Managua, Nicaragua: Carlos Mejia Godoy wrote the soundtrack to the Sandinista movement. Let's revisit the year 1974. managua is still recovering from a devastating earthquake that destroyed almost every building in the city centre including the old cathedral. that is every building except my leisure headquarters, the Crowne Plaza hotel, where Howard Hughes rode out the seismic disturbance as a guest of the dictator, Somoza. An even bigger shake-up is ahead. the Sandinista Revolution is only five years from gaining power and sending Somoza headlong into exile.
Languishing in prison in those heady days was Daniel Ortega and a group of revolutionaries. Prison authorities granted a special favor to the Sandinista leader, Ortega, so that Carlos Mejia Godoy, a popular radio personality, can come to perform for the prison population. Carlos had started his career as aso-called Corporito on the radio station Radio Corporacion, on which he sang his own songs each day ridiculing politicians and political parties. Hissardonic lyrics were especially incendiary to the populace at large, held asthey were in thrall to the hated dictator, Somoza.
He was putin jail for a little while in 1974-5. He was friends with the wife of Ortega.He hung out with her. He was not politically active as such. His connection was as an artist. When they killed Chamorra in Managua, owner of La Prensa they sent CMG to Europe, to Spain, and that’s where he became an international star with regional music from Nicaragua..In Spain they didn’t know he was a Sandinista.
Somoza was apiece of work, a real shitheel, so disgusting he used to have political enemies thrown in the Masaya volcano. He was so déclassé that even the US government disowned him. He was a tin-pot totalitarian, who was so untrustworthy that he even
gypped Howard Hughes.
The wardenagrees to the visit, but orders “no political songs.” The day of the concert comes. All the prisoners march in for the show—except for the rebellious Sandinistas.
True to form the warden has gone back on his word.
Nevertheless,Carlos plays the concert, saying to himself, I will pass by the cell of my comrades when we leave to give them the thumbs up. And indeed on leaving he did pass by the Sandinistas who were isolated from the rest of the prisoners
inbrilliant sunshine in the yard below.
“Carlos!Play us a little something,” shouted out Ortega and his comrades.
So Carlos stopped and sang his recent hit to them from the window. Thesong was María de los guardias, a recent song and one of his most popular pieces.It had been a huge hit in Spain and Mexico.
Carlos remembers: “When his mother visited Daniel in prison, he used give her long, long letters in almost invisible writing on tiny pieces of paper. She hid the writing paper in the loaves of fresh bread she brought him. The prison guards didn’t check her on the way out. She would hide the letters in the heel of her shoe — the heel would come off and she would hide them there. Like a diamond smuggler.
The letters contained some poems that Carlos would use as lyrics in his songs. Now on ahot and humid Saturday afternoon decades later, I am sitting with Carlos Mejia Godoy — Carlos he asks me to call him — at La Casa de los Mejia Godoy (The House
ofthe Mejia Godoy), his music venue and restaurant across the street from the Crowne Plaza Hotel in what serves for downtown Managua.
This hot and sticky Saturday just happens to be the birthday of the revolution’s namesake, Augusto Sandino, the Pancho Villa figure of Nicaragua. The previous night Don Carlos had performed athree-hour concert for a packed house at his venue. Carlos is not only the most popular artist in Nicaragua, these days he is also a reveredpolitical figure. His old comrade, Daniel Ortega, has been president
since 2007 following his first term as President from 1989 to 1990. What does all this politics have to do with art? In Nicaragua the two things are inseparable.
Born in1943 in the northern hills near the Honduran border in Somoto, Carlos came from a musical family. Indeed his father wanted all of his sons to be musicians. “My father was a great musician. He would have been famous if he had gone to the city.” Their father gave his talented sons a love for their region’s music, surprisingly based on local versions of the waltz, polka and even the mazurka.
Carlos learned to play the guitar and accordion.
“Oh yes,”Carlos says, “I wanted to be Bernstein or Toscanini conducting a symphony.” Instead he ended up being more influenced by the American folk tradition of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Don Carlos didn’t go to music school though. He was just as fascinated by the overall culture of his country as he was by its music.
Eventually he migrated from acting and broadcasting—he spent his apprenticeship in the mid 1960s working in German television — into songwriting, where he made his first big impact when one of his songs stole the show at a Latin American song festival in Costa Rica in 1970. Notoriety followed on his return to Nicaragua where he made a radio program called Corporito, which earned both public favor and government scorn. The program took a courageously critical view of the Somoza dictatorship, especially after the 1970 murder of prominent union officials.
“Somoza wasoutrageous and I was constantly in trouble,” he says. “Being fined and having my life threatened were normal events.”
The earthquake which struck Managua in December 1972, killing 10,000 people, was a psychic as well as seismic disturbance, according to Don Carlos.
Subsequent relief efforts shone a spotlight on the corruption of the Somoza regime, which was widely accused of pocketing aid money donated for rebuilding the city, including same raised by a Rolling Stones charity concert. To date the city has yet to fully recover. The cathedral which was designed and built in Belgium and reassembled in Managua in 1920 remains a pathetic ruin.
Don Carlos was on the sixth floor of the broadcasting building downtown editing a Christmas program when the first tremors came.
“Somoza’s radio was on fourth floor,” he says. “My wife, who was with me in the editingsuite, immediately said ‘Let’s go!’ So we drove to our house ten kilometers away. When the earthquake was finallyover, we couldn’t get out of our house. The doors were all jammed! But our neighbors came to the rescue. They were shouting, ‘We must save Corporito!’ That was what they called me because of my radio program.”
Next day’snews revealed the grim reality. The broadcasting building had been completely destroyed, killing all those who had remained within. The center of the city had collapsed as if bombed into oblivion. In the chaos of the ensuing years, leading to Somoza’s escape in 1979 (so oddly similar to Batista’s flight from Cuba in 1959), Don Carlos used the weapon of song to aid the Sandinista guerillas. His songs satirized the government while sympathizing with ordinary people and their desultory way of life.
“Nicaraguais everything you see and hear. Its geography, its wildlife, its landscapes, its sense of humor and even our love of gossip,” Don Carlos says. He was inspired by his people’s endurance against crippling and cruel oppression.
“The people were up in arms... I felt no alternative. I had to try and help.... It was more of a feeling than a conscious political thought with me.”
In the seventies his songs captured the imagination of millions around the world and earned him honors for Best Group and Best Song as well as a gold record in Spain in 1977 for El son nuestro de cada dia.
In 1979 he had another gold disc in Spain for La misa campesina. Meanwhile he had earned aname as the poetic voice of the Sandinista revolution. When the excellent film, Under Fire, came out in 1983 starring Gene Hackman and Nick Nolte asjournalists
during the last days of the Nicaraguan revolution, it was CarlosMejia Godoy’s revolutionary anthem that played as the film credits rolled.
In present day Nicaragua one hardly associates Don Carlos or even Daniel Ortega himself with the now hardly palpable revolutionary past. Nicaragua is a different country today, moreself-assured, more open and despite often frightful continuing poverty, more relaxed.
Yet the fire still burns. You have only to hear Carlos Mejia Godoy launch into his beautiful song Nicaragua, Nicaraguita to be swept up into his world. The lyricand the object of affection become one.
The most beautiful flower dearest to my heart
The hero and martyr Diriangen
Died for you
Oh Nicaragua you are even sweeter
Than the honey from Tamagas
But now that you are free
I love you much more
But now that you are free
I love you much more
by William Rodderick Richardsson (an excerpt from his book Are You Talking To Me? available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01GXEOYUS)
Visit blog www.guerillatraveler.com. A different voice. A different message.