Álvaro was at the peak of his musical career — leading a band for a national television program — when, one day, he found he couldn’t play two notes of his saxophone. This had never happened to him. Those two notes were the beginning of a long nightmare that would force him to reevaluate everything about his life and identity. How do you move on with your life when what defines you suddenly vanishes with no explanation?
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Translation by Patrick Moseley
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE JOSÉ GABRIEL SHOW)
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
And this is…
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE JOSÉ GABRIEL SHOW)
[Juan Gabriel]: Alvarito and the Clinton Quintet, I’m so happy to see you over there…
[Daniel]: Alvarito. Álvaro Rodríguez, the music director of this Colombian talk show.
Álvaro is a really tall man, 1.93 meters tall or about 6’3″. And in addition to directing the band, making arrangements with the singers and selecting the music, he was the saxophonist. He was living his dream, really. It was what he always wanted to do.
One night in 2010, they were starting to record…
[Álvaro Rodríguez]: There, when I say: 5,4,3,2,1… Tantan parapa papan. I had to play the first note and the first note came out: “pufff”.
It made the sound of air blowing out and I stopped the band myself.
[Daniel]: Álvaro didn’t understand what was happening. He had played the saxophone for almost 20 years and he was good at it. He thought it was the instrument that wasn’t working, even though, deep down, he knew that something very strange was happening.
[Álvaro]: That was when the nightmare of my life happened. In that instant.
[Daniel]: Our producer David Trujillo continues the story.
[David Trujillo, producer]: Let’s go back in time to the mid-60s. That’s when Álvaro was born and as long as he can remember he was surrounded by music. His grandma and her sisters played guitar and sang, and his uncles played saxophone, bassoon, accordion, trombone… His grandma started giving him guitar lessons when he was 3 or 4 years old. And even at that age…
[Álvaro]: For sure, I would rather stay with my grandma, practicing un pasillo than ride around on my bike.
[David]: His uncles also taught him music and in the 70s they started very famous tropical orchestra in Colombia: Los Black Stars.
(SOUNDBITE FROM A SONG BY LOS BLACK STARS)
[David]: The orchestra rehearsed in a studio in Álvaro’s grandfather’s house.
[Álvaro]: So I would sit there for 3 hours delighted watching the drummer, the sax player, the keyboardist, the singers… And I also grew up listening to tropical music.
(SOUNDBITE FROM A SONG BY LOS BLACK STARS)
[David]: At the age of 7 his dad started taking him to music classes at the conservatory. His mom saw it as a great hobby, a leisure activity. That’s why, when he was in high school…
[Álvaro]: I wanted to participate in the choir at Mass, in the rock band, in the vallenato group… As long as it had to do with music, I was ready to be a part of it.
[David]: He even remembers the first concert he performed in. He was 10 years old.
[Álvaro]: It was for 1,000 students at the school and I was singing a country song from a famous cowboy called Pecos Bill.
(SOUDBITE FROM A PECOS BILL SONG)
[Álvaro]: And I imagine Peco Bill had dreams of his own, and I had the uncontrollable dream of being an artist.
[David]: And as a teenager he was completely obsessed with music. He didn’t like anything else. He wasn’t good at math, or literature, or chemistry, but he was a great musician. He would adapt to a new instrument almost naturally. And he was also looking for opportunities to perform: it could be the stage of a theater or the living room of a friend’s house. And he would be invited to be in bands.
Álvaro had a great future as a musician. But when he was 18 and was just about to graduate high school…
[Álvaro]: My mom said to me: “Well, mi amor, what are you finally going to study?”. And I said to my mom, “No, well, I’d made up my mind”, I told her: “Music at la Nacional”.
[David]: His mother’s response was absolute silence. As well as a call to a cousin who was a psychologist to get him to convince Álvaro to study that.
By that time his dad had already died. And even though he encouraged him to pursue music, it was different with his mom.
[Álvaro]: I felt that at the time she was a little frightened that my talent would lead me to pursue music as a career.
[David]:Because of course, at that time, music was associated with parties, alcohol, bohemianism…
It’s not that his mom didn’t like him singing or playing instruments. But for her music should be more of a hobby than a career. She hoped her son would be a professional…
[Álvaro]: With a tie, I’m sure, or in one of those professions that leads you to success.
[David]: Álvaro’s mom flat out forbade him from studying music, be she consoled him with a gift.
[Álvaro]: At 18 years old my golden dream arrived: the saxophone.
[David]: It was the instrument he liked the most. His dad would always play Bob Flemming, a famous saxophonist, during family lunches on Sundays. And Álvaro had learned to play the instrument with his uncles. He loved the deep sound of the saxophone.
Álvaro ended up studying Communications. His plan was to combine advertising with music and write jingles and songs for ads. But when he graduated, he realized that it was very closed-off community and it was very hard to compete with ad agencies that had the technology and infrastructure for recording.
[Álvaro]: I sold several jingles and all, but…but I finally ended up being frustrated with another profession or another situation with my music.
[David]: He needed financial stability so he had to look for other jobs…
[Álvaro]: But look, I’m telling you I always went around with my dreams in the trunk of my car. Because my saxophone and my guitar were always in my car.
[David]: Toward the mid-80s he started working at Caracol Televisión, one of the most important production companies in the country. He was selling ad time there, but what he really wanted was to be the music producer: to be able to choose the music for the shows, compose songs for the telenovelas…He had a plan for all that: like always, he had his instruments in his car, so he could play at all the parties and get his name out there.
[Álvaro]: For my boss’ birthday, because I was going to play at the end of the year meeting, for whatever…
[David]: And it worked.
[Álvaro]: And word made it to the president’s office: about Alvarito, from sales who played the sax and the guitar too.
[David]: One afternoon, the president of Caracol asked him to come see him immediately and to bring his instruments. Álvaro was through the roof. He thought they were going to ask him to write the score for a soap opera or write jingles. But what his boss told him didn’t have anything to do with his job or a new position. He asked him to play at a party for the other executives and the company’s clients.
[Álvaro]: I mean, my aspirations as a producer never moved beyond being a good performer in those kind of trios and playing guitar because they called me to all of the parties.
[David]: And that’s how things stayed. But that didn’t really bother Álvaro. He kept working at his job and going to all of the president’s parties. And they didn’t pay him…
[Álvaro]: Well, I would go for free… I would have a few whiskeys and play because all I wanted was to sing and play my saxophone.
[David]: And that, in part, made him happy. Even though, of course, deep down something was missing.
[Álvaro]: All of the musical dreams I’d built were vanishing.
[David]: Toward the mid-90s he started to work in hotel management in Bogotá. That was when he met Claudia Algarra, his wife, who he had two children with.
[Álvaro]: So around that time things turned out well for me. I think my mom was proud and happy. And I had a management job with a tie. I didn’t keep my instruments in the trunk of my old Zastaba anymore.
[David]: Now he was keeping them in the trunk of a nicer car. And all that time, Álvaro enjoyed what he was doing: he traveled a lot and made good money.
Until one day, when he was 33, he went to a work meeting with the bosses at the hotel to present that month’s revenue. It was all positive, so when they were done, the boss invited him to celebrate at a bar. That night they went to a saxophone and jazz show that Álvaro had organized. It seemed like it was going to go wonderfully, but…
[Álvaro]: The pianist, the bassist and the drummer showed up but the saxophonist wasn’t going to make it to the saxophone and jazz night.
[David]: The three of them were about to play but the saxophonist never showed up, and now you could tell that the customers were upset. So the boss started to put pressure on Álvaro, asking him how he was going to solve the problem.
[Álvaro]: Suddenly, I was shaking getting my saxophone from my car with the bellboy and the pianist. I said to him: “Come on, help me get out of this. I’m going to play 3 or 4 songs”…More to make my bosses happy so they don’t fire me for this nonsense.
[David]: It all happened really fast. In a few minutes he was getting on stage with the other musicians and counting down to play: 3,2,1…
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE SONG “TAKE FIVE” BY DAVE BRUBECK)
[David]: “Take Five”, by Dave Brubeck. A jazz classic.
Álvaro felt like he was playing at the Blue Note, a famous jazz club in New York where all the best musicians go to perform.
[Álvaro]: I closed my eyes and it was incredible, and I felt… On top of that, the group sounded like we had rehearsed a lot.
[David]: The bar started to fill up. His coworkers were running up to see him and the guests were loving it. Álvaro felt like an artist up there on the stage.
[Álvaro]: And that day my head totally came unscrewed. That day I solidified my dream: that I should give being a musician a shot.
[David]: So a little later he created a small business and started offering his services as a musician playing tropical orchestras, saxophone trios, jazz shows, for all kinds of events. Cocktail parties, weddings, dinners…
He didn’t leave his job at the hotel. But he and his sax were more and more in demand.
He spent a year doing both. Until finally…
[Álvaro]: I left that whole hotel life behind me. Without any pain or second thoughts.
[David]: He was finally pursuing music as a career. And yes, he was successful, like his mother wanted.
In 2002, he was hired to perform at a private event. That day Álvaro was in a hurry when he got there because he had been running late. He saw there were a lot of seats in the audience but try as might he couldn’t see any of the people who were there.
After playing for 20 minutes a man with a moustache came up to him and told him he was fascinated by his playing and asked if he had a business card. Álvaro was completely stunned when he realized who it was.
[Álvaro]: That was a meeting with none other than the President of the Republic at the time, Dr. Andrés Pastrana.
[David]: Pastrana congratulated him on the show. A few weeks later he called him to tell him that in a few days he would be organizing a special dinner in Cartagena.
Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States, was going to be the special guest and he was going to speak at a conference for business owners in the country.
[Álvaro]: Pastrana knew Clinton. He knew his musical tastes and he knew he played the saxophone.
[David]: Pastrana didn’t just want Álvaro to liven up the dinner.
[Álvaro]: But also to play songs so that at some point during the dinner we could manage to persuade Clinton to play a song.
[David]: With the saxophone he was going to give him as a gift. Álvaro accepted without hesitation.
(SOUNDBITE YOUTUBE VIDEO)
[Bill Clinton]: Mr. President, thank you for coming to welcome us. I’m delighted to be here with the other Americans at this important conference that begins tomorrow…
[David]: They made arrangements for him in Cartagena and that night Álvaro started playing. Clinton was loving it. After a while the president got up and gave him a hug. Then Álvaro gave him the saxophone and a mouthpiece.
[Álvaro]: And he wets the reed, and that’s the sure sign that a saxophonist is going to play.
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE SONG “SUMMERTIME”)
[David]: The two of them got on stage and started playing “Summertime”.
[Álvaro]: The first song was enough to break down all the protocol and they came up to the front of the stage as if any other international artist were performing. The clapping, the shouting, “encore, encore”. That gave me a huge recognition and fame.
That was what really launched my career. That was the cannon that shot me forward.
[David]: Because, of course the picture of the two of them was published in the most important newspapers and magazines in Colombia. The concerts started.
[Presenter]: A concert featuring Álvaro Rodríguez’ magical saxophone playing…
[David]: The interviews.
[Presenter]: It’s our pleasure to welcome Álvaro Rodríguez with his saxophone…
[Presenter]: Álvaro Rodríguez and his Saxo Banda Show…
[David]: He even went into the studio and recorded 5 CDs, including one directed and produced by Armando Manzanero, the Mexican singer and composer who he was playing in a concert with in Bogotá.
Álvaro felt like he was living the dream he had always had.
[Álvaro]: Because when you’ve been trying to be a musician your whole life and that hadn’t worked out; and you’ve seen the greats and you want to dream and see yourself as someone great one day; and from one moment to the next you leave behind your career behind completely and in 2 or 3 years you start having this experience…well those experiences are very hard to explain.
[David]: In 2010, he was hired as the music director of the José Gabriel Show, which we talked about at the start of the episode. It was one of the most important talk shows on TV in Colombia.
There Álvaro directed the band, composed the musical intros and outros and played the saxophone. They recorded every week and he had to be ready for every guest’s set list.
He split his time between filming the episodes and continuing to go to events for people who hired him. It was hard: sometimes he played saxophone for more than 10 hours a day.
Toward the end of that first year, they announced that the show was going off hair because the host was leaving the country. While they were recording one of the last episodes of the show…
[Álvaro]: There, when I say: 5,4,3,2,1… Tantan parapan papán. I had to play the first note and the first note came out: “pufff”. It made the sound of air blowing out and I stopped the band myself. And I said “That’s so weird”.
[David]: The production team asked him what was going on.
[Álvaro]: “You didn’t notice, but the first few notes didn’t play, there’s a problem with the saxophone”. “Alright, Alvarito, calm down. Do it, count again and José Gabriel comes in”. 1, 2, 3 I concentrated and it worked. But something weird had happened.
[David]: During a break from recording, Álvaro stepped outside to call his ear nose and throat doctor. A few years earlier, the left side of his face had been paralyzed. It was a virus that kept him from playing the saxophone properly. It wasn’t serious…the doctor gave him some pills and sent him to a few sessions of facial therapy to regain his muscle movement. He was able to play again in a month.
He thought that was happening to him again and that’s what he told the doctor. But he answered…
[Álvaro]: “Álvaro, let’s take a good look at what’s going on, because like I said, there no risk of that kind of viral issue. So I am going to wait here for you, come to my office right away so we can figure this out”.
[David]: And Álvaro was frozen.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
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[Hanna Rosin, co-host of Inivisbilia]: When Cici first met his mom’s new tenant, he never suspected to be replaced as her son. Or that his replacement might have sinister motives. This week, Invisibilia looks at the things we don’t say to our love ones and the misunderstandings that it can lead to. Listen on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break we were with Álvaro, who was starting to think that what was happening to him could be serious. Very serious.
Here’s David Trujillo.
[David]: The ENT’s tests came back alright. Álvaro wasn’t losing strength in his facial muscles. However, in the next two months he started noticing that he couldn’t play melodies that were as complex as he could before. And that wasn’t all: The same thing happened with the legatos and sound effects. He was losing everything he had mastered throughout his life as a musician.
[Álvaro]: And that was the nightmare began, an endless nightmare, because from the ENT I went to the pulmonologist, to see if there was something wrong with my breathing.
[David]: But the pulmonologists’ tests were also fine. It was the same with the neurologist’s texts. Everything was normal.
He didn’t feel any pain. He could talk and chew and kiss and whistle. He couldn’t understand what was happening, but playing the saxophone was becoming more and more difficult. And at every performance…
[Álvaro]: In my head I was saying: “Sloppy. Horrible. You’re playing terribly. You missed the A. You missed the B. You couldn’t hit the note. That one fell short”. It’s my own critique of myself, my ear against my feelings.
[David]: It was constant suffering.
[Álvaro]: Playing had become a torture, permanent torture. “I couldn’t do it; ah, I didn’t make it; ah, this is horrible; ah, I’m so ashamed; ah, no”.
[David]: He only told his family what was going on. But the musicians who played with him started to notice. Álvaro would come up with any excuse he could. At the time, acknowledging it wasn’t an option.
[Álvaro]: Because acknowledging it would mean stabbing myself in the heart and ending my life as a musician. “I’m sick and I can’t play”.
[David]: He tried to improvise. The musicians kept going without knowing what was going on, but they would help him hide his mistakes and continue the melody. At one performance, the pianist told him that he was parting his lips. Álvaro hadn’t realized, so he went to the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror and started playing his sax.
[Álvaro]: And that was the moment I saw there were involuntary movement.
[David]: His lips were opening and air was escaping. He tried putting clear surgical tape around his mouth to see if that would help. But it was no use…
[Álvaro]: I starting playing the way a stutterer speaks, with total respect for people who have that physical limitation, and the thing is they can’t complete sentences, or at some point in their sentence they stop talking because they run out of breath. That was happening. I would start a musical sentence and I wouldn’t know when I was going to go silent.
[David]: He had consultations with international experts who were coming to Colombia. He paid for alternative treatments…
[Álvaro]: The money I put into my recovery was absurd. What you really need is an answer. If you know what is happening to you, you can make decisions. But if it’s a mystery, no musician, no doctor, or group of doctors, no one dared to do anything.
[David]: It made him panic every time he was about to play. He went into a depression.
[Álvaro]: For two years I would wake up crying because I dreamed I was playing the saxophone. I wouldn’t take the saxophone apart because I would say: “It’ll play for me tomorrow, uh, tomorrow it has to work”. Because if your mouth feels normal and everything else seems normal, you hold out hope.
[David]: But it wasn’t just the sadness of losing the ability to play his instrument. He was also losing his profession. With that saxophone, he brought home money, food. He was being faced with a huge financial problem.
In December of 2012, Álvaro agreed to perform at a Christmas dinner with a few people. He was going to play some slow carols that wouldn’t be too difficult for him. But in the middle of the show, someone asking him to play a song that was very difficult. Álvaro took a deep breath.
[Álvaro]: And I started to play it, man, and those lips opened up. And I wasn’t playing the notes and I ended up all sweaty because I was in a cold sweat now. And the despair…the…seeing that everything I had built in 20 years was completely ruined for no reason.
[David]: He ended the performance. Álvaro thanked the guests, said goodbye and put away his saxophone. Before getting in his car, he called Claudia, his wife and business partner.
[Claudia]: He tells me “I’ve worked up to today. I’m not playing a single event again. I can’t go on. I’m devastated”.
[Álvaro]: Part of our emotional life was centered on music, on my serenades, in everything I… With music, well God, you can express a lot of feelings.
[Claudia]: It was horrible. He would cry, he would have nightmares. There were a lot of tears… A lot, a lot, a lot.
[Álvaro]: And it was the pain in the end, if your wife has seen you succeed…
[Claudia]: Music had been his life. That had been his passion. And he was playing less and less and less. By that point it was obvious.
And the saxophone became like a rabid dog to him. Like when you go by a house and a dog jumps and barks at you, after that whenever you walk by that house, you do it carefully. You look at it with fear. So that’s what happened to Álvaro with his instrument: He would look at it but he would look at it with fear because he knew that he wasn’t going to be able to play it. He wasn’t going to be able to make music with it.
[Álvaro]: And I said to my wife: “Look, this is your husband, the father of your kids, the worker, the fighter, the partner. But the saxophone player died. Today”.
[Claudia]: I gave him a lot of support. I’m much calmer. Maybe I handle stress differently. I never told him he had to keep playing. I never recriminated him for having…having set aside the saxophone. Never, never…It was like the path in life we had to take…to keep living.
[Álvaro]: I got in the car crying and…and I pulled up my grief and I accepted my grief.
[David]: Álvaro started telling his friends what was happening to him. He kept working with his musical performance company, but now he offered another saxophonist’s services. Sometimes the clients accepted that, sometimes they didn’t.
A few days after giving his last performance, he got a call from a friend. He told him there was a woman at the Bogotá Philharmonic that may be able to help him.
Álvaro got in contact with her.
[Amparo Mosquera]: So Alvarito calls me and tells me he wants me…to help him. So I tell him: “Come to the orchestra and bring your saxophone”.
[David]: Amparo Mosquera was the first woman to play first chair trombone in the Philharmonic. She had played instruments in pop and classical orchestras her whole life. But in 2006, when she was 44 years old and in the middle of her career, the same thing that happened to Álvaro happened to her.
[Amparo]: In other words, you can’t play the D, or the E or the F anymore. These notes don’t come out. I couldn’t control my trombone anymore.
[David]: Amparo had to deal with the criticisms of her colleagues and bosses at the Philharmonic because they believed she wasn’t practicing enough. Playing made her panic and she starting suffering anxiety because she was afraid of getting kicked out of the orchestra. But Amparo know that her problem wasn’t a lack of practice. There had to be another explanation.
[Amparo]: So I said: “No, for my knowledge, and in order not to stay in the dark, I want to research what’s happening to me.
[David]: She searched “sick musician” on the Internet. She came across links to researchers and medical centers that worked to help musicians. Amparo was surprised, because nothing like that had ever existed in Colombia.
So she got in touch with them. She told them about her case. She told them her symptoms and sent them videos of her mouth while she played trombone. The diagnosis was nearly immediate.
[Amparo]: Specific muscular dystonic disorder.
[David]: Or task-specific focal dystonia. Amparo got to studying. It has to do with involuntary movements in muscles specific to the playing instruments. In other words, someone who plays the piano may lift one their fingers or someone who plays the violin may move their arm in the wrong direction.
The most curious aspect of it is that it only manifests when you go to play the instrument. Amparo’s disorder, for example, was in her mouth. Her lips would part without her noticing, but only when she was playing the trombone.
Although it is a neuro-motor problem, the causes are still not clear.
Amparo collected all of this information and organized it in a kind of book which she sent to her bosses at the Philharmonic.
[Amparo]: And that was the only way I knew to defend myself from being thrown out of the orchestra.
[David]: The doctors helped her verify that she had a work-related illness. One that is not included in the list of work-related risks for musicians in Colombia. And that was how she got relocated to an administrative position, but didn’t lose her job.
Amparo shared what she had learned with her colleagues at the Philharmonic. That was when she learned that two of her colleagues also had the illness. She couldn’t offer them a treatment, but at least she could give them an answer to what was happening to them. The people around her took notice of her research and they started getting her in contact with people they knew who had symptoms.
That’s how she meet Álvaro, through a common friend.
When they saw each other at the Philharmonic, Amparo realized how obvious Álvaro’s problem was and how depressed he was.
[Amparo]: I had been researching this for 6 years so I was able to talk about it very calmly, it wasn’t both of us crying over each other [Laughs]. So, I calmed him down, because it’s not the end of the world.
[David]: There are treatments. Not in Colombia, but there are in other countries, like Spain for example. For Álvaro this came as an enormous relief. At least he had some kind of hope. And so, as soon as he could, he went to Spain.
There he saw a specialist: A musician who studied this problem medically. He starting giving him physical therapy for the muscles in his face to reduce tension, and more importantly, he gave him psychological treatment to rid him of his fears and insecurities.
[Álvaro]: Because in the end what…what happens is you have to do a…a total shut down and…relearn, start again practically from the beginning.
[David]: There are several factors that can trigger the disorder. It can be a harmful technique that became a habit and ends up affecting the muscles; it can also be the stress, working under pressure and excessive practice, like in Álvaro’s case; or even an emotional trauma like the death of a loved one or a car accident.
Álvaro was in Spain for a month until he couldn’t pay anymore. The treatment cost $1,000 a week and it was impossible to know how long it would go on. So he went back to his country, disappointed.
[Álvaro]: Knowing that in Colombia there’s not really any specialist who knows the subject.
[David]: But he wasn’t depressed anymore.
[Álvaro]: When you understand what goes on with dystonia, you start to see music differently.
[David]: At that point he knew he wouldn’t be able to play the saxophone without getting treatment. So he started looking for opportunities to feel like a musician again.
He found out that there was an electric saxophone that worked as a kind of breath synthesizer but that you played with the same finger movements.
[Álvaro]: It’s long like a clarinet, it had the same mouthpiece as a saxophone, but you blow on it. It doesn’t require the same amount of force as the reed on the metal instrument.
[David]: They don’t sell them in Colombia, so he bought it in the US. He was very excited. He hadn’t played in 3 years.
[Álvaro]: And I got home one night at 8pm and I set up the saxophone. And my children and wife were happy. And I started playing notes on it. “But it sounds good, dad. It sounds exactly the same. It’s like your sax”. “Yes, I know it does, boys”. And in 10 minutes my lips started shaking and I started losing the notes I was playing with that saxophone. And it was yet another frustration.
[David]: He asked his wife to put her fingers on the corners of his mouth: if she held them in place, they wouldn’t open. Now he had to find a way to put pressure on his mouth.
Everyone went to bed and Álvaro starting looking all over the house until he found an orthopedic insert, a kind of support that people use when their feet hurt. Since the insert had a curved shape were it supported the heel, Álvaro realized that it also fit his face perfectly.
[Álvaro]: So I put it on, I cut out a hole in the middle, and put it on the instrument and with something very…very…very rudimentary which was a was a circle where you put the tape and a few plugs, I put in two pieces of rubber.
[David]: It looked like he was wearing an oxygen mask, but that didn’t matter. With that pressure on his mouth, he could hold long notes.
[Álvaro]: So from 1 am to 2 am that night, I started to play “Bésame mucho”.
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE SONG “BESAME MUCHO”)
[Álvaro]: My kids and my wife got up: “Oh, he’s playing! He’s playing!”.
[David]: An ondontologist friend helped Álvaro improved the mask he invented and it ended up being more discrete. That was two and half years ago.
[Álvaro]: I started playing this instrument and I’ve gotten back on stage. I mean, I’m happy and relieved that this little device let me feel like a musician again.
[David]: Not long ago, Álvaro was even able to listen to the recordings from the time before he was sick.
[Álvaro]: It really affects me. When…when I would record I would say: “That was alright, but no”. And now I listen to my recordings and I say: “Wow, that’s a tremendous saxonist. That sounded great”.
[David]: One day he decided to get out his metal saxophone because he had it stored away ever since he stopped playing. He set it up and put it in his studio. And when he sees it…
[Álvaro]: Now it doesn’t make me sad. The electric sax helped me get past that pain.
[David]: When I saw him earlier this year, 2018, he told me that another Spanish specialist, Jordi Albert, was treating him. He’s a musician and he also had the disorder. He’s not giving him medication or doing physical therapy. He gives him lessons so he can learn to play the saxophone a better way, with more correct technique. It’s like training an athlete.
I spoke with Jordi over a video call to find out how things were going with Álvaro. He’s been treating him for a few months and the distance complicates things a little, but they communicate constantly and Jordi prescribes him daily exercises. They met up once in Colombia in October of 2017 but the plan is to meet more frequently.
[Jordi Albert]: Now he’s practicing again and basically what we’re seeing is that he could play the saxophone again. But, of course, playing again isn’t all. You know? He has to keep going, he has to play and get on stage and perform a song. That’s the real recovery.
[David]: And it largely depends on the effort Álvaro puts into his treatment.
When I interviewed him at his home, I was bold enough to ask him a request… I asked him if he was willing to play his metal saxophone in front of me.
He hadn’t played it in front of anyone other than his family and therapists for six years. He wasn’t sure at first but he ended up agreeing. He started cleaning the mouthpiece…
[Álvaro]: I got this out just now. Up until…until November. I had it stored away. It was with this one that I learned that, let’s say I’m really a tenor. This is my tenor saxophone.
[David]: He wet the reed and stood in front of a mirror. He started playing “Take Five”, the same song he played 20 years ago in that hotel bar.
(SOUNDBITE ÁLVARO PLAYING “TAKE FIVE”)
[Álvaro]: That’s a disaster for me. At a performative level that was a failure. But what I am achieving at this moment is a marvel.
[David]: Álvaro stopped for a moment.
[Álvaro]: What just happened, for example, comes out of absolute vulnerability. Because someone who doesn’t understand or hasn’t heard the news would say: “Ugh, that’s so horrible, who’s playing that instrument?”.
[David]: But knowing everything that has happened to him, for me it was incredible to hear those improvised, crooked and forced notes. It’s like they’re the first words of a baby learning to speak. And that’s how Álvaro feels.
[Álvaro]: This is the saxophonist who is just being born. Because the saxophonist who played on December 21st, 2012 doesn’t exist. This a new…a new path in my life. This is the new saxophonist who I want… to reappear within me. When? I don’t know.
[David]: Let’s hope it’s soon.
[Daniel]: It’s impossible to know how long it will be before Álvaro plays his metal saxophone again. As we air this story he is continuing with his treatment.
Now he has a foundation that seeks to help Colombian musicians with this disorder. Amparo helps him with this and their goals are big: aside from including it on the country’s list of professional illnesses for musicians, they hope to create a center for the research and treatment of this kind of illness.
The saxophone songs in this episode are Álvaro’s own recordings. David Trujillo is a producer for Radio Ambulante. He lives in Bogotá. This story was edited by Camila Segura and me. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Mosley, Laura Pérez, Ana Prieto, Barbara Sawhill, Ryan Sweikert, Luis Trelles, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas and Silvia Viñas. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO. Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org.
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Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America.
I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.