Connecting the Roots to the Fruit: An Apprenticeship in Afro-Colombian Rhythms
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a recording project, in which I was part of a choir. In the midst of this ensemble of voices, one of the participants had a shirt on that stated: Cumbia is the new Rock. It caught my attention and I thought in the moment, Cumbia is not new, and as a matter of fact it is much older than rock 'n roll. Maybe the message of the slogan is that cumbia is making a comeback, but that still made me think, When did it leave? As far back as I could remember, songs like La Pollera Colorá and La Mucura were being played on the radio, at weddings, birthday parties, etc. Then in the 1970's, an immense amount of cumbias were emerging from Mexico from Rigo Tovar to La Sonora Santanera. Not much later, norteño groups like Bronco would contribute to the repertoire of the cumbia mexicana. In the 1980's, there were some great dance orchestras from different parts of the Americas performing cumbia, one being Los Hermanos Flores from El Salvador, that were touring throughout the United States. In the mid 1990's, we were reintroduced to cumbia colombiano by Latin pop artists such as Carlos Vives and Fonseca, and a little later Juanes, who were mixing traditional forms, instruments, and repertoire with rock and other Latin music forms. Today, we see an innumerable amount of bands and musicians playing cumbia and in very different manners. So I don’t think the cumbia has ever left, however, what is evident is that it has gone through an incredible transformation as it has traveled from its home on the coast of Colombia to different corners of the world.
I am glad I saw the shirt slogan, because it has inspired me to recognize the work of a couple of musicians in the Los Angeles area. In 2014, as part of ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, master artist Eduardo Martínez Arvilla proposed a project to share his knowledge of Afro-Colombian music and traditions, with another master musician, Alberto López. The two professional musicians are of Colombian heritage, Eduardo is a native of the coastal Caribbean city of Cartagena, from which the Afro Colombian traditions emerge, and though Alberto was raised in Medellin, his roots are in the coastal area of Cartagena and Barranquilla, where his paternal grandfather’s family lived and where he visited often. He nostalgically states, "that was the part of Colombia that I loved the most, the folklore, the culture, everything.... It seemed like the coastal area culture was the more lively one, which I enjoyed the most." Alberto actually came to the United States when he was 12 years old and studied and played mostly classical and popular music. It was when he began studying with master musicians of Brazilian and Cuban traditions that he began to realize the value of folklore and traditions. He desired to learn more about his own heritage and the Colombian folklore, but there was no one in the Los Angeles area that attained that knowledge. It was by chance that Alberto met Eduardo at a Cuban ceremony, because Eduardo also was into Afro-Cuban folklore. Alberto, upon hearing his name, put it together that he had known of Eduardo and had heard about him through conversations with other musicians, and that he already had recordings of him.
The two immediately developed a bond and began working together on different projects such as a recorded methodology on Afro-Colombian rhythms. They have also performed together with different groups, one being the Justo Almario Afro Colombian Jazz Ensemble.
Ultimately, the musicians wanted to focus their apprenticeship on deepening Alberto’s knowledge of the traditional foundations. They focused on Afro-Colombian drum rhythms such as puya, chalupa, mapalé, tambora, bullerengue, zambapalo, and of course cumbia. In addition, Eduardo worked with Alberto to provide initial understanding of the musical structure and the instrumental construction of the gaita colombiana (a type of pipe flute).
Eduardo, a very articulate man, provides an empirical history of the Afro-Colombian culture, music, and traditions. As a youth growing up, he participated in communal work in his neighborhood and eventually for the larger town of Cartagena. Through this experience he became associated with people leading cultural movements and was part of a collective engaged in music, theater, and the arts. "We would get together and tell people 'come with us we are going to do folklore, we're going to this and that.' We were all studying in college for our careers, but what we wanted to do was develop a collective with the people from our neighborhood to prepare ourselves for other things rather than the bad that goes on—looking for the good, to produce art, to produce culture." Already in college and with this mind set, he studied the history of his region, theater, literature, and he began to do research and investigations on different aspects of Afro-Colombian culture, in addition to studying the oral practice of the traditional music with the established musicians in the region.
As Eduardo explains, there have been great people that have taken the Afro-Colombian music to different parts of the world such as Petrona Martínez, Totó la Momposina, and of course Carlos Vives. To every singer that has popularized this music of Colombia worldwide, there are many more musicians that keep the tradition vibrant. People like Checo Acosta, Leonor Gonzalez Mina, Paulino "Batato" Salgado, Catalino Parra, Encarnación Tovar, Juan Lara, Jose Lara: "These are the people that never became famous because they would be the ones behind the lead singers (in popular bands), but in reality they are the ones that have carried on their shoulders the tradition for a long time. They are not well known, but they are people of heart, they are humble people with a tremendous inner sense of culture, and who have left us without anything to their name, but who have never stopped loving this tradition."
There are very few that maintain Eduardo's background, and less that are able to articulate it in a very nuanced manner. Realizing this, he does feel an urgency to pass on what he knows to Alberto, who is well-positioned and enthusiastic about furthering his understanding, and who has already committed to helping Eduardo diffuse the tradition. In Los Angeles, they are in the middle of a community of Latina and Latino musicians, many of whom play some version of cumbia. Groups like Quetzal, Viento Callejero, Santa Cecilia, and many others have affirmed to Eduardo and Alberto that there is an interest in the Afro-Colombian music traditions, and the goal of these two musicians is to take advantage of Eduardo’s knowledge, and as Alberto states, "es una oportunidada de reconectar a la fuente con los frutos." "It is an opportunity to reconnect the roots to the fruit."