Latin music linked to identity and struggle
Aurelio Martinez from Honduras and Carlos Rojas from Colombia have been on a crusade for decades to preserve and modernise a Latin American musical heritages that go back centuries.
Martinez has brought the paranda genre of the Garifuna people to international attention. Rojas is the last surviving member of Cimarron, which has become a leading Ambassador of rural Colombian joropo music.
“Our songs talk of cows and horses,” Rojas chortles, not bothered by the continents separating this image and those of Norway where we met in July.
It took him two full days to arrive in the stunning mountain and fjord landscape of the Fjorde Festival, an hour’s flight north of Oslo . But the exertions had not dampened his humour.
“Joropo is not popular in the cities - Bogota , Medellin , Cali , and so on,” he says, stroking his bald head, speaking in a raspy voice close to the caricatured English of Scarface. “Maybe that’s why it’s not so well-known abroad. But we’re big in Colombia.”
His band Cimarron has been pioneering a modern version of joropo for over 20 years. Its name reflects the spirit Rojas has tried to inculcate from the beginning.
“’Cimarron’ is a word meaning wild bull, or a bull which has escaped from the farms it lived on,” he explains. “It is a symbol of freedom, that was picked up by the slaves centuries ago. When we chose the name for the group we were thinking of the freedom of playing. Of course, the arrangements have a structure. But inside that structure, we like to improvise.”
Driven by Rojas’s melodic harp, the arpa llanera, Cimarron has helped transform the joropo sounds forged by mestizo descendants of the Spanish settlers, indigenous Amerindians and African slaves.
“There is a dialogue between the harp, the bandola and the percussions,” he says. “But African music has been a great influence on my compositions, too. People like Toumani Diabate, Habib Koité and artists from Madagascar have been opening our horizons.”
Aurelio Martinez has also been an avid explorer of sounds beyond his native Honduras . The singer-guitarist has been on a crusade for decades now to preserve a heritage going back over two centuries.
“I started playing Garifuna drums at the age of eight,” he explains during a break from a hectic schedule at the Forde Festival.
“I’d be invited to play at parties organised by my parents and grandparents. I was a bit different from kids of my age who were more interested in American pop. So, I learnt about my Garifuna roots and the music that accompanies all our ceremonies: marriages, death, and so on.”
The Honduran has teamed up with the founder of Stonetree Records, Ivan Duran, to keep alive this genre. Despite being confined to an ethnomusicologist ghetto, it is heard all along Central America’s Atlantic coastline, from Mexico to Costa Rica .
“We must keep this music alive,” he insists. “Unesco has declared it a part of our world’s heritage and it cannot be allowed to just disappear.”
“This paranda music is also known in parts of Mexico , especially in the south, around Vera Cruz,” adds Alejandro Colinas, Martinez’s Mexican tour manager and sound engineer. “The Hermanos Laboriel is very popular there, for example.”
Both Honduras and Mexico face the huge challenge of weaning the new generations away from pop and electronic music coming from the US . But Martinez has time and talent on his side.
He is shaping into a hugely talented composer and powerful vocalist, and has prepared a follow-up to his debut album Garifuna Soul, which Real World is releasing in March 2011. It features the likes of Youssou N’Dour and members of Orchestre Baobab in an attempt to build more bridges with West Africa, where Garifuna originated.
“It is really surprising,” exclaims Colinas. “You can hear the two worlds communicating effortlessly. But I have to say…The Garifuna music is the strongest part.”
World Tracks would like to thank the organisers of the Forde Festival in Norway for making these exchanges possible - in particular to people like Torill and Hilde for their kindness and efficiency.
Quiz of the week
Carlos Rojas mentioned musicians like Toumani Diabate and Habib Koité from Mali. He said they are from a certain culture in that region of Africa. What is that culture called? It goes beyond the borders of that West African nation.
The answer is in the programme. You are invited to listen to it and send your answers to email@example.com.
Apologies to faithful followers of the programme in places like China , where it has become impossible to hear our broadcasts.