Class banned

If you’re putting something off, there is no better way to motivate yourself than adding something even more insurmountable to your to-do list.


On Tuesday I managed to cross off a stream of menial tasks that had been pestering away at me for months: I paid my credit card bill, got my boots re-heeled and even went for a run all so I didn’t have to face up to the ever-nearing deadline in my diary: Writing My Colombia Report.

And for me going for a run is a BIG DEAL. This is the general process I go through: (you might need to click on it to see it properly)


I then generally spend the next week barely able to step onto a bus, let alone climb the stairs to the top deck. And more fool me in those moments when my coffee buzz gets the better of me, and I charge two at a time up to the top to claim a window seat, happy-as-Larry until I need to get off again: For the downward climb is always far far worse. I begin my waddle long before my stop is announced, and only just make it to the bottom as a the doors are closing, holding up hoards of angry commuters who know how to exercise properly.

I begin to feel like an octogenarian every time I have to pick something up from below eye-level, cursing the world and exhaling loudly as once again my legs seize up. So much for getting another run in on Thursday… it’s going to be a fair few months before those trainers get some more action.

One thing I have had to pick up off the floor a lot recently is school guitars. I am lucky enough to be living the dream as the Anti-Govian, slightly oxymoronical ‘Part-Time Teacher’, educating the youths on all things musical.

Well not all things. Mostly just campaigning for the RSPCG – Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to GUITARS.

This is no longer Sarita with her guitarrita: this is Sarah with twenty five, full sized, out-of-tune, broken-bodied, string-impoverished guitars. And twenty five slightly jittery teenagers to accompany them. Although I’m not sure we’re ready for any ‘accompanying’ yet.


I finally empathise with Phoebe in friends when she tells Joey, ‘do you want to learn to play the guitar? Well DON’T TOUCH ONE!’ as the main learning objective of my lessons currently is to learn how to put a guitar gently on the floor without killing anyone nearby.

I try to remember my positive behaviour management: ‘Well done, Jimmy, you’ve put your guitar on the floor without blinding the person next to you… well done, Kim, your guitar still has six strings – excellent musicianship!’

There have been tears: the song we chose to learn seemed to have been played at everyone’s Gran’s funeral/parental break-up/dog’s burial but my students have shown surprising resilience in learning the chords. One quite challenging girl had a massive turn around last lesson, led most of the class in a guitar tutorial and gave feedback to all the people who’d made progress at the end! I’ll be out of a job soon if I’m not careful.

My other classes have been less resilient with new music.

I did not earn much street cred in the first few lessons, choosing songs to do with the class that were not in the current top 10 and therefore ‘Old Fashioned’

‘Miss, why are we doing music from the olden days’, followed by a chorus of ‘INIT!’

Guys, this is Aviici, this was out about three months ago, I went to his closing show in Ibiza. Work with me here – I’m still listening to music from when I was in Year 9!

So with trepidation I flicked to reveal the slide of the four new songs that they would be doing for the class band. This time, carefully chosen with my in-the-know head of department who had warned me that anything pre-2014 could be a little bit ‘out-there’.

There it was: four top 10 hits.

‘YES!!!! Clean Bandit! YES!!!!! Happy! Woo! I wanna do that one! No that one! Thanks, Miss!’

PHEW. I could not put up with another week of me dancing around the room singing ‘Wake Me Up When It’s All Over’ at the top of my voice, meaning every word of the lyrics, while the class looked at me, bored, mouthing the words to humour me, and rolling their eyes at my serious musical faux pas. I think fondly of the days when I would buy a 99p single from Virgin Megastore on Saturday afternoon and listen to it on repeat for the next six months… Oh the bittersweet invention of instant download. Instant download is the reason that on Saturday night I bought sixteen ‘hits’ from iTunes when drunkenly hogging the dj slot at a friend’s 30th. There are some classics that I’ll have for ever, but there are also some crowd-pleasers which keep catching me out when I shuffle all my songs. (Backstreet Boys, Waka Waka, Spice Girls, Take That – I’ll let you decide which goes in which category).

But now I’m trying to get my year 9s to be more resilient with their piano playing.

‘How do you play the riff for ‘Rather Be?’

I show them.

They have a go.

Kid, as expected, gets a couple of notes wrong.

‘Can’t do it. Too hard. I give up.’

‘You’ve played it ONCE. Try again.’

‘Too hard. I’m playing the drums?’

I consider telling them my sob stories of years of frustrating piano lessons when I just couldn’t play that Chopin Nocturne, but not sure it’s quite the vibe. I sit down with them again.

‘You can do it – try again!’

‘N0. This is long. Can I change to guitar? Can I do a different piece? Can I go in a different group? Can I go to a different school?’

Over the course of an hour most children have tried out every instrument and every piece of music and as the bell goes, I can’t help thinking about me and my running, report-writing, bill-paying habits – am I just as bad?

But there have been a few who have persevered and have learned the whole piece by ear, or who are singing beautiful solos and drum beats and I start to day dream about all the incredible things we will be able to do over the year: mash-ups that will make Glee blush, whole class bands-turned-end-of-term-flashmobs, five-part harmonies for Happy that rivals the original… It seems a bit crazy, but if I am pushing them not to give up when the piano part gets hard, I need to do the same with the teaching!

‘Don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high and reach the top…’

Now THAT would be a great one for class band. Think I’ll be singing solo though…


Un mensaje desde Colombia a Inglaterra…

I’ve been back in the UK for nearly three weeks now, and already my research trip seems depressingly far away… 

It’s frightening how quickly Oystercards, overpriced coffees and frostbite can become a reality, and how your main wardrobe item is no longer your flipflops but your thermal undies.

I now fully understand the term ‘hugging the radiator’

I’m trying hard to keep Colombia alive: my Petronio Álvarez scarf drapes proudly on my windowsill – the memories of the marimba fervently overriding the roar of the south London traffic. The play list on my phone is about 85% Pacific music, which a Latino-loving friend and I decided should be shared with all London commuters on a night bus last Saturday – I like to think of it as a cultural ASBO. The British don’t tend to show emotions, but I think the N159 were dancing currulao inside.

And I’m keeping Colombia alive by talking about it postively as much as possible, including to a group of A-level and IB students studying Spanish at my old 6th form college. When asked how dangerous they felt Colombia was, they all felt VERY: ‘all drugs, gangs and kidnappings, isn’t it?’

My photos, music and videos helped the students see how the Colombians’ passion and pride for their culture is in total contradiction to its infamous reputation in the press. After 90 minutes, many had changed their minds about the country and a handful were asking for travel tips for their gap years. 


The tourism slogan reads ‘Colombia, the risk is that you want to stay’

So in response to Colombia’s unjust reputation, I wanted to share with you all a message from a 19 year old musician I met in Santander de Quilachao in the department of Cauca (near Cali). She belongs to a group called Renovación, a pacific-folk music group made up mostly of young adults. Álvaro, the lead, has invested in these youngsters to carry on the legacy of their region.



Me and Álvaro


I went to see a rehearsal back in November and was blown away by the passion felt by each and every member for the music and their responsibility for it’s longevity. It was also by far the warmest reception I had had. Santander is not the safest of areas; there is still a strong guerilla presence in some of the surrounding towns, but Álvaro made sure I was escorted everywhere.



Renovación with Álvaro, centre front and Diana, to the left (grey cardigan)

This is Renovación in rehearsal:

  • Many of these upbeat songs are sung at childrens’ funerals. They believe that when children die, it should be celebrated with joy, as a child has not yet had a chance to sin. Wakes often go on for many days with constant singing and ‘alegría’.
  • The dancers are sometimes pivoting on one foot. This goes back to the time of slavery, when one shackle was released for them to dance.
  • Álvaro has also started to run ‘cultiturismo’ – cultural tourism, where you not only get to know the region’s landscapes, but also experience something cultural such as local music or poetry. If you are in Colombia and are interested in finding out more, please contact:


              The signature instrument of Santander de Quilichao is the fiddle – this boy had only been playing for a year

 After a near-polished rehearsal, we had time to have a chat and for us all to ask any questions we wanted. They all asked me what people thought of Colombia in the UK, and I was pretty honest but said that slowly things were changing. Then one girl, 19, called Diana said, ‘I have a message for the people in England’ and this is her message:

We are all young adults with a heritage, a legacy from our African and Spanish ancestors and with every song, every lyric, every instrument, every dance, every smile we express a feeling that comes from deep within us. We do this in order to preserve our history, so that all we’ve been left is not lost, and so that people who don’t know the good side of Colombia can get to know it and can fall in love with it a little more…


Our region Cauca has been one of the regions most affected by the Guerrilla and by drug trafficking, but it’s also one of the places with the largest cultural diversity: We have indigenous people, afro-descendants, ‘mestizos’: we have a really beautiful mix and this has generated so many rhythms, such a variety of music and culture – so you can see that despite the bad things there are, or were, because now things are improving, there are also things that need rescuing and we need help both from people in our country as abroad so that we can continue to develop,  so that we don’t stay stagnated.


The message I have for everyone in England is that Colombia is not just a country of violence – the violence has diminished a lot – it’s a country with a lot of culture, with a real cultural and natural diversity, with a lot of fauna and flora, and the food… aaah!! (she laughs).  It’s a really beautiful country and whoever visits it wants to come back. We hope to have a lot of English people here and we hope to be in England very soon showing you a small slice of what we have, and leaving a part of us there too..

 Over the following months I will be sharing my next steps towards a better image of Colombia in the UK. Some of this with be with schools, some through local Latino communities, and lots through music starting with a Spanish-speaking (or singing!) choir – watch this space!




iQue viva Pasto, carajo!


Oh, we thought we were so smart…

…we had totally cracked the system by arriving at Cali bus terminal at 11:30pm. We would surely be at the front of the queue when the ticket booths selling bus tickets to Pasto finally opened at 3am: the envy of all other tourists; an impressed nod from the locals – these gringos really know their ‘filas!’

Oh how naive we were.

It turned out we were not the only people with this bright idea. When we arrived at 11:50pm we were confronted with a queue so enormous it curled around the whole terminal. The look on peoples’ faces and the state of their clothes suggested they’d been there for days: people had brought blankets, pillows, snacks and thermos flasks ready for the tough conditions to follow. When I asked people what day they were currently releasing tickets for, they looked at me with a blank expression, as if they’d been in the queue so long they were slowly going mad: a terminal torture chamber. No-one knew what day it was anymore. But I did. It was the 2nd January and everyone in the world was travelling to Pasto for the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros – one of Colombia’s biggest events of the year, and recently awarded UNESCO heritage status.


At the front of the queue it turned into a bottle neck about 6 people wide and 12 people deep.  There seemed to be absolutely no system and every few minutes the crowd screamed and waved their fists, as presumably new bus tickets were released. It was absolute chaos.

There was ONE security guard in the entire terminal who was getting swamped with questions. When I asked him the best way to get to Pasto, he told me ‘to get to Pasto you need to… have a lot of patience.’


There were a couple of other queues for smaller bus companies so we split up. Kate’s queue was showing promise but about 1:15am just ground to a halt as the one person behind the desk left without warning. Everyone just slept on their bags and waited. Intermittently someone would try and push in greeted by a chorus of ‘la fila la fila LA FIIIILAAAAAAAA!!!!!’ (the line!) People were NOT putting up with queue-jumpers for these tickets…


Every now and then a ticket tout would run through the terminal announcing a new ‘bus’ that had arrived and a surge of people would sprint to the window to try and get a ticket, but always came back moments later saying they’d sold out. I think they were just trying to get people out of the queue.

ImageCan you see here that the man behind the desk is reading the newspaper?!

I asked some nearby women about the ticket ‘system’. Of about 9 bus companies running service to Pasto, only one sold tickets in advance and these sold out in minutes. The other companies only sold tickets for that same day, because of the huge quantities of numbers travelling. This didn’t make sense, ‘but surely, if they know people will be travelling they should sell tickets in advance.’ ‘Yes, but they don’t know if the buses will be coming so they don’t want to sell tickets for buses that don’t exist.’

And so it all became clear. There weren’t enough buses to cope with the amount of people. They had no idea what buses were coming, or when. When they learned of a bus’s whereabouts, they sold a ticket. In the meantime – we would just have to wait.


It was 4:30am before we finally got to the front of the queue. They gave us tickets for 7:15am – I’ve never been so happy in my life!

When the bus finally arrived I felt like Rose in the Titanic when the rescue boats come back for her…


It didn’t matter that our 8 hour bus journey was actually 10, or that ‘The Call’, the worst film of all time was playing (Halle Berry what were you THINKING!) because when we finally arrived in Pasto, Luis, our ANGEL was waiting to meet us. He took us to his house, gave us towels, showers, fresh clothes, food and water… and we were ready to face the music.


We spent the first evening watching the opening procession of carnaval where the highlight were some dancing guinea pigs (cuys). We were told to wear ‘ponchos viejos’ and clothes we didn’t mind getting ruined.


The Blancos y Negros dates back to the time of the slaves where on the 5th January, the day before epiphany, everyone (slaves and masters) would paint their faces black and on the 6th, everyone would paint their faces white. This has merged now into a 7 day festival where the black (facepaint) and the white – (chalk and foam called ‘cariocas’) is chucked and smeared in abundance throughout the entire week.


Before we went outside…

You are never safe at carnaval – especially when kids are around – they are the worse. The only thing to do is to cover your face us much as possible (bandana, big sunglasses, hat) and arm yourself with at least one, if not two cariocas… let the battle commence.


Day 2 was probably one of the most unforgettable days of my life – nothing could have prepared me. I have never laughed so much or been so covered in crap and not given a hoot!


From midday until midnight we took part in a foam warfare accompanied by quisindisindi (Andean folk music) and merengue mashup, a LOT of face paint and perhaps a couple of drops of local spirit – fondly referred to as aguardiente (when in Pasto…) and just got involved!


We had to have a day of rest – to wash the flour out of our hair and the face paint off our faces, although I still can’t get that UV off my glasses almost two weeks later. And then we slept, ready for Day 6 – the procession.


Psychedelic madness did ensue: a giant Mad Hatter that sneered from side to side; a mermaid whose tail opened up to reveal a band; an elephant whose trunk squirted foam… this was the procession ‘las carrocas’ (or floats) that are made throughout the year.


There were also incredible dancers and musicians parading through the streets:


This time we were on a balcony, so far from the squirting foam, but we had an amazing view of people getting covered (the policeman get hit the worst). But the kids still got us on the balcony, and crossing the street was still a near-death experience.


We ended our trip to Pasto with a bag of very dirty clothes, a week’s worth of sleep due and some excellent if not hazy memories. We wrote a song to say thank you to Luis and his Dad for being such amazing hosts. Thank you, Pasto!


Feliz Calidad

Happy New Year to everyone! I hope you all had a fantastic time wherever you were. Hope 2014 has started with a BANG!

A little bit of catching up to do this end, but I thought I would cater for those back-to-work-brains by showering you with some wittily-annotated pics rather than another musicology essay (but we LOVE those essays, Sarah!) Don’t worry, next time I will be back with my fact-filled stream of consciousness and return that missing intellectual/totes-GuardianWeekendesque read to your lives…

So with my main research period over, since I last wrote my sister and I have been having some adventures….

…we trekked in inappropriate shoewear with a ukulele in tow to Parque Tayrona


…had a very chilled birthday in tranquil Palomino – yoga on the beach before breakfast, daaaahling!


…enjoyed yet another stunning sunset in Taganga – these sunsets really do get monotonous after a while.. give us some rainclouds, Colombia!


…got altitude sickness scaling a glacier in Parque Nacional Los Nevados, and paid about £50 for the pleasure


…chilled our (coffee) beans in Salento and saw some very tall palm trees. (Kate wants me to tell you about the bamboo trees we saw which grow 5 centimetres every 24 hours #fact).



Kate has really grown this holiday.

…and we did lots of Spanish and coaching exchanges. Kate has been a superstar coaching me through the next steps of my project and I’m pretty down with my imperfect subjunctives so we made a great team! Obviously this was also an excuse for lots of coffee shops – travelling can be tough sometimes. The ukulele was very present – we’ve got quite a little repertoire going now. Whenever we can we rock out some of our duos and have received everything from free Turrón to a free night in a hostel in exchange for a short gig!


Obviously travelling with Kate has meant our vocabulary has synchronised to the point of silly where ironic hashtagging soon plagued and disrupted all normal conversation and suffixing all words with -dog an essential part of our vocabulary. Luckily some of the other travellers had no choice but to get on board including J-dog (Julia), J-dog (Janev) and J-dog (Joey) #legends.

And then we arrived at the Feria de Cali – THE week to dance Salsa, in THE Salsa capital of the world. 


Kate and I stayed in an apartment for a week with views of the whole city. When we weren’t dancing Salsa, we were listening to it as most houses blasted it out of their speakers day and night. The most-played song was Cali Pachanguero by Grupo Niche who we saw in concert on one of the nights.

Listen to it here and imagine us trying to get to sleep and then giving up and dancing on the roof terrace.


We spent Christmas Day watching a Salsa parade where it’s totally BYOC (Bring Your Own Cowbell) and then Christmas evening at a free concert. Everyone here can DANCE and if they are good leaders it makes you feel like you can dance too. I have to totally unwrite my Teach First Training here though as for girls it’s totally Learning NOT to Lead…


I’ve been to Cali a few times but finally made it to Menga, the after-hours Salsa district where people dance dance dance til dawn. On this day, some of the other gringas decided to buy each other typical caleña outfits and hit the town as locals. The key was to make it obvious that it was a set up, but still look presentable. I think I nailed it in my leopard T-shirt.


We also relived the Petronio Álvarez festival with Pacific Day where we sampled the local delicacies, got our marimba on, and I got to share with Kate all the music I have been researching! Look how happy she is about it:


We welcomed in the New Year watching fireworks from a roof terrace after a good old Salsa-jam with all my local instruments that I have picked up along the way.


Cali, you did us proud!

Here are some more great Salsa songs to listen to!



But it wasn’t all happy. Kate and I also visited Cali zoo and saw a very sad bear…


´Yo me voy para Palenque tierra de la libertad´ – An African Adventure in San Basilio…


Students waiting for rehearsal at the dance school

Palenquero and the people of Palenque

Back in 2004 when I studied Spanish Linguistics at University I learned about a creole language called ´Palenquero´ which was spoken by a very small community in northern Colombia, San Basilio de Palenque. It was a community of about 3000 people hidden away in the north of Colombia which is said to be the first and only remaining African civilisation formed by escaped slaves during the 17th century. Despite the passing of time, its inhabitants live exactly as they did many years ago, and have firmly kept their traditions and african rituals. Palenque has come to simbolise freedom, as everyone who came to live there was automatically free. Right from the moment I got my grant, this was one place I was fascinated to see.


What is a creole?

A creole is formed when a group of people without a common language are thrown together. All their languages go into the mix and they manage to find a way to communicate with one another, but it will be very basic, and probably lack grammar. This is known as a pidgin. Then, the children of this community will hear the pidgin and interpret it as a proper language, adding their own grammar to it and creating a full language – a creole.

In the case of Palenquero, its lexicon is heavily borrowed from Spanish and Portuguese, the language of the slave traders who brought slaves over from Angola and the Congo and local African language Bantu languages, especially Kikongo.


First impressions

I was fascinated about San Basilio de Palenque and when I met some musicians in Cartagena who were from there, I asked straight away if I could come and visit their music and dance school. Of course as always  I was very welcome!

I got a local bus which dropped me on the side of road and then motos were waiting to transport people to the community. It was a good 15 minute journey, going deeper and deeper into the countryside and the roads becoming muddier as we approached Palenque.

I was dropped off and saw loads of people milling about in the street and in shops. I felt more than ever that I stood out as a white gringa. I went to meet Andreu, who I had met in Cartagena. He introduced me to my host, Solbays, a lovely lady with five young daughters. Her husband owns the town soundsystems and they had been mounted outside her house for a massive party. The music was so loud that we had to take our chairs half way up the street to have a conversation. We had a chat about what I was doing there, she was really helpful and said I could ask her anything about the culture.


On first impressions you may think that Palenque is poor, but it´s not. No-one is living on the streets, no-one is dying of hunger. But it is a very simple way of living. Showers are a bucket of cold water, all the daughters sleep in the same bed. The girls had already broken up for holidays and when I asked them what they do each day, they just shrugged their shoulders ´nothing´. They spend a lot of the day watching TV and people just wander into each others´ houses to say hi. It´s a very fluid community. Everyone seems to be related somehow, or be very good friends. It had a nice feel to it.

There were so many pigs on the street! Not police, I mean like animals. They were chilling out there, like they were dogs or cats. Just so casual.


Batata Music and Dance school

To have ´batata´ in the caribbean is to have strength.

I was given a chaperone, Solbays´ 13 year old daughter (also called Solbays which confused me for a while) and she escorted me to the Music and Dance school who were having their daily rehearsal. THIS is what the children and young people do in Palenque – they play the drums and they dance! About fifiteen young boys raced into the room and starting shaking and dancing and drumming on the tables. It was like the start of most period 5 lessons at Uxbridge, except this time this was what they were supposed to do. Then the girls arrived, who all strutted in, made-up, very conscious of how they looked. It seems the girls grow up fast here.

I absolutely loved this rehearsal. It was one of the best things I have seen. There was just SUCH energy and letting go! I thought about so many of my students at Uxbridge and how much they would have benefited from something like this. (I particularly thought of Iain Gordon!)

Watch the video here and see if you can spot the smallest drummer in the world.


I asked one of the students about what the music and dance can tell us about the culture and this is what he told me:

    • ImageThe dance comes from when the slaves used to dance for their masters and could show: love and desire, pain, non-conforming, and sometimes just making fun of the Spanish!
  • The ‘lumbalum’ is a religious dance where people dance around a dead body. The women rub their stomachs to show the pain they are feeling is similar to labour.
  • The Palenqueros believe in three worlds:
  1. The world we live in
  2. The ´más allá´ (the beyond) – when people are ill they believe that their deceased relatives visit them and tell them how to get better. People often wake up from dreams saying that a mother or an aunt has told them to eat a certain thing, Imageor to be in a certain place.
  3. The world of the ´mujana´ or the ´chimbunde´ – an imaginary creature who has  become a reality. He lives under the water and if children are naughty he takes them into the water…
  • ´Leko´ is the Palenquero way of crying. He explained to me that they don´t try to cover up their pain, they really let it out and vocalise it.
  • ´Mapalé´ is the dance which shows the male and female slaves in their moment of freedom where they had fun – these dance moves are quite sexual and explicit – slightly weird when it´s 11 year olds performing it!
  • Image


That night, coincidentally, a famous musician Humberto Pernett was performing in the village with two locals.They had moved the sound system to the main square and were filming it all for a documentary.

The next day, the documentary team were still there so I managed to sit in on the rehearsals and chat to the musicians. I even got a drum lesson by one of the lads! It was really hard! He kept laughing at me. He was telling me the rhythm but I just couldn´t understand it. See me doing a VERY simple beat, here.

I decided to stay another night and watch some more of the rehearsals, this time also getting to see ´Kombilesa Mi´, a youth hip hop group where I am also happy to see girls both playing instruments and rapping! LISTEN HERE and HERE

I left the next morning on a bus back to Cartagena. I felt I would like to have stayed longer there, but also felt I needed more of a structured purpose. It is quite a slow pace of life if you don´t have anything to do! I met some people doing really interesting work there like a community architect who was working with the locals to build a kindergarten. I would love to come back here and study the music properly – maybe another trip… (do I say this everywhere I go…?!)


Humberto Pernett jamming with local musicians for the documentary

I´m now back in Cali and on my first day bumped into Andrés who is the guitarist for Herencia de Timbiqui. I asked him if he had ever visited Palenque and he said that funnily enough that day they were releasing a new single which was inspired by Palenque and written in Palenquero.

It´s called I a kele kandá – which means ´yo quiero cantar´ (I want to sing) LISTEN HERE! And feel the African rhythms run through your veins…

I have had a geeky go and trying to translate the Palenquero using a bilingual text I found on the internet! Any Palenqueros out there, please help me with it!


(I´m going to Palenque – land of liberty where they strongly maintain the African culture. I want to sing, for my people)


(I want to tell you what you want to know about Benkos Bioho, father of freedom (Benkos Bioho was the founder of Palenque)


Posá – house              Combilisá – friends               Asenda – was           ane – they           tiela – land


(Bata taught us the value of our culture, let´s look after it with love, so that it never ends)

‘Las calles de Cartagena… aquella historia vivió…’ – Catching up with the Caribbean in the colonial capital

Torre de la Reloj en Cartagena’s old town
So last week my travels took me to Cartagena de Indias in the north coast of Colombia, one of the first ports the Spanish arrived at during the conquista, and boy do you know it!
The verisimilitude to Andalusia was uncanny –  white washed houses sprouting wisteria, shaded plazas with fountains, and streets so narrow you are practically having breakfast with the people in the hostel opposite you.
ImageThis could be Barrio de Santa Cruz in Seville…
I walked around the first morning feeling immensely happy because it reminded me SO much of my year abroad in Seville. But unfortunately I could not find a  real Café con Leche…. (Colombia may produce a lot of coffee, but finding a good cup of coffee here is a different story)
This is the first time I have really felt the presence of the Spanish conquista. Sure, I’ve seen ‘colonial architecture’ out and about in Latin America but as you reach the city walls here, it is a carbon copy of Cartagena in Murcia, Spain. So whilst this is a beautiful city, you have a constant reminder of just how thorough the conquista was.
Even in the main square, the museum there hosts a permanent exhibition about the inquisition: This is where the inaugural event for the ‘Mercado Cultural del Caribe’ was taking place – a four day event of music, talks and networking for artists, managers and enthusiasts of Caribbean music from all over the region. As the performers took to the stage the first night you had a strange juxtaposition of incredible music and then a ‘hanging platform’ where the locals were tortured during the Spanish inquisition!
The mercado was centered around ferias and festivals of Colombia and had representatives from about 50 different cultural events. There are so many festivals in this country and I feel I could live here for five years and still not cover them all!
I was thinking the other day that it would be really useful to have a cultural edition of the Lonely Planet because so many of the places I have visited are not only not mentioned in the guide but don’t even appear on the map!
(In some ways it’s been nice to discover new things that no-one else sees and it’s the fact that they are so unvisited that makes them so special… it’s always a fine line between getting people to experience a community and the community completely changing to support the tourism.)
But any mention of culture is limited to a couple of festivals at the back of a section, usually with wrong dates.
So at the Mercado Cultural I met a lovely girl, Catalina, who probably could have saved me a lot of time and googling on this trip! She has set up a website called COLOMBIAFESTIVA who help you plan your trip around all the cultural events. I have already asked if I could work for  her if and when they need a link in the UK. Check it out here.
In the four days I was introduced to a whole new wave of musical styles: Bullerengue, Puya, Cumbia, Tambor, Gaita…  – most are much faster than the pacific, accompanied by polyrhythmic drumbeats, rapid dance moves and usually a repetitive vocal call and response.  Many of these dances originate from the slave trade where slaves had to perform for their masters and you do experience and incredible energy as these musicians and dancers perform. And age is no barrier. Some of the best dancers and drummers were tiny – everyone learns to dance here.
Gaita: Humberto Pernett, renombrado Colombian gaita artista who performed at the festival on the last day.
The ‘gaita’ is one of the main traditional instruments of the Caribbean coast of Colombia and people go MAD for it. Now Gaita is the Spanish word for Bagpipes so I until now had steered pretty clear. I’d met a girl from Argentina who was raving about the ‘Festival de Gaitas’ and I couldn’t understand how people could stomach a whole weekend of that.
But here it doesn’t mean bagpipes (see photo above) – it is an instrument played like a clarinet or an oboe but sounds a bit like panpipes.
If you want to hear some gaita in action, check out ‘Mujeres de mi Tierra’ (above), a group who performed at the festival. I was so happy after all my research to see a group made up PURELY OF WOMEN! What an inspiration! And they are ace. Check them out here.
One of my happiest moments this weekend was seeing a group I interviewed in Cali, Grupo  Bahía, perform at this festival. There were loads of people from Cali in the crowd and they have a dance called ‘currulao’ which someone leads at the front and then everyone dances in unison. Having been in Cali and getting to know this music over the last few months, it was really special to experience it in a new setting; to sense that familiarity. It’s been a whistlestop tour, but this is definitely a style I have fallen in love with. When ‘te vengo a cantar‘  was played, everyone went crazy. I danced so much that my flipflop broke and I had to hobble back to my hostel to change my shoes. Those havaianas have been with me for a long time, but if they had to leave my feet, dancing to Pacific music with a bunch of Caleños in a beautiful plaza in Cartagena was a good way for them to go!
The head of the band is pretty famous and is interviewed all the time so I didn’t think he would remember me but he came and gave me a massive hug when he saw me! I dared to ask him if he had time to give me marimba lessons and he said he could fit a few in. How exciting!
These travels have really taken me all over the country and I was starting to feel a little bit overwhelmed by getting to know yet another musical genre! Every place I go opens a million new doors of new sounds, rhythms and traditions so it’s definitely time to stop and take stock of everything I have seen this far.
But you know me, I can’t say no and I couldn’t resist fitting in one more visit before I stop for Christmas. This time to the fascinating community of San Basilio de Palenque… watch this space…


Women and Children – the emerging talent of Vallenato


Rehearsal in the hot afternoon sun in Valledupar

So my secret PA was clearly enjoying some annual leave on my second couple of days in Valledupar… Of my five meetings planned the day before, only ONE of them happened!

I must be honest that two of them were cancelled by me (!) One thing I am learning as my research progresses is to say NO. Because everyone wants to help you, it is tempting to take everyone up on their offers, but I also have to ask myself ‘is interviewing this person who is friends with a guy who may have once picked up an accordion ten years ago the optimum use of my time?’ When you first arrive somewhere, you don’t know who you are going to get the chance to meet or interview, so you have to say yes to whatever comes your way, but in Valledupar I was spoiled for choice!

I really hate cancelling arrangements though. And I do believe in sticking to things. But when they’ve only been organised a few hours earlier, it somehow doesn’t seem so drastic… The first time I cancelled an arrangement in Colombia I had a mini-breakdown about it. When my friend asked me why I felt bad and I said ‘it looks unprofessional’ he gave me a really strange look. Teach for Austria values (and Gebhard’s voice) are still very much in my head. ‘Professionalitaet!!!!’

So instead of rushing around the city interviewing three people (I am also learning not to RUSH here!) I took my time to interview ONE person. And she was an absolute legend. Since being in Colombia a side-topic that I have become really interested in is women in music (or lack of). This is obviously not my main focus, but it is something that I cannot help but absorb. So it was so refreshing to meet Estela Duran Escalona, niece of the late Rafael Escalona, a very famous vallenato composer. We met for coffee in her office and had a good chat about women in the vallenato music industry. She explained that it was a very male dominated realm and through family connections she was invited into the circle to sing with her brother. Until then having a female singer in vallenato was unheard of but she was surprised at how welcoming the scene had been to her as a woman: The problem is not that women are not welcome in the industry, it’s just that they don’t think to participate. She told me that they are now having a separate vallenato competition just for women, and for young girls as well. Times are changing slowly… I’m going to type up our interview when I get back to the UK because I think it will be a really interesting read. I asked her to sing something and she just sat on the sofa in her office and performed for me, while her co-workers just got on with their daily tasks. I thought it was really funny but she thought nothing of it!


Estela holding a photo of herself with her late uncle

I also had the pleasure of visiting two music schools where children come to learn traditional vallenato. They choose either the accordion, the guajaracha, the drum or singing.


 A girl playing the Guajaracha



Full concentration…

One school in particular blew me away! The kids were just so talented and you could see they really felt the music. I watched two brothers aged 10 and 12 perform for about ten minutes and it was so beautiful. The twelve year old literally beamed the whole way through, dancing with the accordion around the room, improvising with a dexterity in his fingers of a professional, and his brother, slightly in his shadow and a bit more modest just sang with such purity… I was honestly gobsmacked!


The teachers at the school were really welcoming and I took advantage of the complete lack of structure of the lessons to bag myself a ten minute accordion lesson. MAN it’s hard! I have such a new found respect for all vallenato music now! I managed to master a little tune though and they all said I’d picked it up well. Woop!


I then met the head of the school, Turco Gil, a very modest man who has achieved great things with his vallenato school. He took his children to the White House and performed for Bill Clinton in 1999 and was proud to tell me that every time Bill Clinton visits Colombia he requests a performance from these kids – what an achievement!


An impromptu performance broke out in the office between staff and pupils, and I realised that the kids were improvising lyrics about me! Vallenato has a thing called Picardía, where two people improvise lyrics back and forth –  a bit like a rap battle. This twelve year old was singing to me about my beautiful blue eyes so I sang back ‘thank you for your song, but I could be your mother.’


Office jam

I bumped into my journalist friend Carlos again at lunch and I think he was a bit bored because he insisted on chaperoning me everywhere (was mostly going shopping so I bet he regretted that!) I was supposed to go to a big vallenato concert in the evening but of course it was cancelled so instead I sat in my hostel with some people from Vienna, playing the ukulele! Not too bad an alternative.

I was quite sad to leave Valledupar – it was one of the most welcoming places I have been in Colombia. Everyone was so happy to help, so honoured that I wanted to find out about their culture and I also really loved learning the accordion! Definitely somewhere to earmark to go back to – although I feel like I have said that with every place I have visited in Colombia!

Beginner’s guide to Vallenato

1. The origins are from the time of the conquista when the accordion was introduced. The Spanish moved along the Río Magdalena stopping at each town and mixed songs, stories and traditions with the locals. The Spanish also introduced the concept of rhyme which is a key element in vallenato.

2. Traditional vallenato consists of four instuments: accordion, guajaracha, drum and voice. Modern vallenato has many more instruments, sometimes whole orchestras.

3. It was a completely male dominated music – groups of men would gather together for a ‘paranda’ and sing songs, share new compositions, drink trago and eat good food. Women were to attend to them, but were not involved musically. In fact women are still extremely unrepresented in vallenato music (more on that in next post).

4. The lyrics were typically ‘costumbrista’: about the daily life and customs of the people. Now they are much more about unrequited love and can have quite crude content.

5. Vallenato was empirical: songs were handed down from generation to generation and no-one really studied it. Now there are vallenato schools all over the region.