Composer Manuel Obregon offers York U grads the sounds of the rainforest

Manuel Obregón, musician, environmentalist, public servant, addresses convocation
Manuel Obregón, musician, environmentalist, public servant, addresses convocation
Manuel Obregón, musician, environmentalist, composer and public servant, addresses convocation

Manuel Obregón, musician, composer, environmentalist and public servant, was honoured by York University June 16 during spring convocation ceremonies for graduates of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. The University conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree on Obregón for his tireless efforts to protect the world’s rainforests and for his exceptional accomplishments as a musician.

“The honour that York University has awarded me is both unexpected and pleasant, because my work was never intended to be acknowledged, but instead, it focused on discovery and creation,” said Obregón.

“Musical creation, cultural management and even the fight for biodiversity conservancy require entrepreneurship, risk, creativity and curiosity. However, at the end of the day, any of these tasks must lead us to acknowledge the connections and similarities between us and everyone else, between our work and the work of others, between humanity and its environment,” he told graduands. “My interest in music comes as a result of my curiosity to the reaction of all beings that are part of nature, have to different sounds. One sound, any sound, affects us and in a way it transforms us.”

He recalled his early years as a young boy growing up in Santa Ana, Costa Rica. “I see my 10-year-old self, up a tree, enjoying the summer breeze, the aroma of fruits, the movement of leaves, the view of the beautiful valley and the birds’ song,” he said. “Those moments forever affected my senses, especially the sense of hearing. It is probably from this experience that I was prone to something that can be referred to as the art of listening, not only the rhythm of my heart or my breathing, but also the sounds of nature, music and everything that pulses around us. And also to listen to the silence.”

Through listening and observing, he said he learned to understood that in nature, everything is symbiotic; an association of different organisms to assist one another and achieve their full development. In Costa Rica, he said the country, while tiny, offers an impressive variety of life forms, life styles, cultures and people. This biodiversity is especially evident in the rainforest, where countless animals, plants and natural elements coexist in a way that he said was beyond human understanding.

Manuel Obregón is congratulated by York University President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri
Manuel Obregón is congratulated by York University President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

In an effort to understand and interact with how these organisms coexisted, Obregón took his piano to the heart of the rain forest to have a live conversation with the different sounds. “It turned out to be one of the most beautiful lessons that nature has taught me. Joined by the whole production crew, biologists, sound technicians and engineers, we assembled the equipment and waited for a few days, but I could not listen to the sounds clearly nor feel any inspiration,” he said. “When I was about to call the whole idea off, something exceptional happened: I began to listen to everything that surrounded me, including myself. What had happened? It was simple. Sound is a vibration and I was vibrating at a different frequency from that of the rainforest. I was still vibrating at the frequency of the sound of the city! This prevented me from hearing the sounds of that immensity of rivers, rain and foliage.”

Manuel Obregón at the piano transported convocation to the rainforest through music
Manuel Obregón at the piano transported convocation to the rainforest through music

Once he realized this, the recording streamed harmoniously and the result is his critically acclaimed composition Simbiosis, which Obregón said contains the sound of howling monkeys, different birds, the majestic volcano, frogs, tropical rain and the mighty wind at dusk.

“After this experience, I contacted traditional artists from our Central American region, as diverse as necessarily connected by the culture and geography, which generated a space for encounter and integration through music known as La Orquesta de la Papaya,” said Obregón. “It was an immediate success, which allowed me to span and repeat the experience in North and South America under the name of Orquesta del Rio Infinito, formed by a selection of musicians from different traditions and American cultures, who scenarios are the rivers, those continental cultural highways.

That unique participation of each musician of each American nation, said Obregón, contributed to create an orchestra that would highlight the symbiotic diversity of American cultures through sound. To make the effort a success, he said he returned to the teachings of the rainforest to travel and listen to other artists from rivers like the San Juan, the Amazonas, Parana or Mississippi.

His ability to listen also served to be an essential skill during his time as Costa Rica’s minister of culture and youth. “Listening to understand that everything exists in connection with what surrounds it,” he said, noting hat people, art and politics do not exist in isolation, but need and feed off each other. “Once again, the importance of alliances and symbiosis to generate successful results is evident,” he said.

“Search for your own branch in the tree as I did, and learn to listen, to understand the connections among all things,” Obregón told graduands. “Get in touch with nature, with the people and the cosmos. This ability should not be underrated for it can be essential for our future; it will help us flow in harmony, as water does, circling the obstacles of this great infinite river in which we all participate.”

Following his commencement address, Obregón exhibited his musical artistry with a performance. An internationally known musician whose work in jazz and blues is about more than music, Obregón’s performances have showcased the symbiotic interrelation between music and the environment, incorporating visual images of the Costa Rican rainforest, ocean and animal life, as well as the sounds of those environments as part of his piano works. He is also a producer and founder of the Papaya Orchestra. He served as Costa Rica’s minister of culture and youth from 2010 to 2014. In 2013, Obregón was the first Koerner lecturer at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University.

York’s 2015 spring convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. Obregón’s convocation address will be archived at the conclusion of spring convocation ceremonies. To view his address, visit the Convocation webcast archive.