Many musicians have a personal story of how music carried them through a dark time. One of the most famous instances is that of French composer Olivier Messiaen, who created “Quartet for the End of Time” while held captive at a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.
Messiaen’s experience would resonate with Afro-Colombian musicians who are seeking to heal from the ongoing Colombian conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
This 52-year internal armed conflict between guerrillas, paramilitaries and government forces has killed more than 260,000 people and left 7.4 million internally displaced. A 2016 peace agreement between the government and FARC officially ended the latter’s existence as an armed group, but civilians continue to suffer extortions and displacement by other gangs and guerrilla groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Afro-Colombians, who make up 20 percent of Colombia’s population, have been some of the hardest hit. The conflict has displaced around 30 percent of this group while compounding difficulties that are inherent to life along the Pacific coast, where the majority of Afro-Colombians live. This is one of Colombia’s poorest areas, lacking in infrastructure, job opportunities and education. Still, now that a peace accord has been reached, Afro-Colombians are trying to heal the wounds of war in their communities the way they have for generations: through music.
For the past two decades, the Petronio Álvarez Music Festival has taken place in Valle del Cauca, in the southwestern region of Colombia. The festival showcases both traditional and modern music from the Pacific coast, including marimba and drum-based ensembles, chirimía groups (a fusion of European wind instruments and African percussion), Cauca-style violins and freestyle, a type of music inspired by traditional Pacific rhythms. At this year’s festival, it seemed that nearly every performing group intended to not only embrace their musical traditions, but also to aid in recovery from the conflict.
Take Bombo Negro, a marimba group led by Alí Cuama, the son of marimba pioneer Baudilio Cuama. Baudilio has spent a lifetime working to preserve the legacy of marimba and currulao rhythms. He’s continued doing this despite the loss of two of his sons, who were also musicians: In 2005 they were killed by a hitman in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Baudilio’s native Buenaventura. At the festival, Bombo Negro played “Marimbero de la Paz,” which narrates and honors Baudilio’s life.
“Baudilio, through his music and through teaching it to children, got up and kept on living.”
For Bombo Negro singer Leida Noviteño Hinestroza, Baudilio Cuama’s life is an example of how music can help overcome violent surroundings. “Baudilio, through his music and through teaching it to children, got up and kept on living. That is a way to be resilient.” Baudilio, now 71, continues to teach marimba to young people at a house lab he founded in Buenaventura more than a decade ago.
Then there’s Cantoras de Manato, a Cauca-style violin band using their music to reflect on living through a FARC bomb attack in 2012. This 25-year-old band based in Villa Rica, a town in the northern part of Cauca, incorporates traditional salves, or death rites, into their music. According to bandleader Ingrit Gelen Wisamano, the salves “help us to remember who passed away.” She explains, “Music is my way of expressing what I feel. The only way to be heard is through singing.”
Along with Baudilio Cuama, Cantoras de Manato is part of a tradition in which music offers an alternative path for young people tempted to join the surrounding violence. Cantoras member Jarbín Estiven Tenorio Mina, 17, joined the band four years ago to avoid taking up with an illegal group. According to Mina, music provides an alternative outlet by allowing people to “express what we feel” and “helping us to reject violence.”
The ability of music to intervene in young people’s lives has proven particularly important in communities along Colombia’s Pacific coast, where armed groups fight to control drug trafficking corridors. These groups are always looking to recruit youth to join them. To date, the Observatorio de Memoria y Conflicto has registered nearly 17,000 youth recruitment cases.
While some youth have been roped into illegal coalitions, others have been displaced by them. In 2006, inhabitants around the Yurumanguí River were displaced by right-wing paramilitary groups, but music has similarly helped many affected by this conflict to persevere.
“Besides having fun, we are able to rescue the culture, strengthen it and keep it alive in our society…”
Matachindé is a marimba group that takes its name from Easter rites performed along the Yurumanguí River. Their bandleader, Jessica Angulo, was 14 when she fled from Yurumanguí with her younger sister Gisela. Gisela, who now plays the cununo drum, says, “When I was on the banks of the Yurumanguí River, music was present in oral tradition, because my grandfather taught me how to sing. For me, music has been a way to forget about everything that I experienced in that moment [of flight].”
For Jessica, music offers “hope for young people and children. Besides having fun, we are able to rescue the culture, strengthen it and keep it alive in our society, in our region.” That holds true for Jhon Edward Valencia, who joined Matachindé as an alternative way to build a career. As he says, “I grew up without my parents, and when someone grows up without their parents it is easier to take the wrong path. However, I found music and now I’m in this band.”
For Afro-Colombian communities, music is a vital aspect in everyday spaces. It has long helped them to gather together and express themselves – not just in response to major catastrophes like the Colombian conflict, but also to commemorate funerals, religious feasts and parties which rely heavily on ritualistic singing and drumming. As jazz musician and researcher of Afro-Colombian music Adrian Sabogal says, “Afro-Colombians do not think of music as a separate, distinct part of their life. It is integrated with all of their daily activities. When they play music, how it sounds is sacred, in its right tone and feeling.”
“Through music, we have always made a haven of peace.”
Chocó, located along the northern Pacific coast, is one of those isolated cities that has been neglected by the Colombian government. More than half of its population lives in poverty. However, the Chocó-based brass band Zaperoko Chirimía, which has been playing since 2006, recently created a foundation to teach teenagers traditional music from their region.
Januar Palacios, the band’s clarinetist and an instructor to youth in some of Chocó’s most vulnerable areas, says, “The truth is, in Chocó, in every house, there is a musician. It is part of daily life. From the moment when bogas [rivermen who rowed large boats in the 19th century] started making long trips on the river, they began to recite, to sing. Through music, we have always made a haven of peace.” Palacios believes that music is “a tool for children to use their free time productively” and that it “gives them opportunities that in the future can serve them in a positive way.”
Striving to keep musical traditions alive among younger generations has helped Afro-Colombians to survive the darkest circumstances. In large part, music, in all of its ritual variations, has acted as a cultural pulse, something to recall and strengthen the legacy of their heritage. Communities along the Pacific coast have been able to seek healing, commemorate their dead and express the pain wrought by the war and its displacement. But for young musicians, traditional Afro-Colombian music is not just a refuge from gang violence, but also a way forward: Sometimes, it is the only way to carve out a future.