Bandurria is a stringed instrument similar to a mandolin and a lute, and even one abandoned in the street might have a label inside saying where it was made. Mine, which I found one morning two years ago beside a dumpster, was made in Valencia, guitar capital of Spain. I walked around for weeks whispering the name of the instrument to myself, loving the sound of it, like a cat purring.
Bandolera is a shoulder strap, worn in diagonal across the chest. Bandolero is the bandit who might have worn the strap to hang his sword or pistol from. Bamboleo is a wobble and also the title of a song, bolero is a Spanish dance music, and Boléro is Maurice Ravel’s famous musical piece, composed in 1928, around the time the composer showed the first symptoms of aphasia. He didn’t know then of the decline that lay ahead for him. The Canadian scientist Anne Adams, who began painting while she was nursing her son to recovery after a bad car accident, didn’t know either that she would soon develop symptoms of aphasia or that she would die of the disease. Most brain lesions cause deficits in function, but they can also open the door to enhanced function when unafflicted parts of the brain sprout new connections, I read, as happened with Adams. Her best known—and best—piece is called Painting Ravel.
Adams was Canadian, Ravel was French, the Gipsy Kings, the group that made the song “Bamboléo,” is French, but the band performs mainly in Spanish, and Julio Iglesias, who made the popular song even more famous, is Spanish. The song is based on a folk song, “Viejo Caballo,” and Simón Díaz, the musician who wrote it, was Venezuelan.
Adolph Francis Alphonse Bandelier was a Swiss-born American anthropologist; Bandelier is the National Park Monument in New Mexico named after him. It’s farther than just down the road from where I grew up in Colorado, but not that far. I’ve never been there. I’ve also never learned to play an instrument. There’s still time for both. I have shot a gun at a firing range but never worn a bandolier, a cartridge belt, worn sash-style over a shoulder, as a bandolera is called in English. You could hang your bandurria from such a strap.
Why would anyone throw out a perfectly sound instrument? If life were a fairy tale, the instrument would have belonged to a bandolero, who, running from the law, dropped it, perhaps to lighten his load and save himself or perhaps to save it. The instrument was in one piece when I found it, but the back was cracked and the strings were in a terrible tangle. I glued the back into place, cleaned the dingy wood, polished the metal pieces, changed the strings, bought some lemon oil and rubbed the wood until it glowed. I’ve got no music sense, but the man at the music store held the instrument on his knee and strummed it. “Well,” he said, cocking his head, nodding, “sounds okay.” Was there a spirit in the instrument, I wondered, wanting to call out to its former owner, as the harp in the fairy tale called out to the giant when Jack made off with it?
But I didn’t steal the instrument, I rescued it, as you might a baby. My bandurria when I found it was swaddled in a plastic bag, protecting it from the drizzle of that morning. I peeked inside, beheld the contents, and tucked the bundle under my arm to take home. Were I a model adoptive parent I’d have done more than just rescue it from the elements; I’d do whatever necessary so that it’s potential could be realized. It is safe now, reclining on a shelf in a cheery plaid case I bought. But unlike an orphan, an instrument only flourishes in the hands of the aficionado, and my bandurria is still waiting. Or is it instead, old and used, even scarred, more like an aged horse, whose work is done, glad now to be rewarded with a rest? In the song “Viejo Caballo,” the singer tells of just such a tired old horse, turned out to pasture, presumably to linger at leisure, though all the while likely to amble closer and closer to the far side of the field, moving on, and then to leave this world. Love, however, might intercede. “But they don’t even understand that a tied-up heart, when the reins are let go, is a runaway horse,” are the lyrics.
Caballo le dan sabana porque está viejo y cansao,
pero no se dan ni cuenta que un corazón amarrao
cuando le sueltan las riendas es caballo desbocao.
Should I suffer aphasia, my brain, atrophying on one side, might sprout new connections on the other. I might fall in love with the instrument, put aside my pen and paper, and learn to play. My bandurria, in the hands of the professional at the music store, did not gently weep but softly trilled, and perhaps it is waiting for me to wake up to its potential, though on the shelf it appears comfortably at rest, and in no hurry. It is older than I am, the man at the music store estimated, but even so it will outlast me, bar some mishap. The colt has leisure to give time a chance, dar tiempo al tiempo, says the song. The same thing could be true for the bandurria, but for me? Though the colt can bide his time, that’s not so for the old stallion: the old horse can’t pass up the flower—whatever flower—because after this life, there’ll be no other opportunity.
El potro da tiempo al tiempo porque le sobra la edad,
caballo viejo no puede perder la flor que le dan
porque después de esta vida no hay otra oportunidad.
“Caballo Viejo” is a love song, and for the old horse the flower is a sorrel filly. But for Anne Adams perhaps the flower was painting. Maybe it was music. Reading about Adams, I learned that it was she who pointed out to her doctors the likelihood that Ravel suffered some aphasia similar to hers, although different in that his shut him down instead of producing a new blossoming. Simón Díaz suffered neurological trouble of a different sort, Alzheimer’s, and he disappeared from public view in the last decade of his life. But well before that, at a concert in Caracas, singing with Plácido Domingo, he stood flanked by two harps, smiling, swaying. He was then about 63. Watching him in a video, I don’t get the idea he’d have turned away from any flower or any fragrance. He didn’t look like a desperate and headstrong runaway either, but at 63, with more than two decades left to live, he could still afford to dar tiempo al tiempo—for a little while yet. Of course, whether we foolishly miss our chance or instead wisely bide our time only time will reveal. And time has so much else to do first.
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