Requiem for Sergio Borja, a.k.a. Capitán Flais (1964-2011)
By Al Giordano
“hay una música
que sabe nombrar esa luz
que disipa la noche
y convoca a las palabras
a reunirse en el poema”
- Sergio Borja
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, MEXICO: Thousands of locals, tourists, journalists, human rights observers, anthropologists, archeologists and more who live in or have passed through this mountain city enjoyed Sergio Borja’s voice, guitar and songs, but few knew him by that name. At Bar Revolución, Dada Club and other venues he was Capitán Flais, leader of the band. His profound influence on the art, music and poetry of this region, and on so many of the talents that create those works, is felt heavily now after a cardiac arrest that took him on Sunday, November 6, at the age of 48.
His words, above in Spanish, roughly translate as “There is a music/that knows how to name that light/that disperses the night/and calls upon the words to unite in the poem.”
At his November 7 wake, jazz pianist Patricia Reyes remembered to some friends the year, 2000, when she came to San Cristóbal from Mexico City: “There was almost no place to play jazz. The local clubs only wanted salsa or reggae. There were only two places to have an event, La Galeria and Las Velas. So concerts were organized at parties in people’s homes.” She met Flais at a monthly bonfire held on the full moon, “De Músicos, Poetas y Locos” (“Of Musicians, Poets and Crazies”). “Flais was important in that event and I also got to know his work through the magazine ‘Las Hojas de Huitepec.’ A lot of people knew the songs of Sergio Borja. Jazz, for him, came later. He always composed with lyrics and then discovered Coltrane and fell in love with jazz. He started composing songs without lyrics, of pure music.”
Today, in 2011, there are twenty bars and restaurants in San Cristóbal where a new generation of jazz virtuosos regularly perform. Capitán Flais was among the pioneers who blazed that trail and turned this remote burg into Mexico’s capital of jazz.
Some of the talents he mentored, like guitar wizard Fermín Orlando, a native of San Cristóbal, were teenagers when Flais turned them on to the music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and the rest of the jazz greats. Others who came up through the ranks of la banda del Capitán Flais include bassist-cellist Otto Dadda Anzures, from Tuxtla Gutiérrez; drummer Enrique Martínez of Zinacantán, Chiapas; Jalisco-born trumpeter Rafael “El Viejito” Cervantes; Chicago jazz singer Kelley Gaunt; and local violinist Albán, whose bow brings the most amazing sounds from all thirteen Mayan heavens down to us puny humans on earth. These are accomplished improvisers who have filled halls from Mexico City to India and Europe. It was Flais who gave them their first, and best, pushes. All were featured soloists in Flais’ band in 2005, when the San Cristobal music scene swept your writer into its vortex.
Over the years, on any given night, Flais deployed the finest A-Team of musicians under the sun to interpret his catalog of original songs. On another, he would just as likely be flanked by novices trying to keep up with him. Flais took great joy in getting beginners out on stage to make them learn by doing. More important to him than technique or perfect sound was whether the participants were growing and advancing in their mastery of improvisational music: Every concert was a rehearsal, and every rehearsal, a concert.
By the time I began playing my own works in San Cristóbal’s clubs with the band Zapa-Sutra, there was a rich pool of talent to be recruited for musical projects with jazz and improvisational influences. Every talent I rehearsed and performed with was a better musician than I, which is one definition of a songwriter’s utopia. The cost of living here is low enough that for many of the local musicians, it’s the only job they need to have. They pick up 150 or 200 pesos ($11 to $15) a night, as well as a constant stream of new audiences, muses and opportunities from the flow of tourists in and out of town. Every day in San Cristóbal, musicians congregate, jam, rehearse, attend one another’s gigs, assemble new formations, compose and enjoy together. New blood is always arriving, a trumpet or a sax player, invigorating the creativity of all. And nowhere did that happen more regularly than in Flais’ rustic studio apartment. (Perhaps calling it “rustic” is gilding; his two-by-three-meter room was a chilly box on the top floor of an unfinished brick-and-mortar house, on the windswept hill of the barrio El Cerrillo.)
Young musicians would often step out from their start with Flais to form their own trios, quartets and such, creating and playing their own new compositions. Those musicians became the backbone of what today is the most vibrant jazz scene I’ve known in any locale, including New York or Mexico City. Drifting in and out of Flais’ ensemble at one time or another, simply for the pleasure that he made of the playing, the musicians always tended to gather at Flais’ apartment in the hours before showtime. He would strum a new or old chord progression on his nylon-stringed guitar and others would play along. And then we’d all fan out to conquer the night at simultaneous gigs in various locales.
Sergio Borja, a.k.a. Flais, was an aesthete whose daily life was a search for beauty, visual and audial. Passersby would see him on the street or in a park with his easel and paints, brushing Monet-like portraits and landscapes, sometimes tutoring a less accomplished painter. Bespectacled and skinny, wearing sneakers and often popping around town with his vinyl guitar case on his back, Flais was himself a reluctant tourist attraction who often seemed shy about public attention. When a new thought struck him, he’d write it down on any scrap of paper available. Later he might turn it into a poem or a song, or just leave it by his bedside as a reminder note.
“El viaje/no es sólo el viaje físico/de equipajes y autobuses/y habitaciones y espacios/de un cambiante caleidoscopio/que gira con la tierra.”
- Sergio Borja
Disinterested in material things, the Argentine-born Borja had lived 25 years in Mexico without a visa. This left him unable to travel outside of Mexico, or even very far within it. In his poem “El Viaje,” he wrote: “The trip/is not just physical travel/of baggage and buses/and rooms and spaces/of a changing kaleidoscope/that turns with the earth.”
Contacted by Borja’s friends after his death, his mother, 83, said she hadn’t seen her son in a quarter century, although they had spoken in the last year, and he had recently sent her one of his paintings. Flais’ entire clothes collection fit on two shelves, and was wrapped in plastic to protect it from soaking up the scent of whatever the ever-present gang of musicians, poets and painters were smoking. What few knickknacks and possessions he had were typically tidied up in small containers, each with its own place to park; glasses, sunglasses, guitar picks, and the omnipresent piles of notes he had written. He lived without a refrigerator (as many do in this cold mountain climate) and his diet was Spartan: a loaf of white Bimbo bread, a carton of juice, and hot dogs aligned neatly in a Tupperware box.
Some years back, I pleaded with Flais to join me for a meal in a restaurant. His gaunt frame and apparent malnourishment were worrisome. This required repeated insistence, and after a few weeks he grudgingly accepted, suggesting an economic family restaurant, Alebrije, by the city’s bustling mercado, instead of the multitude of fine tourist restaurants that fill the city. We made a party of it with some of the other musicians, and over lunch I made the mistake of expressing a preference for handmade, fresh-corn tortillas over the thinner machine-produced ones on our table. He pointed his finger toward me and then to the sky, lecturing: “All food is blessed!”
One thing many of his friends learned this week during his wake and cremation was that, as a younger man, Borja had entered the seminary and studied to become a Catholic priest. The lyrics to his songs were über-positive, rejoicing in what he saw as the essential goodness of all of life; they could in fact be credibly played in Buddhist temples or Christian churches alike. Sarcasm was not in his playbook. I never heard him say a nasty thing about anyone, despite the setting of this tourist town, where cruel gossip oft seems the favorite sport, and where the best defense is often a good offense. The one time I saw him angry was at a local cultural center, where he saw some dirty coffee cups and immediately took them to a sink to wash them. One slipped from his wet hands and shattered on the floor. I applauded and shouted, “Bravo!” To which he snapped back: “I NEVER take joy in other people’s disgrace!”
Despite those rare clashes between two of the older wolves of the local music scene, Flais and I got along splendidly. A lesser artist (and there have been many, many frustrated gatekeepers along this writer, journalist, organizer and musician’s road) would have felt threatened by the entrance of a new ringleader into his territory and begun circling the wagons. Flais, refreshingly, went out of his way to make me feel welcome as the newcomer who had begun playing with some of his most accomplished protégés. What was more important to him than his own position in the show (at Bar Revolución he always stood below the stage while conducting other musicians both on and off it) was the tutelage of his musical disciples: If they were learning and inventing new sounds, he was visibly happy for them. It was as if he were standing back and looking at his own painting while the figures on the canvas moved to rhythms and the paint itself emanated the most sublime sounds. He befriended other accomplished musicians and encouraged them to teach his crew, people like the above-mentioned pianist Patricia Reyes, the bassist-composer Ciro Liberato, and the guitar virtuoso Julio Flores, who left behind his life as a rock-star bassist for the Mexican ska musical sensation Antidoping to return to his home town of San Cristóbal and rededicate his unique talents to jazz guitar. (Those three and their trio, Ameneyro, played at the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism; they and the other musicians mentioned here are family to this publication.) Many of the younger musicians who learned from Flais are today schooling newer generations in the jazz renaissance of these mountains.
Sergio Borja’s status as an illegal alien prevented him from engaging in any political activity at all. In 2005, he accepted an invitation for his band to play at a public event of the Zapatista Other Campaign during the November Day of the Dead celebrations. On the eve of the concert, he canceled, citing his lack of a visa—and having lived through the expulsions of 400 foreigners (human rights observers and journalists, mainly) from Mexico in the 1990s because the government viewed them as supporting the rebel indigenous insurgents in the hills around this city, he was probably smart to do so. And yet I would define him as a true revolutionary, a vocation that he didn’t shout slogans about but, rather, lived. He didn’t rail against consumer culture; he kept it altogether out of his daily life. He didn’t shout slogans; he wrote gentle poems and lyrics and put them to beautiful melodies and arrangements. He painted impressionist works on canvas rather than graffiti on other people’s walls. He didn’t go around trying to show off how much he “cared” about others; he really did care, and he treated everyone in his path with kindness and the benefit of the doubt. He didn’t proclaim himself an anarchist, but he lived and survived a quarter century without registering himself with any government. He was a free man in militarized Chiapas.
Since the Zapatista rebellion of 1994, San Cristóbal has become a kind of Disneyland for nongovernmental organizations, human rights workers and journalists. Their organizations often compete for press attention, for funding, and for what they call “access” to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials) and its elusive Subcomandante Marcos. All this made for a perfect cocktail of vicious gossip, backbiting, and sectarian quarreling among too many of the NGOs, political organizations and their staffers. I had things to do in that town in 2005 and 2006, leading up to and during the Zapatista Other Campaign and its national listening tour. The musicians provided a perfect escape and shield from the shrill cross-fire of political activists, a kind of underground passage, an invisible Bauhaus subway line through the city. Because of the name of my band, people started calling me “Zappa.” Beyond the great fun and meaning of composing and performing music with such worthy instrumentalists, the jazz scene provided cover. Sometimes strangers would talk to me about the journalist “Al Giordano,” and I seldom let them in on my little secret. A few I’d never met before claimed to be that writer’s good friend, and I’d ask them to arrange an introduction. I wasn’t exactly lying when I responded only, “I’m a fan.” People still approach me now and then to say, “I never realized that you were him.” I felt as if the musicians and the nickname they gave me had provided me with my own Anne Frank attic to evade the storm troopers of Political Correctness and the petty push-and-shove that too many activists dish out to one another.
Musicians are, of course, famous for hedonism, and most, if you gave them truth serum, would have to admit that the extra amorous and sexual attention that comes with the gig is one of the benefits. In a tourist mecca, that’s even more the case. But Flais was an anti-Lothario, of very few affairs, and those he had were serious ones in which he gave his heart wholly and sometimes got it crushed; the process of falling in and out of love was grist for his lyrics. There was once a dashing Parisian, Audrey Hepburn–esque femme fatale in town who most of the male (and some female) musicians were absolutely throwing themselves at, but it was the mild-mannered Flais whom she sought out. She would come to his apartment each day, and he’d write songs in front of her, at least one of them to her, but if there was anything more gossip-worthy going on, Flais never let it be known. He was nothing if not discreet.
Flais had another quality I really liked, too: He honored his elders, peers and predecessors: the poets Francisco Alvarez Quiñones, Javier Molina and Juan Gallo, of San Juan Chamula (each of whom he wrote about back in 1993), and the painter and saxophonist Arturo Pacheco, among others. Flais encouraged their intergenerational participation with his young and merry band. He got young people interested in them and their craft. A lot of locals outside of the bohemian music and arts subcultures knew Flais and appreciated him. Our colleague Mercedes Osuna and her mother, doña Paula, when I mentioned coming to town for his funeral, remembered a month years ago when he was editing a text in their store, a market for clothes and crafts made in Chiapas’ indigenous communities. He came every day around lunchtime, and the wily Flais took the entire month to finish the text. They were happy to feed him, day in, day out, and even happier to enjoy his upbeat company during those memorable meals.
“Mudarse/aunque sea un piso/es como llegar de nuevo/de modo que a los pocos meses/todavía se duda/de la ubicación de una mesa/del cilindro de gas/de las macetas/y sí/mudarse es concederse una renovación espacial/imprescindible/y de paso poner a prueba la inteligencia/la practicidad/el estilo/además de ser una forma de limpia y renuncia/ya que siempre un cambio/de domicilio o de altura/deja escapar –y con razón–/las cosas que ya no nos necesitan.”
– Sergio Borja
When Flais had to move a few years ago from the second floor to the third floor of the house-under-construction where he rented his room, he wrote this poem: “To move/even just one floor up/one still has doubts/about the location of a table/of a gas cylinder/of the flower pots/and, yes/to move is to concede a spatial renovation/indispensable/and in its steps to put intelligence to the test/practicality/style/as well as being a form of purification and resignation/now, that a change always/of home or of altitude/allows the things that no longer need us – with good reason – to escape.”
If moving his few possessions the distance of one short staircase brought that out of him, I can only imagine what was going on in his mind last week when he faced a deadline to leave his address altogether. I don’t know, but I imagine that his decision not to get a visa or to otherwise legalize his presence in Mexico served his dislike of traveling or moving around. It gave him perfectly defensible excuses for not doing so. He had already traveled extensively before arriving in San Cristóbal about two decades ago, but apparently he had decided to roll to a permanent stop here and channel his inner traveler through his flights in music, word and image.
And some may not forgive me for this particular expression of grief or how I say it, but here it goes, anyway: Everybody knew that Flais didn’t just live humbly out of a vow of poverty; he really was poor. Everybody knew that a diet of hot dogs and white bread does not nourishment make, and that he was shrinking thinner all the time. Everybody knew that he was being evicted from his 700-peso-a-month ($52 dollars) tiny room because the owners of the house had finally saved up enough to finish construction of the third floor, where he had his little closet and roost (some of his paintings are of the views of the city from his two windows; in addition to his daily hosting of musicians and other friends, he also spent a lot of time alone there, but people didn’t see that part of his day). Everybody knew that November 6 was to be his eviction date. After his death, a few of his friends mentioned that they knew that he had not been feeling well. He told one that there had been blood in his urine since a month ago. He told another it was coming out of his ass. He told yet another that he’d been bleeding from the nose and mouth. The rest of the community around him only heard these things after it was too late to encourage him to get medical help. After he died, friends found by his bedside the stained cup into which he had been spitting that blood.
The horror of it all is that this was a man who had devoted so much love and attention to creating and building a community of music and painting and poetry and friendship and culture, yet when the warning signs began, that community was not sufficiently alert to notice, much less to help him. There are certain kinds of people who don’t seek medical attention unless dragged by the ear to the doctor. This is not to point at anyone in particular. We’re all to blame – those of us who no longer live here but didn’t check in or ask the right questions of our old friend and teacher and those mutual friends who saw him almost daily. And there certainly were people who generously helped Flais materially, like his good pal, the British anthropologist and musician Tim Trench. Two days before his death, Flais bathed, combed his hair, put on a clean shirt and knocked on the door of drummer Enrique Martínez and his wife, the actress and theater director Barbara Guillén. In what must have been the hardest words for him to ever speak, he asked if he could come to live with them and their seven dogs, starting Monday.
They welcomed him immediately – enthusiastically! – to his new home and set to work planning the organization of his studio, far more spacious than his previous haunt. He said he wanted to paint a landscape on a wall that a neighbor had erected, which was blocking a view from the home. These, and many more, were the acts of a “real” community, or what the San Cristóbal artist’s community could be if it had more posture or more people who did. But one thing about living in tourist towns is that it hardens the heart. High seasons come and go, and with them the invasion of new people and talents. Everybody who has come here and stayed has, at one point, been flavor of the month and then later settled for being another in the cast of extras. Then come the low seasons; the hotels and bars empty out, and the year-round residents are stuck with each other – and with the knowledge that everyone else saw and gossiped about their high-season antics and affairs, because high season always brings a blessed dose of crazy – time and again. One ends up saying good-bye to so many people who were once passersby that the heart tends to harden, and in some, it becomes more mercenary, less able to give a damn about anything or anyone. Paradise may or may not be overrated, but without a doubt it comes at a high price.
“A través de esos grandes ojos/con los que también respira una casa/se disipa el miedo de las paredes/y se atenúan las fronteras gregarias/de la propiedad privada/una habitación despierta/se integra a la luz de afuera/deja de estar a solas y escondida/y se da cuenta de que está en una casa.”
- Sergio Borja
In his poem, “El valor de las ventanas” (“The value of windows”), Flais wrote: “Through those big eyes/with those that a house also breathes/the fear in the walls disperses/the gregarious borders of private property dissolve/the light from outside joins in/one stops being alone and hidden/and realizes that one is in a house.”
The local firefighter Inti visited Flais on Sunday to help him organize the movement of his things, but he found him deathly ill. Inti called an ambulance to bring Flais to the hospital, where, hours later, he died in Barbara Guillén’s and Fermìn Orlando's arms. This was on the eve of his moving day. And when friends went to clear out his room, videotaping every step and item to ensure the rest of the world that nothing would be stolen, they found only 300 pesos to his name. They clicked on the Walkman that connected to his little speakers, and found a lilting piano progression by Monk, which now serves as the soundtrack for that sad and lonely video.
Unfortunately for us as a species, we take our visionaries for granted while they are alive and lionize them only in death. Many of them have eccentric qualities, or they play the jester or other roles as part of their technique to bring the out the best in others. Many are addicts of one kind or another (Flais wasn’t into alcohol or hard drugs at all, but some did frown upon his smoking habits even as they went to hear and enjoy his singing voice). Flais at times seemed like the prototypical absent-minded professor, so buried in his quest for knowledge and beauty that he’d forget to take care of himself. He was so thin that a gale wind might have come at any moment to blow him up into the sky. Well, it kind of just did.
Visionaries don’t always make it easy to help them. They almost never ask for help; that would be humiliating. There’s no beauty in imposing on others. But I feel much as I did in 2004, after the suicide of our colleague-in-journalism Gary Webb, that the real dysfunction is not with the heretic, but with the rest of us. People talk about community, they talk about friendship, and they blather on and on about “caring” and altruism and good words and the importance of good deeds. Everybody claims to be a lover. But in the end, we’re a pestilent species of egoists and scared little weenies; almost every one of us is so self-absorbed and out for ourselves that even those who work hard at appearing to care are eventually revealed as selfish brutes.
Here was a guy, Sergio Borja, our very own Capitán Flais, who really lived the idea of community, who did unto others as he would have done unto him. He is the father of the most vibrant jazz scene on the continent, and he forged it from nothing! He rose up an army of jazz! But his attention to the wellbeing of others wasn’t reciprocal, honestly, was it? He never got to turn 50. And I can’t say that he would be alive today if the community had been more attentive and responsive to the reality that he needed us to take care of him a little bit better. But I’ll always wonder. And it’s a terrible feeling, the kind of existential question I would seek out Flais’ counsel on, looking to him for some kind of silver lining to the tragedy, one that would spring from his innate optimism and belief in people. His advice and philosophy are what we sought at moments like this one. But he’s no longer here to give it.