Martin Espino, a traditional, ceremonial musician and a cultural educator, began the year 2020 with Native American music residencies at elementary schools, libraries, museum and a full schedule of festival performances lined up both as a solo artist and with his group Mexika.
“I was going to go to Arizona to play for Earth Day and then Tokyo (Japan) in April,” says the 65-year-old Los Ángeles native, who also creates ancient Mexican instruments like drums and flutes.
But the coronavirus changed all that.
“Everything I had, cancelled,” he said.
It was the middle of March, when COVID-19 became widely reported — schools, businesses and all public performance spaces deemed nonessential were ordered to shut down. “I was just getting email after email with cancellations.”
Espino says he spent the first two weeks after trying to ignore everything staying up really late. “I was falling into depression,” he admits. He went from having a calendar of bookings to a standstill. Music has always been his lifeline.
Espino was first drawn to the sounds and instruments of ancestral indigenous music, when he was a child. He also picked up the guitar at age 11 and listened to Jimi Hendrix.
In high school, he started collecting flutes and read — learning even more about the culture that was his roots. While he explored the range of “ancestral sounds,” he couldn’t find the instruments, so he started making his own.
He later studied music in college, where he learned to compose, and in the 80s he formed a club to appreciate music from around the world before joining an Andean band in the 90s.
He was always busy.
“I did a lecture at UCLA, played at a preschool the next day, did an elementary school arts residency building instruments with the students and playing them, and the next day played at a museum,” he describes as an average week.
His instruments are made from natural material –gourds become drums and, clay and wood become flutes and panpipes, turtle shells became rattles and percussion instruments, he shares his wide knowledge that the instruments hold purpose beyond entertainment — they are used for ceremony.
He teaches and demonstrates the instruments he makes and the music he composes by videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wngz5ct5knQ), using an App that allows him to mix several layers of sound by playing then recording each instrument one at a time. Sometimes he tells his students and audience to close their eyes as they listen to the soothing, atmospheric sounds that transports them to ancestral times, jungle settings and meditative states.
But now, from his rooftop studio, he finds himself navigating a new way to perform.
Around the second week of closures, he started getting phone calls, from the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach, the Aquarium of the Pacific (with whom he has worked for the past 19 years) and other venues where he has performed previously.
They requested compositions, videos, little things here and there that could satisfy their online presence, which was quickly recognized as the most direct way for them to interact with their patrons.
Adapting to an online world
The very experienced teacher, performer and lecturer had to adapt quickly to a new online and “virtual” world.
“They had to do something and were asking me to give them stuff, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how to do online,” remembers Espino, who reached out to colleagues who were also in the same boat. “We don’t know what the hell we’re doing.”
It was trial and error at the beginning, from learning how to best replicate sound on video, realizing his Internet connection was not conducive to sending big video files (which took hours in the beginning) and at the same time searching for the best methods to engage an online audience.
“All of a sudden, we have to be masters of audio, masters of video online—this was really hard because I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Espino “My setup here was dinosaur. I was uploading for eight hours because everybody was using the Internet.”
A New Audience
After fixing his self described “ghetto setup,” he began to try his hand at Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/martinespinomusic) live shows and he soon discovered that a live in person audience is much different than a “live” online audience.
In his first tries, 100 people would connect and he would get 40 likes and 20 comments. For Espino, this response seemed like there was no attention.
“I started feeling like I was standing in your living room where you walk in and out,” he said.
“I’m speaking to you with music and you’re not reacting.”
As time went on his presentations improved to 500 views, but the response remained the same.
In the last month, he switched it up and put something really personal in his video, pleading for his online audience to “please say something.” It has been difficult to have the same experience that a performer is accustomed to on a traditional stage where you feel the energy of the audience and hear their response — now people may be watching and may take a minute to hit a “thumbs up” button, but not take the extra minute to comment.
“In some ways I’m frustrated. I’m asking them to say something to me. I’d like to see some human reaction. I thank them all when somebody comments,” he says, but still can’t understand what he calls “Facebook corpses”—when people don’t comment.
“I’m more worried not so much about my music, but that now it’s OK to watch somebody pour their hearts out and not get a reaction,” he said.
This void was even more present when he produced two online shows and at its conclusion he asked for donations. “I would get about 1,000 looks and only 2 to 3 people donated.”
Espino tried his hand at fundraising because work has not been constant and has gone live online to sell the many instruments he makes.
He was paid $250 for a couple of 30-minute concerts in April, but in June, July, August he only worked once or twice.
“I lost $12,000 of work,” he estimates.
“The donation thing didn’t work,” he says, before adding “I don’t know of any musician making it work.”
“There’s no income online,” he adds, even though he’s still uploading videos to his YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/martinespinomusic).
“I never made it to pay my bills every month because there were two or three weeks when there was nothing,” Espino notes.
He has deferred all his bills, and is managing as best he can with the little work he’s able to get from clients with whom he’s been working for a long time.
“The only thing that saves my rear end is that I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he concedes.
Like the pre-recorded video he did for The Aquarium of the Pacific’s recent Baja Splash Festival (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRqabD7ihfs) where he was also teaching people how to make instruments that mimic ocean sounds — he demonstrated making water gongs with material that people may have around the house.
He was also sought out by The Arts Council to provide 30-minute lessons online for Long Beach City Schools.
“Musicians who don’t know how to market themselves or don’t have long-term clients are suffering,” Espino says. He worries about the long-term effect this pandemic is creating for young musicians trying to get a foothold to more seasoned professionals who can’t make ends meet.
“At some point I have to stay paying” all his deferred bills, he said.
If things don’t improve, “I might have to go and find another job,” he adds.
And in the middle of everythinh is all the divisiveness he sees in the country and the world today.
“It’s gone from wondering if my job is going to come back to asking what is happening with our world?”
But not everything about this situation is negative.
Espino has found some positive outcomes amid this difficult situation.
“I’m only lucky because people know me and I had [previouslly] set a lot of things in motion,” he says, including a 15-minute film “Espinado” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGbhmvMJHrg) that has won “Best documentary” in Florida, and was a finalist in a Madras, India film festival. The film, depicting Espino’s musicianship also played at an outdoor festival in Dresden, Germany and played everyday at a Brazilian film festival.
Also, since his audience has grown internationally. “People know about me in Nepal, Austria,” he says.
In March 2019 he went to Austria where he played with musicians from Eslovakia, Magadascar, Croatia, Nepal. Many of those musicians have started reaching out and collaborations are in the works, including one with a a master flute player from Nepal, and a master drummer who happens to live in Inglewood.
Staying home has also given him time to innovate and do a lot more “experimental music.”
“I’m doing more instrument making — I think it’s going to get better. I’m just trying to really cross my fingers,” he says.
Most of all he’s learned that in the midst of a pandemic that fills everyone with dread and uncertainty, his music can still make a difference.
“My job is to make people feel well and with sound, we can make people feel happy in the middle of all of this,” he says.
For more information about Martin Espino and his music, visit https://martinespino.com/.
Diana Martinez contributed to this story