Osvaldo Ulloa Lobos, Cantor a lo divino (1936-2010)
I first heard don Chosto sing in 2004 at the National Gathering of Guitarrón players in Pirque, Chile. His voice and his guitarrón struck me as very different from the other musicians. High and plaintive, he sang a verso a lo divino: sixty lines of sacred poetry to Saint Joseph.
Don Chosto singing “la común” (often called la dentradora by other singers).
His instrument was not loud or florid, yet he was clearly one of the most masterful players. Someone who could speak volumes in just a few notes.
Don Chosto had played guitarrón since the age of ten, watching his father, uncles and neighbors sing in sacred ruedas (circles of singers) and a cuál sabía más (to see who knew the most), where singers challenged one another to display their craft and knowledge. He started joining the circles of singers himself when he was about fifteen. I was in awe of him for a long time, hoping that he could teach me to be part of a rueda, to sing poetry at all night vigils for the saints.
When I started taking lessons every Thursday, it took a solid hour and a half to take the bus from Ñuñoa to Puente Alto, and then Puente Alto to El Principal, which still bears the mark of the large agricultural estates that once dominated the landscape. When don Chosto was a little boy, his family worked as inquilinos, or tenant farmers. He remembered his childhood–when the land didn’t belong to them–as a time of more prosperity with better food and livestock. After the government agricultural reforms, they were moved to a different part of Pirque where it was harder to raise animals.
Although Don Chosto never learned to read or write, he carried hundreds of lines of poetry and dozens of special melodies, called entonaciones in his head. In addition to the music he learned from his family, he also wrote his own. Melodies that would fit just right with the 8-syllable lines and the rhyme scheme of the 10-line verses (décimas). He called one of these melodies La por revelaciones, because it came to him as a revelation in a dream.
He was respectful and admiring of other singers, yet not shy in his critique. He made note of when singers were “putting on” a rural accent for show. He thought that a good melody (entonación) should be sung like one long line, where each note glides right in to the next. On the guitarrón, each toquío had to be played just so. Only some patterns called for ornamentation, and others would become clouded when over-adorned or played very fast. Clarity and beauty were paramount. The guitarrón was the servant of the voice, and the voice was the servant of the poetry. When he started teaching me décimas, he asked me to say them in English, so that I could “sing them when I got home.”
The verses that Don Chosto inherited from his community are beautiful; they mix centuries-old passages with regional images and expressions that were sometimes hard for me to understand. I would record verses in a notebook for him, but had to underline words that eluded me (when I could remember the lines, I would ask Santos and Alfonso Rubio to help me figure them out). He would sing verses about the Saints, the Apocalypse, the Wandering Jew, the Great Flood, the birth of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Passion, and about the planets and the universe (“por Astronomía”), and he guarded his sacred verses closely. When Pamela Fuentes and I helped him record an album, he asked us to cut them off before the end so that there were no complete poems for anyone to copy. He was generous with his secular poetry, however, and “gave away” the humorous verses he had about the devil.
There are some verses that were particularly special to him; he didn’t like to recite them a lot because of the memories they brought. The verses of the Prodigal Son were close to his heart, and hard to share. He also told me he had sung in over 20 wakes for children (velorios de angelito) in his life. At these memorials–intended to be a time of mourning and celebration–he would sing verses “por la muerte” (for death) for the innocent souls who are believed to ascend directly to heaven and become angels. He said that these verses always bring back “the memory of the pain of the family. The crying. It’s like you feel it too.” They made him remember his own losses: his mother, his father, his brothers, and a young nephew.
And when we sing his verses today, we remember our great loss, but keep his memory with us. Don Chosto’s passion for music and his deep spirituality are sorely missed.
From Claudio Mercado’s documentary about the guitarrón players of Pirque: