It's a curse sometimes, being into music. I envy people who can walk into a pub and not notice what's playing, because for me there is no such thing as background music. Even if it's so quiet that I have to strain to catch the melody, my brain actively seeks out the day's soundtrack, analyses it, files it away and, worst of all, judges it.
The problem is that most people don't seem to understand just how important music can be in setting the tone of an environment. If the proprietor picks the wrong soundtrack for a venue, it can seriously affect the mood of the place; it's most obvious in nightclubs, of course, when putting on the wrong track can clear the dance floor, but in restaurants and pubs the effect is the same, it's just more subtle. People won't even know why they don't fancy returning to a restaurant, and what they don't realise is that it's down to the owner's casual misuse of, say, James Blunt or Justin Bieber. There should be warning stickers; in my head, there are.
But this is South America, where surely this kind of musical naivety could never happen. Music flows in the blood of these people, whether it's Argentinian tango, Brazilian samba, Colombian salsa or Andean folk music, and there's a booming music scene in the southern half of the American continent that we tend not to notice in the UK, mainly because of the language barrier, but also because so many of us still think that music began with The Beatles. And as you travel around, you do come across lots of different musical varieties, from the squeezebox-influenced folk here in Colombia to the bizarre marimba music of Guatemala, and although not all of it is good, it's always interesting to hear new types of local music.
All of which makes it even more unfathomable that most of the time, there appear to be just two songs in this part of the world. Every bar you go into, every radio station you tune into, every chicken bus you get onto and every Android phone that gets played in public, seems hardwired to play Marc Anthony's 'Vivir Mi Vida' or Romeo Santos's 'Propuesta Indecente', and nothing else. Some bars will play these two songs four or five times in one evening, and their infectious melodies get burnt in your subconscious and force you into submission. 'Ah well,' I thought, 'at least they're local to this part of the world,' but no! It turns out that both Marc Anthony and Romeo Santos hail from New York... so the biggest songs in Central and South America aren't even from this part of the continent.
Never mind, you think, because surely if you check into a nice five-star hotel or head out to a gourmet restaurant, then they won't be playing the same old hits... and you'd be right. But incredibly, all the classy joints that we've visited – and I genuinely mean all of them – have their own two artists that they can't help plugging remorselessly. From the beachside paradises of Monterrico and Little Corn Island all the way to the nice Italian restaurant we found in Cartagena, they all play either Jack Johnson – the surfing acoustic troubadour from Hawaii – or a collection of sultry cover songs sung by silk-voiced women over gentle lift music. It's always the same collection of covers, and I've finally worked out what it is; it's a whole series of albums called Relaxing Bossa Lounge and it contains coffee-table versions of songs like 'You're Beautiful', 'Fields of Gold' and 'How Deep Is Your Love?', as well as late-night-lounge versions of rockers like 'Purple Haze' and 'Beat It'. Most incredibly of all, though, are the bossa nova covers of 'Creep', 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and 'Paradise City', which manage to suck so much life out the originals that they sound positively huggable. It is mind-boggling in its banality, and it crops up with such monotonous regularity that I can even predict which song is coming next. The album's tagline is 'Unforgettable famous songs in bossa nova', and they're right; I can't seem to forget it, no matter how hard I try.
At least the repetitive nature of public music in this part of the world has had a positive effect on my opinion of the local folk music. It might be pretty formulaic and so accordion-heavy that it sounds like something from pre-war France, but at least it isn't Marc Anthony, Romeo Santos, Jack Johnson or Relaxing Bossa Lounge, and for that alone it gets a big thumbs up from me.