The next event I chose to attend in New York over the first weekend in August was "Heritage Sunday" on the 7th, which was presented by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. Held in Hearst Plaza, this year's concert featured three groups representing Afro-Colombian musical traditions. The title of the concert, "The Other Side of Colombia" seemed to refer equally to the marginalized status of the Afro-Colombian population within the broader culture and to the two coasts of Colombia, Atlantic and Pacific, each of which has distinct musical styles.
Sexteto Tabala was billed first on the event's ads, but they performed last. This was a wise programming choice whether by circumstance or by curatorial decision. As the one group who had traveled from Colombia on an extensive tour, their music and performance stood in stark contrast to the two New York-based groups, truly giving the audience an aural glimpse of different sides of Colombia. A main focus of the concert, as moderated by Michael Birenbaum Quintero, was to highlight the borrowing across traditions that has resulted in the various styles of Afro-Colombian music and also the borrowing across current Latin styles and the adoption of the 'cumbia' sound by a broad swath of Latin America.
Rebolu opened the concert, representing the Atlantic Caribbean with 'bullerengue' and 'gaita' music. Ronald Polo leads the group as composer of its songs, vocalist, and performer on the gaita. The gaita is a unique flute that has its origins among the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada mountains and is made of cactus wood, charcoal and wood for the mouthpiece, with a ducktail feather for the reed. ('Gaita' is actually a borrowed Spanish word meaning 'bagpipe' and a poor sonic description of the instrument known as 'cuisi' in Colombia.) After Polo offers beautiful solos on the gaita to represent indigenous music high in the mountains, the group then joins in on alegre, tambora, and llamador, three drums that provide the complex polyrhythms typical of much African music. Essentially as gaita players and gaita music migrated down the mountains, they were joined by women singers and drummers descended from the slave populations of the coast who performed these complex rhythmic patterns. The rhythms and the genres they spawned, such as fandango, are collectively known as 'bullerengue,' and Moris Canate masterfully led the Rebolu's ensemble of drummers in these styles. Grupo Rebolu then makes one more shift to include a brass/wind section, completing a process of fusion that has resulted in widespread popularity of such music in Colombia and most widely known as 'cumbia.'
Diego Obregon and his Grupo Chonta performed the second set or the afternoon with Obregon opening as soloist on the marimba. His self-constructed marimba was clearly closer to the African model for the instrument, the 'balafon,' than the standardized, Western instruments, and is made from the Pacific palm named 'chonta,' hence the name for the group. Obregon's solo was the highlight of the afternoon to my ears, demonstrating his ability to improvise and also to carry the energy of the audience through his melodies and various textures on a single instrument. The group's set followed a similar trajectory as that of Rebolu - gradually adding elements to create a unique fusion of styles. In Chonta's case these elements draw on music used to worship the saints that are particular to the isolated black populations of the Pacific rainforests while also incorporating newer sounds of the latest popular styles.
While the first two groups clearly demonstrated the mixing of various harmonic textures with African solo instruments and complex rhythms, Sexteto Tabala's style was a contrast through the absence of any pitched instruments save for the bass instrument 'marimba', a type of mbira or 'thumb piano.' In this case the instrument was anything but for the thumbs, as it was a large box that the player sat on while plucking the metal tongues with multiple fingers. It kept a vague bass line to anchor the percussive texture and call-and-response vocals. Though it took me a while to adjust to the sparser texture (that is, without harmonic underpinnings), the reward of making the shift was to perceive the sheer drive of the call and response vocals and the trance-inducing qualities of the music. Despite, or perhaps because of, the sparser sound of this group, the clear reference to Cuban 'son' music was easier to detect, namely the 3 + 2 clave pattern over a cycle of 8 beats. As the moderator Quintero explained, 'sexteto' music is actually the result of contact between Afro-Cuban engineers who came to Colombia in the 1930s to manage sugar plantations and the Afro-Colombians who worked for them.
Quintero's commentary and interaction with the musicians and audience were central to the success of the concert as were his program notes. At times the audience tended to get restless during his comments wanting to hear more music, but he provided just the right amount of information explaining the cultural context of various songs and picking out musical attributes to listen for. Actually I was amazed at the patience of the audience on a hot and sticky afternoon as there was not the usual come-and-go during breaks that I've seen at other free outdoor events. Clearly the Colombian community and other interested followers came out and were committed to the afternoon.