Sonámbulo frontman Daniel Cuenca suffers from rare, debilitating spine condition
At 10 p.m. on Friday night, Jazz Café San Pedro was packed and the show was about to start, but the line to get in still wrapped around the block. There wasn’t an inch of floor space unoccupied.
As the doors closed, the line rushed onto the patio, pierced faces and tattooed limbs pushing against the glass. They pled with the bouncers and, later, with the police. After a two-month hiatus, one of Costa Rica’s most beloved bands, Sonámbulo Psicotropical, was about to take the stage, and the fans wanted in.
What they couldn’t see from outside was that something was different. Resting at the front of the stage, a microphone stand propped up a brimmed straw hat – the same hat that lead singer Daniel Cuenca has worn for every performance. He was not at the show because he was in bed, sick with a rare disease of the spine that has slowly wreaked havoc on his motor skills.
At Jazz Café that night, for the first time, the band publicly revealed Cuenca’s illness and the need to raise $26,000 for a surgical procedure in Spain that could help him. The band aims to do this with a series of benefit concerts, the first of which happens Oct. 11 (today).
As a donation box circulated the venue and filled with cash, the band and the crowd danced themselves into a frenzy, raising temperature of the room until the glass doors fogged. A girl with dreadlocks and rainbow pants drew a heart in the condensation.
“The group is strong,” said fan Fernando Blanco, 23. “There is a lot of love here.”
With any luck, Sonámbulo will be able to capitalize on its meteoric rise to fame and bring back Cuenca, the very lifeblood of the group.
Daniel Cuenca began his career as a street musician, building and selling drums in Costa Rica to save enough money to travel to Spain. There he started playing subways and street corners, and eventually he traveled all over Europe. He also ventured to Kenya and Tanzania and then to Mexico. Cuenca’s style grew out of these back-alley gigs, and when he returned to Costa Rica, he joined the circus.
Magos del Tiempo, or Time Wizards, was Costa Rica’s first homegrown circus, and Cuenca was one if its clowns. He also teamed up with other musicians to provide background music for some of the acts, experimenting with different instruments and sounds and creating a new brand of Afro-Caribbean, Latin and funk fusion. Music had become the focus, and eventually Cuenca and four more musicians split off to form Sonámbulo.
“Through this whole process, Daniel has been more than just a frontman,” said David Cuenca, Daniel’s brother and the group’s guitarist. “He is the pillar in the creation of all of the group’s songs. We collaborate, sure, but Daniel’s ideas are usually the ones that survive the process.”
The group began playing for friends and small crowds at cultural centers, and soon they were invited to perform in bars. In 2009, the band produced its first studio album, “A puro peluche,” a Tico slang phrase that according to one band member means a person who works very hard (this may be a bit of an artistic stretch, as the phrase is probably closer to tuanis).
By the time Sonámbulo’s first album dropped, the band was famous in the San José bar scene, and the shows were attracting sellout crowds that would dance for as long as the music continued, which sometimes approached four hours. Besides the wild, all-night dancing, the band also came to be identified with Cuenca’s straw hat, which he wore over his face at every performance.
Despite Cuenca’s apparent modesty, Sonámbulo has only been thrust further into the spotlight. In 2012, the group headed to Europe, where it played 26 shows in five countries. Just as in Costa Rica, the crowds couldn’t get enough.
After a three-hour performance in Spain, Cuenca remembers trying to leave the stage only to be stopped by a ladder passed up to the stage full of beer and food. The crowd was sending a clear message – eat and drink up; we need you to keep playing.
“It was a great feeling,” Cuenca said.
For him, the tour was more than just a chance to grab fans in Europe. It also allowed the band to collaborate in a way it never had before. “It was the first time we had so much time together,” he said. “We spent more than two months traveling and we were always meeting and talking, it was really important for us as a group.”
Months earlier, Sonámbulo had been playing Festival Imperial – Costa Rica’s most important music festival – where it appeared alongside internationally acclaimed acts like The Flaming Lips and Björk. Though stuck in a mid-afternoon spot well before the headliners, Sonámbulo stole the show.
“There were thousands of people, and they all reacted en masse,” said the band’s then-manager, Carol Campos. “Normally it’s just the first few rows where people dance and jump, but here it was everyone.”
The energetic dancing kicked up a massive dust cloud, demonstrating so much love for Sonámbulo that halfway through the set, Campos was talking with festival organizers about sending Sonámbulo to the United States.
The negotiations would lead the group to Austin City Limits, where they received rave reviews from both fans and music reviewers. More offers followed, including a chance to play at Austin’s South by Southwest in 2013. The group turned down the offer to work on a second album, but it had become clear that the group was on the brink of something big.
“Even after everything that has happened, we feel like we are just getting started,” said David Cuenca. “With this second album, we are showing who we really are as a group.”
As David Cuenca takes the reins as the band’s frontman, Daniel is home in Atenas, resting on doctor’s orders. Though few were aware of it, Cuenca’s problems began six years ago, when he first starting noticing numbness and pain in his hands.
His ailment puzzled doctors all over Costa Rica. At first they thought it was a parasite he contracted during his travels in Africa. When that was finally ruled out, no other diagnosis took its place. Three years into the disease, things started to get worse.
“It started with my arms,” Cuenca said. “I would just have little bites of pain in my arms and hands.”
Eventually his sickness began to take a toll on his ability to perform. He could no longer play the tres, a type of Cuban guitar he usually kept on stage with him. He began putting a stool next to the microphone stand, to rest while he sang.
Throughout all of the tests, doctor visits and bouts of intense pain, Cuenca never canceled a single show. “If the band had agreed to play a show, Daniel was going to be there,” Campos said. “He never complained or asked anyone for help.”
Finally, two months ago, doctors gave Cuenca’s ailment a name: Hydrosyringomyelia, a condition where a cavity forms in the spinal medulla, chipping away at motor skills and, if left untreated, destroying the inside of the spinal cord.
The only treatment available in Costa Rica is an invasive and dangerous surgery, which could cost Cuenca his life. There is another, simpler procedure in Barcelona that Cuenca hopes to undergo. That’s the one with the price tag of $26,000.
After two months of brainstorming, last week the band came to a decision. They would continue to perform without Cuenca, and they would get him his surgery.
“The idea is to keep playing and to use that money to get Daniel the operation he needs,” said the band’s saxophonist Esteban Pardo. “Everyone in the band is doing something to help him out.”
The band’s first benefits take place Oct. 11 and 12 in El Observatorio, in the center of San José. Four more Costa Rican bands, El Espacio and Ojo de Buey on Friday and Infibeat and Lucho Calavera on Saturday, will also be performing. Entrance is $6, with all funds going towards Daniel’s surgery.
“We have had a really beautiful reaction from all of our fans and the other bands,” Cuenca said. “One way or another, I’m sure we’ll get the money. At least I hope.”
Even with the money, the sudden interruption has put Sonámbulo’s promising future on hold. The surgery would happen in November at the earliest, and then require several months of recovery.
“What does this mean for the band? Honestly I don’t know,” Daniel Cuenca said. “But in reality, they can go on without me, they already are. We always keep marching forward.”
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