Panama musician in Spanish-Māori fusion

Romulo Castro and Dr Leonel Alvarado collaborating in the poetry and music of Latin America and Aotearoa

Rómulo Castro strums and sings softly in Spanish under the shady trees at the Manawatū campus about bringing stories from the Caribbean to the Tasman Sea in the spirit of the ‘nueva trova’ – new troubadours of Cuba – who first inspired him.

The singer-songwriter is a household name in his Central American homeland of Panama. Once back there, he will share his discovery of indigenous Māori music and kapa haka, following a three-week cultural tour in New Zealand organised by Massey University’s Spanish Language Programme.

A multiple Grammy award-winner, Mr Castro has not only travelled and performed his music to schools and communities around the North Island, but has collaborated with Māori musicians in Manawatū – including Rangitāne artist Warren Warbrick. One of his most famous political songs has been translated into te reo Māori by Hone Morris, from the School of Māori Studies.

His journey is the result of a long-standing creative rapport and friendship between Mr Castro and the head of the Spanish Language Programme and accomplished poet Dr Leonel Alvarado, who has taught Mr Castro’s music and lyrics in a paper in Latin American music and culture. The Honduran-born academic and poet (Manawatū-based for the past 15 years) discovered the Panamanian’s music just before he left South America for his new teaching job at Massey in 2002.

“I fell in love with it,” he recalls. “He’d just released a compilation album – it’s musically complex with influences from the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Mediterranean.”

Mr Castro with pupils at Wanganui High School, where he did a workshop

Forging Pacific and Panama connections

When Dr Alvarado travelled to Panama three years ago to receive a poetry award for his collection, titled Xibalbá, Texas, he made contact with the musician and they began to share their artistic and cultural interests by distance. A Creative Communities New Zealand grant has enabled Dr Alvarado to arrange the cultural trip for Mr Castro to New Zealand, with the purpose of engaging secondary school Spanish language pupils in language and performance workshops with the visiting artist as part of a broader project to inspire the next generation of Spanish language learners in New Zealand.

The pair has also videoed songs and an interview for a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in Spanish language and culture through Massey, and will record a song they’ve just co-written in Spanish and English – titled El Sur Que Soy (The South that I am) – about the connections between Central America and the Pacific.

Mr Castro says he has been struck by New Zealand’s natural beauty, peacefulness and the openness of the people, and was especially moved by the welcome he received at Te Rangamarie marae in Rongotea, where he gave a concert last weekend.

Learning of the parallels between indigenous histories of each country has been fascinating, says the musician whose songs explore the turbulent history of Panama. The small nation (population four million) is famous for the Panama Canal – a 77km waterway that connects the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean and which opened in 1914.

Born in Mexico, Mr Castro’s musical career was hugely influenced by his parents’ move to Cuba when he was two years of age. He lived there till he was 18, soaking up the local music scene in a place where, he says, “people live, breathe, walk music.” He was particularly influenced by Cuba’s ‘nueva trova’ music movement that emerged about 10 years after the 1959 Cuban revolution, as well as by Western music, including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles.

His numerous compositions are inspired by his culture and its challenges and fortunes as well as its history, politics and poetry. He has performed throughout Latin America, the United States, Spain, Israel and Algeria, and says he seeks – through music – to raise awareness about social, environmental, racial and political issues, and combines a great variety of rhythms, from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, American folk to Native American cultures.

As well as visiting Hastings this Friday, where he will perform and record songs in a workshop for over 60 pupils from schools in the region at Lindisfarne College, he will perform in a poetry-music mash-up in Auckland on March 10 at Kawai Purapura Retreat Centre, Albany. For more information, check the Spanish Teachers’ Association of New Zealand Aotearoa website:

Listen to YouTube recording of La Rosa de los Vientos (The Wind Rose) with his Grupo Tuira, which has been translated into te reo Māori by Hone Morris, with the title Te Rōhi Hau.


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