’s stride along the parapets. One of the bodyguards coughed.
“Do you know why I asked you to perform tonight?”
Álvaro did not.
“What I need for this event is something greater than just a talented musician. A fighter, someone who has worked all his life, who can be counted on.”
“Understood, Mr. President.”
“So you agree that this is an important moment for the people?”
“Then keep in mind: It is not how well you play, but rather how well Clinton does.”
It appeared that word of Álvaro’s nerves had gotten back to his host. Had it been paranoia—the ghosts he felt among the hotel staff, amid tourists in the streets, in the hotel suite itself—or actual surveillance that betrayed him? At any rate, the president was aware; Álvaro had been unable to produce a single note from his saxophone since the day he landed. And so, in an effort to persuade them both, Álvaro said:
“I am at the service of the republic, sir.”
“Wonderful,” said the president, clapping his hand on Álvaro’s shoulder. “Now, just play like it.”
Father pays for lessons at the conservatory. Memorize the notes and recite them before the teacher even raises his baton. In your arsenal, there are many soundscapes, the steadiness of percussion, the delicacy of woodwinds, the reverberation of strings. The weeks spent in boredom pass. Transfer to an advanced class, where, at last, there is more to learn.
Don’t be late, ever; never sick, never rude. Toiling at the cold fruit stand patiently until, with time, Father’s business does so well that you no longer have to work at all.
Embrace performance: in the band at Church, in the living room of friends’ houses, in the bars at Alameda full of day-drinkers ready to belt vallenato classics. One afternoon, while the family is at a neighbor’s First Communion celebration, Mother, sounding a bit pious, asks, “So what will you study, Álvaro?” and it’s Father who answers: “What else?” Mother picks at her cake, drinks Coca-Cola from a plastic cup in silence. Later, before the final song, she grabs your arm and whispers, “Promise me, Álvarito, that you are meant for more than being a degenerate.” She wants you in a suit and tie for life. She wants half a dozen grandchildren around her deathbed, no doubt. You shake her off. There’s nothing to say—nothing honest, at any rate.
The pesos fill your pockets and disappear, that friction of new possibility in the fingertips. A modern-jazz bar opens the summer you turn eighteen, and they need a saxophonist who’ll get them banned from Sunday service. That first night flies by in a blur of bohemianism, the bar so full that passersby stop to listen from the sidewalk. The sun is blood-orange on the stumble home, patting tips wadded in your breast pocket. Rest like the dead. Cook a generous lunch, set the Sunday table for your family, wonder where everyone is. Mother and Father still aren’t back from Mass. It’s supposed to be a day of relaxation—except for your uncles, who booked a show in Popayán. With everyone gone, the house is eerily quiet. The radio fills the silence while you wait. Music low, not even listening to it much, just a presence. A broadcaster cuts in on the song, stutters details about a coordinated attack. Car bombs. Commercial district. No number of casualties yet, but police are arriving, soldiers too. Within the hour, the cartel takes credit and threatens more.
When you learn that Father and Mother are among the victims, words fail, and fail again. Not so much as an utterance at the funeral after they’ve been set into the earth. What would be the point? And what were you looking for in that silence? Dust a year thick on every instrument in the house.
Your uncles break the silence—get you a job composing jingles, of all things, commercial bits that other producers take credit for. The saxophone and guitar live in the car trunk. Idle time playing both between salsa sessions, late nights in discotheques, domino games. Neighbors and others who cherished little Álvarito’s playing (and his blessed parents, of course) take pity, press their strength upon you, insisting, and throw parties, a few pesos for a few hours of playing. The money starts to add up, the gigs become more frequent, and hell, even the head of the radio station requests a performance at his daughter’s wedding. It is a beautiful ceremony, whose pinnacle is the dance between bride and groom, set to your jazz rendition of “Love Me Tender.” There is even a photograph in El Tiempo’s culture section of the radio executive wiping his tears with a tablecloth.
Selling jingles and wasting your talent to promote the goals of lesser men gets old. Day in and day out: tropical orchestra bands, brass trios, cocktail parties, dinners, anywhere that will have you. Powerful executives with an ear for talent pass word of Álvaro the prodigy, and your name catches on, and then, at a private dinner, a middle-aged man with a mustache approaches. He is fascinated by your playing, asks for a business card, calls you a true patriot. His soft palm, the cordial affirmations of service. The fresh reed dampening in your mouth falls, but don’t stop shaking his hand. He is your president, after all.
Clinton’s hand swallows Álvaro’s. Despite having grayer hair and deep wrinkles edging his blue eyes, there is a quality of youthful dignity to Clinton that Pastrana does not possess. The president, who for weeks had referred to Clinton as “Big Dog” privately to Álvaro, openly calls him his nation’s greatest friend. While the two chat amicably about foreign policy or some other matter that he can’t grasp, Álvaro reaches for yet another flute of champagne from one of the circulating trays. Its effervescence settles on his tongue, and he is suddenly aware of being addressed. Clinton has made a comment directed at him.
“President Clinton is looking forward to your concert,” says the president, icily.
Álvaro drains the last of the champagne and smiles. “Likewise,” he says, miming a saxophone solo on the empty flute.
When the lights finally dim, a single beam lands on the podium, on a stage looming over the banquet tables. Álvaro excuses himself to join other participants in the oncoming spectacle: dancers wearing dresses matching the Colombian flag’s colors, the pristine white uniforms of military marching bands, children in indigenous garments and turned hats made of cane, holding accordions. Together they line the edges of the stage, watching the festivities and the event’s facilitation, both the performances and the coordination of servers clearing plates and refreshing drinks. Always part of the spectacle, never the spectators.
In between acts is a series of speeches, first by the president and later by representatives from international organizations, diplomats whose names and titles neither Álvaro nor the other contributors recognize, let alone understand.
At last, Clinton comes to the podium. He speaks warmly but with authority, pausing to gesticulate outward at the audience, evoking a sense of solidarity that registers across the terreplein. It is as though, despite the barrier of language, he is speaking not down to the crowd, but from among them, as one of them.
On his previous trip to the city, when Plan Colombia was a new initiative, an explosive device had been found near Clinton’s hotel, just hours before his arrival. Rumors spread that one of the guerilla groups planted it there as a warning for those seeking peace. A less-seasoned politician would have canceled his appearance and almost certainly wouldn’t have returned, Álvaro thought. But this, too, was the manifestation of a new stability. Together the presidents had ushered in an era of eradication, a state presence that would not be intimidated, one that would wash its hands of the violence of the past.
And then, Bill Clinton concludes with a turn of phrase even those not fluent in English recognize:
“God Bless Colombia; God Bless the United States of America.”
Your name is Álvaro Rodriguez Gallego. The year is 2002, in Cartagena. You stand at the foot of history, and also at its face. On this fortress, the draft that billows your shirt is the same draft that once propelled Castilian sails across the sea.
You are a boy, unsteady on the frets of the guitar. Conjure the lines in Grandmother’s face with the same lack of precision. When she passes, this memory of her is the only one that remains.
You are a man, changing the reed in your mouthpiece a second time, walking onto a stage to perform for people who will likely forget your name before they forget the music. Successfully manifesting the feats of greater men is your fate, instructed to remember that it isn’t just your own trajectory at stake, but the country’s.
You are a boy, buckling beneath the weight of an accordion. Count breaths as the bellows expands and contracts, guided by your uncles’ arms. The fullness and flattening of your pockets between gigs.
You are both exemplary and arbitrary, reduced to simulacra: a mother’s disappointment, a father’s wounded pride. One of many vignettes in the simplified discourse that belongs to storytellers outside, to a narrative devoid of agency.
A photograph documenting this occasion depicts Bill Clinton in rolled-up shirtsleeves, puffing his cheeks to play saxophone for his host, the president, whose mustached mouth is agape, smiling. It is this moment—their staged mutual affection, not Clinton’s embracing you—that is memorialized for the world to see. None of this matters right now because all of it has happened and is happening and will happen regardless, and so with exhalation you release the tension, channel it into the levers and pads of the saxophone’s brass topography. The time between action and sound is infinite.
Because now you are in Alameda, conjuring string patterns to match the drum line of rain tapping the roof. Because now you are in Mother’s lap, tracing light through the gaps in your eyelashes, remembering a music that spun whorls inside you. Because now you are navigating the body of a saxophone, not just for the president and Bill Clinton, but at home for your father, who coaxes out the sounds, stifling his own fear of the unknown, of what you might craft if given the opportunity to be set free.
You are in Cartagena, 2002. And, for what feels like the first time, you are at peace.