Roxanne Oliva, her accordions and Playa Negra

Mama’s Got a Squeezebox

Who is Roxanne Oliva and what is that style of music she plays? This is the question I ask myself as I listen over and again to her solo album “Box Candy”. The first song, “FiFi’s Closet” sounds Middle Eastern, while the second song, “Willow Slip” sounds Celtic, like an Irish jig. The third song has an ear-catching intro and what sounds like an Arabic and Medieval wedding, with a rock drummer for backbone. When I looked at the CD jacket, I discovered the song is titled “Playa Negra”, which really piqued my interest. I also noticed that the CD was recorded in Sonoma County in California, where I lived prior to moving to Costa Rica nine years ago. It truly is a small world.

Contacting Roxanne to write the article, conduct an interview and compare our Guanacaste and Sonoma overlaps was a shear joy; she truly is a Renaissance woman, and yes, she plays that style of music as well, along with Cajun, polka and whatever else you can imagine. She also plays the harp, and percussion and wind instruments. Although she has a formal music degree, she told me that she generally plays by ear and/or by improvising. Unbelievably, she did not pick up an accordion until the age of twenty-six.

But back to her instrumental CD of original compositions: “Blue Box Waltz” would fair well anywhere along the Danube. “Mr. Missing” is a rich harmonic tango, half steamy, half light-hearted, her “tribute to bipolar men”. Roxanne lives in the Playa Negra area for about two months each year, and it is her favorite place to practice and compose- she stores three of her twenty-one accordions and several wind instruments there. “The tropics are not gentle with musical instruments,” she recounted, “so I store them in layers of thick plastic. Once, after months of storage, I unwrapped an accordion, started playing, and a scorpion crawled out!” Inspiration, perhaps, for a forthcoming song.

Accordion-slingin’ Roxanne Oliva

But back to her CD, which is peppered with guest fiddlers, guitarists, percussionists and several songs backed by KAZAMOZe, a band with whom she collaborates. One of their songs, “Pay My Way” is a collage of sound and utilizes the only vocals on the disc, as well as a barrage of stringed instruments. Roxanne also plays with the “post-eclectic” trio Youkali, and the all girl accordion band Sweet Penny Royals. She has appeared on more than thirty albums, including the soundtrack “Liberty Heights” which she recorded with Tom Waites, after he scoped her out incognito at one her live shows. And, I am not making this up: she was the cover girl for the Accordion Babes 2011 Pinup Calendar.

But back to her CD: my favorite song, “Each Part Was Played” has an atonal backdrop and a sweet, sentimental accordion riff up front, sounding at times like an immense cathedral organ. And “Freedom’s Fanfare” is an up-tempo affair, a danceable song that sounds like it has gypsy and Eastern European influences.

So who is Roxanne Oliva and why do I keep listening to her CD, “Box Candy”? One way to find out is to start a campaign to entice her to play live in Tamarindo the next time she is here. In the meantime, “Box Candy” is available at Jaime Peligro Book store, where they will sample the CD for their customers.

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