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There are performers who scale the heights of imagination and feeling, who walk the high wire of entertainment with such aplomb it leaves audience members giddy.
When Ariana sings a€?Oh The World,a€? about an act of love so precious, it seems too good to be true. In one of her many YouTube videos, we watch as she and her father, David, play a€?Oh The Worlda€? as a duet. When Ariana was 15 or16, she attended an Ontario Council of Folk Festivals (OCFF) Conference. When she was 16, she released a self-titled demo which had only 300 copies printed a€” primarily used for her appearance at her first conference.
At her fathera€™s urging, Ariana attended more folk conferences which continued to raise her profile. Ariana didna€™t really become serious about music until a three-month bout with double pneumonia brought her close to death. Arianaa€™s first album, To Make It Make Sense, was released in 2009, when she was 18 years old. I asked Ariana about the source for the allegorical song, a€?John and the Monster.a€? She couldna€™t pinpoint anything in particular. In the video, her father, ever the supporter and mentor, sits across from her and when she finishes, he murmurs, a€?Not bad.a€? In response, Ariana laughs.
When we first encountered Ariana at the 2011 NERFA last November, we were shocked to discover that the youthful-looking sideman on guitar, Dobro and mandolin was Arianaa€™s father, David. Ariana and David will be making a number of appearances in the United States this fall, and specifically the Living Room in NYC each month. We discussed the underlying truth of the fantastical story in the song a€” that something of beauty can be destroyed by a society who would imprison it and destroy its magic. A bicycle is the perfect way to see the new Bogota, a city now intent on healing, passion, food and dancing deep into the night. Ita€™s a weekday afternoon in BogotaI?, and Ia€™m on a mountain bike dodging potholes, a horse and a minibusa€”and Ia€™m wondering if Ia€™ll survive.
People like Mike Ceaser are helping change that perception by showing us that BogotaI?a€™s ugly history is, well, history.
Ceaser stops every five or 10 minutes and peppers his commentary with historical anecdotes, several of which involve Colom- bian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
The weather is mild, in the 60s, and ita€™s like this year-round: no snow, no heat waves, no seasons and no air conditioning. In the market, Ceaser stops at a half- dozen vendors, who all seem to adore him, handing him local fruits for us to sample. The next day, I head out with my friend Francisco for a less adventurous and more literary tour of the city. We arrive early to get a table and, before long, ita€™s nearly midnight and Ia€™m on a packed dance floor with Juan at what seems like the biggest party in town.
But the beat of the music is so intense that ita€™s still in my veins the next day as my plane heads home.
For mid-morning coffeea€”or really any time of daya€”stop by a Juan Valdez CafeI? (juanvaldezcafe.
Nonstop flights on Avianca to BogotaI? from Washington Dulles International Airport five times per week.
The diesel-powered TransMilenio bus system is a vast improvement from BogotaI?a€™s traditional minibuses. It happened at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) Conference last year when we first saw Ariana Gillis, and it happens over and over, every time we see her.
Ariana took piano lessons when she was young and didna€™t become interested in guitar until she got one when she was 12.
When I mentioned that I found her to be a lot like Josh Ritter in her imaginative storytelling, she verified that observation, saying a€?I like it that he [Josh] tries to intertwine another story with a love songa€¦ it makes it more interesting.
When Ariana was around 13, her father would take her with him when he was playing certain gigs, especially ones that hea€™d booked himself. David started calling around asking bookers for venues to let Ariana open for artists theya€™d already booked.
These soul-defining experiences are the catalyst that affects the skewed stories she is compelled to tell. She got a publicist who helped her introduce her CD, getting radio airplay even before it was officially released, and who helped her get bookings a€” and they were exclusively her gigs.

Wea€™re used to it now, but it hasna€™t lost that sense of a treasured combination of father-daughter bonding in such an exalted endeavor a€” the making of music. Along with my new Colombian friend Stephany, three Americans and a Brit, Ia€™m following a somewhat loco Californian named Mike through the streets of BogotaI?, making my way through traffic like Ia€™m in a game of Frogger. We pass the Emerald District, where men in jeans and leather jackets stand on the sidewalk and sell precious stones out of folded pieces of paper. At 8,660 feet above sea level, BogotaI? sits ad- jacent to an Andean mountain range, one of three that run through the country.
Shea€™s there to keep me company, but she reminds me that a Colombian would otherwise never be caught riding a bike through the city like we are. Therea€™s the granadilla, passion fruit, lulo and mangostino, a tender, sweet fruit that looks like garlic. We pass the National Museum, a gorgeous building lined with hardwood floors that was once a jail, and the Moorish-style bullfighting sta- dium (also used for other events, such as the Davis Cup in September). We pass Plaza del Chorro del Quevedo, a bohemian spot filled with students from the citya€™s many universities.
We visit Biblioteca Virgilio Barco, a wonderful round, brick li- brary designed by the Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona.
The center has an impressive, donut- shaped bookstore with a courtyard and fountain in the center. By that time, I feel like everyone else at the party is my frienda€”the Colombian soap-opera star that Stephany is ogling, the guy dancing on the table next to us and the DJs behind us, playing everything from Culture Club to reggae to salsa.
I close my eyes and am thankfula€”for the sake of a night of dancinga€”and that I made it off my bike alive. When you ask a Bogotano where to eat, they often recommend a local chain, and theya€™re worth visiting.
Ita€™s within walking distance of Parque de la 93, a cherished green space filled with children and dogs; restaurants also circle the park. This upscale hotel was renovated from two homes that once housed the personal guard of the South American liberation hero SimoI?n BoliI?var.
We find ourselves wondering, a€?Just how good can she get?a€? Her powerful voice, soaring through the high registers, suggests the pinnacle is not yet in sight. During that time she thought shea€™d overcome it, but had to retreat to bed as it hadna€™t really gone away. She played recordings of her original work for the interviewer and, highly impressed, he advised her not to attend school, but to stick with her own work. Sometime soon after that six-month period, Ariana was in the studio doing the vocals for her first full CD. We learn from her bio that: a€?David Marsh played the track, a€?John and the Monstera€™ to his radio audience a€” one response was a phone call from an enthusiastic listener who wanted to know more about the unusual song, and the singer. John, dying of a brain tumor rows out to the middle of the lake and coaxes the monster out of hiding. We have all these dreamsa€¦ but it slowly starts to disintegrate in front of us and we wonder, what happened to my shiny dream?a€? Ita€™s difficult to express here, its sound and the way it packs such an emotional wallop. So I jump my wheels onto a crumbling curb, giving the horsea€™s nostrils and the busa€™ fender a couple inches of clearance. But the real story is that I am here, in the capital of Colombia, anda€”other than fearing a two-wheeled mishapa€”I feel safe. His tours start from colonial La Candelaria, where narrow streets are lined with colorful houses that have wood balconies and red tile roofs. We weave in and out of traffic, around motorcycles and past stray dogs and pedestrians on narrow sidewalks.
The city is broken into sections: north, central (La Candelaria) and south, with the most up- scale businesses and residences on the north end. Ceaser, whose hands seem to be permanently stained with bike grease, stops a few times to buy street food for us to tastea€”fruit juices and strips of coconut that look like French fries.
Ita€™s also known as the best spot for chicha, the countrya€™s famous fermented corn drink. Not only is this a prized spot for schoolchildren, Francisco says when he was growing up, there was only one library in all of BogotaI?), but ita€™s a fun building, filled with maze-like ramps, beautiful hardwood floors, skylights, an amphithe- ater, water features and an open-air lobby. Up the street is Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, one of the largest public libraries in Latin America. Colombians tend to order tinto, which is black coffee, and be forewarned: Ita€™s extremely strong.

The restaurant, which hires only single mothers, has a beautiful location in a restored house in the Usaquen neighborhood. So, on any given day, only 60 percent of residents are permitted to drive, based on their license plate numbers. The hotel has 64 suites, modern and minimal, all with king-sized beds, some with a spiral staircase and terrace.
The hotel was converted from two colonial homes and today feels bohemian and artsy, a peaceful respite from the loud city on the other side of the lobby.
Filled with natural light, the hotel has 42 rooms decorated in a classic Italian style and two restaurants, including one on the top floor that has perhaps the citya€™s best view of red tile rooftops (and a private dining room that is traditionally where men propose to their brides).
Likewise, her song-stories, fed by a keen mind open to both reality and parables of fantasy, spark a wonder in us. Catherine until Ariana was a year old, then moved further west to Vineland a€” about an hour south of Toronto. She also took music lessons in high school, studying oboe and upright bass and drums a€” and still wants to learn trumpet. More often than not, it would be Ariana and a girlfriend whoa€™d do a cover song, something that the student body could relate to and that reflected the sermon that day.
David would also perform at an annual Christmas show and would have Ariana perform as well. She slept in an upright position to keep breathing, waking up every hour, each night, coughing from the fluid in her lungs.
The mystery caller was Elton Johna€™s lyricist and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin.a€? Thata€™s quite a connection a€” and one hell of a quote that came out of it.
Ceasera€™s shop is filled with old bikes, maps, murals and shelves of used books (for sale or exchange) in English, Spanish, French and German. Streets and avenues are numbered, and I quickly learn that the best way to orient myself is to find the mountains, always to the east. On one of our last stretches of the tour, I look down at the pavement and laugh: Finally, after nearly five hours of braving precarious city streets, lo and behold, I see a designated bike lane. We check out the photography exhibits, walk on the roof, look east and enjoy a fantastic view of the city.
It hosts world- class musicians (and a cool music room with old instruments) and features a full calendar of other public programs. You can find traditional French pastries and favorite Colombian dishes, in- cluding hot chocolate with queso (cheese that goes into the hot chocolate) and arepas (corn pancakes). There are 32 rooms (about half are brand new), some with lofts, overlooking two tranquil courtyards with fountains; dona€™t miss the new spa. Youa€™ll be in good company here; ita€™s where the president stays the night before he takes office. At the songa€™s end, the captured monster is dying, so John, sacrificing himself, sets him free, becomes sick again and perishes.
Across the street, the Botero Museum showcases the personal collection of the Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, including pieces by Monet and Picasso, plus works featuring Boteroa€™s own plump figures. He would constantly stop to play his guitar sitting nearby and finally gave up the piano and just stuck with the guitar. He wanted me to get better.a€? She said that shea€™d often co-opt Patty Griffin material and turn it into something of her own.
His pranks and rumors got more sadistic as time wore on, and I made myself sick trying to stay out of his way. David created his own arrangements of songs and eventually competed in the annual United States championship contest in Winfield, Kan.
I even went to France for a year, just to avoid him.But I'm done hiding from him now, and there's no way in hell I'll allow him to ruin my senior year. Even though her illness left her debilitated, she still managed to graduate from high school and made the honor roll.
He had a small career going when he was younger but gave it up and decided to help Ariana when he saw how talented she was.

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