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South America: Black Music in Praise of Oxalá and Other Gods

South America: Black Music in Praise of Oxalá and Other Gods cover art

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About this Album

Throughout South America, the descendants of the millions of slaves brought to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese still pay homage to the pantheon of their African ancestors, often, albeit, under the identities of Christian saints. This album features their vibrant worship music, drawn from recordings made in Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil. Musicologist David Lewiston recalls his travels through South America to record this music:

In April 1968, I flew to Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, a sprawling city of some nine million people, located more than 8,000 feet above sea level on a mountain-rimmed plateau in the center of the country. It’s a mixture of beautiful, old, Spanish colonial buildings, dynamic modern buildings, and bleak, depressing neighborhoods of drab brick buildings occupied by an unending influx of rural poor.

I spent a few days there, just long enough to ask about the country’s traditional music. For that, I visited Maestro Guillermo Abadía, jefe (head) of folklore at the national conservatory. He suggested that I head south and visit musicians living on the Pacific Coast near Colombia’s border with Ecuador, the home of powerful folk genres such as the currulao and cumbia.

Along the way, I met Mariela Obrégon, a doctor in the remote coastal community of Guapi. She suggested I make a point of visiting: Because of the town’s isolation, its music had been conserved with remarkable purity. A few days later I flew down to Colombia’s southerly Pacific coast in a six-seater, single-engine plane to visit. The heavy rain in the region forms myriad rivers, which flow down to the Pacific. While roads connected major inland communities with the coast, there were so many rivers that there were few bridges or roads between coastal communities. The only forms of transport were boat and light plane. Guapi is situated a few miles inland from the ocean, on the banks of the river of the same name, which was lined with pole houses and lots of dugout canoes. Even the kids had small canoes, the local equivalent of bicycles.

This community of a few thousand people was entirely black except for three mestizos—two of the doctors at the hospital where Dr. Obrégon worked, and the priest. The local Spanish contained many words from their ancestors’ African language, Yoruba. Apparently the Spaniards who settled Colombia found that the indigenous Indians did badly when used as forced labor in the coast’s Equatorial heat and humidity, so they imported African slaves who could withstand the difficult climatic conditions.

The conveniences of 20th-century urban living were in short supply in Guapi, and the doctors I met were starved for diversion, so they welcomed my appearance. In short order, a group of ladies turned up to record muertos, songs for the dead. Day by day other groups appeared, and soon I became familiar with the distinctly African sound of Guapi’s music, with a soloist singing a phrase that was answered by the other singers. While some of the more solemn songs like the muertos were performed a cappella, others were supported by drums.

One evening we made an excursion in the hospital’s launch upriver to the house of the Torres family, well-known local singers and musicians. The men of the family played the instruments while the women sang. On the advice of my hosts, I carried a bottle of local rum, called aguardiente (loosely, “tooth preservative”) as a modest gift for the performers. As they drank, the family produced a number of drums and other percussion instruments to accompany their singing. Against the powerful rhythms of the drums, the four cantadoras (female singers) sang lustily, laying down a dynamic cross-rhythm, which they marked with their guasá (bamboo rattles). The songs were in the African responsorial form, with the soloist belting out a phrase that was answered by the other singers.

After a week, I left my new friends and flew 100 miles north to Buenaventura, the country’s principal Pacific port, whose inhabitants, like Guapi’s, were mostly black, descendants of slaves. Inquiring about the city’s folkloric music, I met Dr. Emiro Gonzáles Paz, the director of the local hospital, who had formed a musical group, El Conjunto Folklorico Musical del Pacifico, among the local dockworkers. Dr. Gonzáles was extremely cooperative, quickly calling together the members of his conjunto for a late evening recording session. As I had come to expect, they had a marimba and several drums to create the musical foundation for their boisterous songs.

Upon my return to Bogotá, I compared notes with Maestro Abadía. He was fascinated by my new recordings, and shared some of his own with me. He told me that the music I had recorded in Guapi and Buenaventura was typical of the black population along Colombia's Pacific coast. Most of the songs were currulaos, in which the rhythm section lays down a six-eight pulse, over which the singers perform a three-four polyrhythm. The recordings by the Torres family were of particular interest.

From Bogotá, it was on to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, to continue the circuit of South America. Vicente Mena, director of the city’s Museo Indigenista, proposed that I visit the black inhabitants of the remote valley of Chalguayaco, in the north of the country, which I did. Then I continued down the west coast of South America to Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, before moving over to the east coast to visit Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and then Brazil. There, in Salvador da Bahia, I experienced the culture of the primarily black inhabitants of this great port city; it didn’t take much asking to encounter inspiring musicians.

—David Lewiston, Maui, 2003


Recorded in Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil by David Lewiston
Originally released in 1970
Production supervisor: Peter K. Siegel
Remix engineer: Peter Granet
Mastered by Robert C. Ludwig
Coordinator: Teresa Sterne
Re-mastered by Robert C. Ludwig

Design: Doyle Partners
Cover photograph: Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos, Brazil
Additional photographs: David Lewiston

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