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Fifteen Songs I Heard on the Radio in Costa Rica

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You might have thought ROTI went on hiatus out of laziness, but it was actually for the purpose of conducting critical pop-cultural research in the nation of Costa Rica.

Specifically, finding out what American tunes they like to rock on the radio.

My first opportunity to listen to the radio in Costa Rica was on a shuttle ride from the airport to our hotel in San Jose. The driver was playing 70s American rock of the vocalistic variety — Journey and the Doobies. I wondered whether he threw that on because he figured that American tourists yearned for those tunes — or if, more perceptively, he spotted my visage and immediately pegged me as a sucker for yacht rock.

What I wanted to believe is that he actually loves this kind of music, and preferred nothing more than to blaze the highway from Alajuela to San Jose in a dilapidated shuttle van, blasting the sweet vox of Michael McDonald.

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After we acquired a rental car the next morning, I was able to begin freely perusing the airwaves. There’s nothing more enjoyable than rocking out to some fine, familiar melodies while exploring a foreign land.

Put it this way: on the first part of the journey, I was looking for a river bed (of familiar jams). I flipped through the channels and quickly found this:

This fortunate find tapped a deep vein of soft rock, particularly of the 70s variety. If they can be judged by the programming of their FM stations, Costa Ricans love some soft rock jams, the kind some long haired hippie composed on a lazy drive down the Ventura Highway.

Having made an initial gauge of this sensibility, it was time to check out the options on the contemporary pop side. This quest did not disappoint.

We turned up a diamond in the rough from the Russian group Tatu (I refuse to spell it in the “proper” way). Remember these ladies? They were auditioned by a Russian version of Lou Pearlman and chosen from a group of hundreds of competitors, on one condition: they had to pretend to be lesbian lovers. This moronic conceit led them to make a brief splash in the US before fading into obscurity.

I’d never heard this single off their failed second album — while the lyrics are laughable, its superb hook, combined with kitsch value, make it a real keeper.

(I didn’t include it because it’s very, very mildly NSFW and because the antics of Tatu definitely distract from the song itself…but the actual video for this song is hilarious.)

Further exploration of the radio dial led to a station called BEATZ 106. We got there just in time to catch the “Old School Lunch Hour.” I swear, this is a concept I’ve heard on hip hop stations in Phoenix, and maybe LA as well. I started to wonder if BEATZ 106, which did not seem to have a DJ live in the house, wasn’t just a beamed transmission from some American radio conglomerate.

Not that it mattered when they were cranking out classic hits like this:

I made a basic navigational error when first approaching Costa Rican roads — being a typical American driver, I looked at road numbers and expected to navigate that way. This is a bad idea in Costa Rica, because you will rarely see road numbers posted anywhere except the largest highways.

Thus we missed the turn we wanted to take, and ended up maneuvering through the town of San Ramon. This led us away from the main road to Arenal and along a winding road that climbed over hills, descended into sweeping curves, and crossed a variety of rickety and intricate bridges over rivers and streams. The views were awesomely epic as we paced ourselves several car lengths behind a shabby blue truck, laden with produce, that gamely attacked every hill and curve.

And we celebrated the greatness of En Vogue.

With the help of this mighty soundtrack, we approached the great Volcan Arenal, which glowered in the distance as we navigated around it.

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For the next few days, the only music we heard was the song of tropical birds, the snort of wild pigs, and the splash of waterfalls into pools of fresh rainwater. Ya feel me??

Sadly, the time came for us to embark on another epic drive, this one taking us to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. The road was unpaved, bumpy at times, and took us through ranches perched high on the top of hillsides. Cattle roamed the roads, and we saw some sweet sights like this school bus abandoned by the side of the road:

The soundtrack featured this smooth rock gem from Howard Jones. I recently discovered his song “Things Can Only Get Better” while shopping at CVS, and now this. I am starting to think that either this fellow is very underrated, or I have an extreme soft spot for corny tunes penned by Englishmen. Likely, both.

After I indulged myself in a good half-dozen soft rockers like the song above, my traveling companion revolted and switched the station to a frequency playing more contemporary hits. This is how I came to enjoy the following song by Taylor Swift, who I’d previously known only as Kanye victim.

Apparently there are two extant mixes of this song, one that’s a little rocked-up and one that’s countrified with pedal steel goodness. Biggest no brainer of all time? I think so.

Another highlight of this pop station was “My Happy Ending” by Avril Lavigne, not because it was that great of a song, but because the lyrics were frankly disturbing. This is the song that your psycho stalker listens to as she breaks into your house and crosses out all the eyes in your photos of friends and loved ones with a Sharpie before killing herself. It’s seriously frightening.

We saw tons of cool wildlife in Monteverde, including the amazing quetzal seen above, but one of my favorite moments had nothing to do with natural wonders at all. We were eating a kickass meal in a classy Italian establishment called “Pizzeria de Johnny” when an unusual version of “Dust in the Wind” began to play on the speaker system. “Is this a cover?” my companion inquired, noting the unusual vocals. “No,” I replied, “it’s actually an instrumental version with somebody in this restaurant singing along.”

Unfortunately I was not able to get this on tape, so you will have to settle for the original Kansas version…

Our next journey, and opportunity to listen to Costa Rican radio goodness, was from the mountains down to the seaside village of Manuel Antonio. This was a long and grueling journey through a variety of terrain, but as always, the tunes soothed our souls.

This song we never actually heard in its entirety — it was merely teased several times by a radio station looking to goose its commercial breaks. This didn’t really matter, because simply hearing the immortal opening notes was enough to enliven our spirits and keep us singing this song for days.

I did manage to turn up a 90s rock frequency, which my life has been sorely lacking since Boston’s 104.1 turned into a docile workplace mix station. We’re all suckers for the rock hits from our formative years, and I am no exception. Hence, I enjoyed hearing this old track from Red Hot Chili Peppers:

My theory on vintage 90s RHCP is that Flea is so superb, John Fruciante is so talented, and Chad Smith is so steady, that Anthony Kiedis can basically do whatever stupid shit comes to his mind and get away with it.

Check out these “lyrics” from this song and try to tell me what the hell he is talking about:

It’s bitter baby,
And it’s very sweet.
I’m on a rollercoaster,
but I’m on my feet.
Take me to the river,
Let me on your shore.
I’ll be coming back baby,
I’ll be coming back for more.

Doo doo doo doo dingle zing a dong bone
Ba-di ba-da ba-zumba crunga cong gone bad

I could not forget
But I will not endeavor
Simple pleasures aren’t as special
But I wont regret it never.

Whatever that means…

In the esteemed opinion of my traveling companion, there is no greater diva than Beyonce, and thus she was bound to figure into our journey. We heard her single “Halo” a number of times in our travels, and saw the video on Latin American MTV. Even though she squeezes every last drop of pathos out of each note, I still think this song is pretty cool and one helluva power ballad.

This brings us to the biggest hit record in Costa Rica as far as we could tell — a song that was so annoyingly catchy, we should have figured out sooner who was responsible.We heard this record at least a half-dozen times and it was completely stuck in our heads.

Damn you Black Eyed Peas! Why must you be so skillfully viral!

Warning: This video features a haggard Fergie cavorting about in an attempt to roleplay as a wood nymph, and it’s not a pretty sight.

We coasted to a stop at Manuel Antonio, where the weather was hot and the Pacific waves crashing on the beach were tantalizing. We hadn’t been in town for more than five minutes when a dreadlocked hippie said to me, “Welcome to paradise!”

You will not be surprised to learn that the beach bums of Manuel Antonio LOVE them some Bob. (And so, apparently, does “secret Rasta” Laura Bush.) I  heard this song blasted out of restaurants, bars and trinket dispensaries on several different occasions…

Our last day in Costa Rica was brief, but featured an epic cab ride I hope to never forget. Our friendly driver guided his red coche through the crowded, gridlocked streets of San Jose with skill and aplomb. He also had a steady hand on the radio dial that gave us some of the musical highlights of our journey…

First, he tuned to some Madge, and declared her “The Queen Madonna,” as he enjoyed this classic 80s hit.

Having set the tone, he then proceeded to blow our minds. He dialed up a R&B station and when the first notes of this song were heard, he cried, “Are You Ready?” We weren’t sure if this was the name of the song or a question directed at us, but it turned out to be both of those things. And we were not at all prepared for the musical magic that was about to carom off our domes…

As we approached the airport, a melancholy vibe descended over the cab. We realized our time in Costa Rica was drawing to an end. Our cab driver knew just what to do, and flicked his radio dial to elicit this all-time classic from one of the finest songsmiths pop music has ever known…

Costa Rica is a magical place. The people are amazing and friendly, the food is tasty, and the scenery and wildlife will drop your jaw.

I highly recommend that you visit — but leave your iPod adapter at home. Costa Rican radio has all the jams you will need for an enjoyable journey.

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About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

4 Responses to Fifteen Songs I Heard on the Radio in Costa Rica

  1. João says:

    I was in Costa Rica beginning of Sept 2010 and I heard a cumbia music (no lyrics) it sound like electronic or metallic (not the heavy metal kind and not too much accordion) with a nice beat and it is possible it is not a Costa Rican artist. I heard it in Santa Rosa, Guanacaste weekend fiesta/rodeo 04 Sept and on some radios.
    can some one help me find the name and the artist/group.

    • João says:

      listen to the first 35 sec of the video

    • I ran this through Shazam but it came up empty. Sorry I couldn’t help you out there.

      • João says:

        if you are interested I found it on some Costa Rican forum and a gentleman named Carlos guessed it…
        thanks….

        here it is

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