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Manuel's Mix 

Outside of Mexico and the northwestern Caribbean, there are no countries closer geographically to New Orleans than those of Central America. Given this, it's surprising how little of that region's music has found its way to the Crescent City.

Manuel Obregon is out to change this. A pianist and composer from Costa Rica, Obregon first came to New Orleans six years ago, looking for musical inspiration. He's developed a comfortable niche over several visits, playing Snug Harbor regularly with Nancy Buchan, the local fiddler who divides her time between New Orleans and Costa Rica. Manuel has also served as a Costa Rican cultural attache in Madrid, studied throughout Spain and Switzerland, and filled concert halls in his native San Jose.

Obregon is, in other words, a musical polyglot, and his latest project, Orchestra de la Papaya, reflects this. This 15-piece orchestra features star players from the seven countries of Central America -- Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama -- and creates something not easily categorized that sounds both familiar and exotic.

The Orchestra's self-titled CD on Sony, recently nominated for a Latin Grammy, is a grab bag of intriguing juxtapositions. A tune might start off, for instance, with something resembling a meringue beat before morphing into a blues guitar jam, then dissolving into a new-agey piano showcase. Pianist/leader Obregon mixes classical romanticism with blues licks and a touch of Keith Jarrett, and the musicians he's picked are similarly eclectic. Ormelis Cortez, from Panama, is a wizard on the button accordion. Nicaraguan Yader Martinez delights with his work on the diatonic (as opposed to chromatic) marimba. Mohobub Flores, a percussionist from Belize, has sparked ensembles from many countries, and was a sideman with reggae master Jimmy Cliff.

It's a heady mix; creative musicians, each throwing something from their native cultures into the stew, inspiring each other with fresh ingredients. With Obregon at its center, this Orchestra de la Papaya is starting to bear some sweet musical fruit.

click to enlarge Manuel Obregon's (pictured) 15-piece Orchestra de - la Papaya features star players from the seven - countries of Central America. - FERNANDO ACUNA
  • Fernando Acuna
  • Manuel Obregon's (pictured) 15-piece Orchestra de la Papaya features star players from the seven countries of Central America.
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