A master musician struggles in the time of pandemia

May 9, 2021 | 6 comments

He is among the constellation of revered musicians who unabashedly entangled themselves in new roots of music and political activism for humanitarian causes. For years, he doggedly surveyed the tropical savanna of poverty, political upheaval and social inequality that trova, the Cuban-inspired folk music, provides. Those who preceded him left markers along the way, but he had his own row to hoe — a field fraught with revolutionary fervor.

His is the story of one born of the earth and whose heartbeat became his inner voice. It made him a legend.

This is the story of Luis Ullauri.

Luis was born 52 years ago in Oña, a pretty little village of 3,000 not far from Cuenca. When his older brother received a guitar for his birthday but put it aside, Luis picked it up to try his hand. He said, “The moment I held the guitar, I knew I was holding my lover. What I did not know was just how harsh a lover it can be.” He practiced every day for two years, certain he could master the technical requirements of classical music and fine-tune his voice to match the virtuosity of his instrument. When he felt it was time to showcase his music, he recorded a few songs to share with the community. The result was horrifying, he said; the voice on the tape was a caterwauling howl, the guitar playing was sloppy and irritating. He was mortified. He put down the guitar and walked away. He didn’t return to it for six years.

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Like many of his peers in the early 2000s, Ullauri trekked his way north seeking work. He no longer protected his hands as instruments of music but put them to hard use as tools of the construction trade in the U.S. He was making good money but he felt something was wrong with his life, and like many of his peers, a stark choice loomed ahead — do I abandon my dreams of family life at home for the lullaby of creature comforts or must I return to my lover to find contentment? He chose the latter, picked up a new guitar and then crisscrossed Mexico as an itinerant musician, singing songs of struggle and redemption.

The few pesos he earned were enough: he was a professional musician. His heartbeat grew stronger … but then the bottom dropped out again.

Ullauri is fond of saying, “Common sense is not common.” Although he was accepted into the Music Conservatory of Cuenca, his fear of the muse haunted him still. He said he heard someone playing Andian panpipes one afternoon and that the melody was so melancholy and beautiful he became transfixed — and unable to play his guitar once again. He put down his instrument again and it lay fallow for another six years.

When Luis turned his back on music, waves of political turmoil rolled over him. He struggled for years seeking clarity and purpose by reading philosophers and listening to amped-up opinions on social media but he knew the chokehold on his voice must not last if his life was to have meaning. And so, at last, he arrived at the conclusion that it was time to surrender the chaff of expectations to the wind. He picked up his lover once again, but this time committed himself to her outstretched arms. Today, he is a musician whose voice is as pure as freshwater.

All great artists struggle but none more so than musicians. Cuenca possess a treasure chest of talent but today, under the crushing constraints of the pandemic, they are taxed almost beyond endurance. The cafes, clubs and other concert venues they depend on for a livelihood have reduced or eliminated performances and many have gone dark. People whose careers depend on providing an uplifting service to others have been abandoned. The crushing weight of debt and depression now hovers over their heads like the sword of Damocles. For many, it could not get much worse.

Luis Ullauri is now busking on the sidewalk beside the new cathedral. The coins and occasional bills cast his way are supplemented by the wealth of satisfaction he receives playing his music for passers-by. He uprooted his weeds of discontent and planted himself in the fertile field of street artists but his work there will not provide for his family or put food on the table. That is our job.

Luis’ mastery of his craft can transport us across fields of dreams. We owe him, and all struggling musicians, a firm place to stand by opening our hearts. People need companionship and a soundtrack by which to measure their lives. We owe them no less than to provide both.

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