Todos Somos Pacífico – a beginners guide to Colombian music from the Pacific Coast

I can´t believe that less than two months ago I had no idea about the music from the Pacific coast of Colombia: now it seems to be all I am listening to!

The Petronio Álvarez music festival back in September was my initiation and since then I have had the opportunity to interview and watch in rehearsal some of the influential musicians in this Pacific music scene, and more recently I got to travel to the Pacific coast itself.

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                The festival in Cali in September. Todos Somos Pacífico has a double meaning. It means ´We are all from the Pacific´ but also ´we are all calm, tranquil, peaceful.´

In the next couple of posts I will be leaving you with lots of beautiful music to listen to to help get you through the winter months with a bit of Colombian spirit!

Where? What?!

I thought first it might be an idea to give you a sense of the size of the Pacific region of Colombia: as you can see it covers four different departments from the border of Ecuador right up to Panama. 

A rainy morning in Cali with GRUPO BAHíA

Back in October I got the chance to visit Grupo Bahía in rehearsal, led by marimbista extraordinaire Hugo Candelario. Hugo is one of the pioneers in bringing Pacific music out of the pueblos and making it heard across the rest of the country, and across the world. His group have won the Petronio Álvarez festival  numerous times and this year the festival was actually dedicated to him! So it was a great privilege to be invited to his house to watch the group in rehearsal in Cali. Hugo has such an incredible energy and charisma and it is impossible not to start bouncing around to the music. Their songs are all his own compositions but firmly based in the traditional music.

After the rehearsal I was fortunate enough to have time to interview Hugo, just as a huge rainstorm was starting. In fact, I struggled to listen back to some of the recording because the wind was so loud! When the storm broke out, we abandoned the interview and instead Hugo taught me a few simple tunes on the marimba. Jamming with a marimba legend, on a rooftop in Cali with the rain crashing down around us has got to be a highlight of this musical adventure…

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Linda Caldas, singer and Hugo Candelario, marimbista and director of Grupo Bahía

Hugo was born in Guapi on the coast of the Cauca region which was a town rich in folklore so he grew up playing music. This is something that has struck me about this music; it is very accessible. Children are exposed to the melodies and rhythms and have no choice but to have music in their veins!  His studies took him to various parts of the country but he finally settled in Cali, which is where Grupo Bahia is based.

The group started back in 1992 with only 2 people and had their big break in 1995 when they won the first ever Petronio Álvarez festival which meant they got the chance to make a CD and get their music out there. He is now working with 3 different additional groups: the Bahía Trio (chonta, tambor and singer) which is more experimental, working with orchestras (tropical music) and The Bahía Ensemble which is more latin jazz.

You can see some clips here:

  • Bahía Trio:
  • Grupo Bahía with the Orchestra Sinfonica del Valle   (San Antonio is a traditional song which is sung at the funeral of a child)

What is so special about these recordings is that this is a music that until very recently was not recorded, not written down but simply passed down aurally from generation to generation. Bringing a marimba out of the pueblo and putting it on a stage was a big step but an important one:

´Hay que sacar los instrumentos más tradicionales (como la marimba) y hacerlos conversar con los instrumentos más orquestrales sin miedo.´

(We have to take the most traditional instruments (such as the marimba) and put them in contact with the most orchestral instruments and we have to do this without being scared.´)

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Percussionists in Grupo Bahía

Regional variations

Hugo explained to me a bit about the different regions of the Pacific. In the north region, Chocó, the music is much more upbeat and ´bailable´ (easy to dance to). The main genre there is the Chirimía which uses a clarinet, a tambora and platillas – like a jazz band but with a much simpler musical format. The following video is one I took at the Fiestas de San Pancho which were brought to Cali one weekend in October. The influences up here are still quite European and lots of rhythms such as polkas, mazurkas brought over by the priests still exist in the music.

Music from Chocó

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Chirimía musicians in the Fiestas de San Pacho

In the south the music tends to be much more slow and spiritual. One of the styles here is called Aguabajo (downstream) which are songs that the fishermen sing as they row home down the river. The Pacific coastline has no roads so you can only travel by ´lancha´. Here is one of Grupo Bahía´s aguabajos called Te vengo a cantarAs you listen to it try and imagine you are rowing downstream after a long travel from another fishing village on the coast…

I asked Hugo what his music meant to him culturally, and if there was a deeper message.

´Implícitamente hay un lamento por la historia de la esclavitud. Hay un lamento fuerte, cada vez menos, pero el lamento es allí. La música es un anhelo y deseo de libertad. Vas a una discoteca y esta sonando salsa y de repente suena un tema del pacífico y el ambiente cambia, la gente siente algo…´

(Implictly there is a sadness for the history of slavery. There is a really strong sense of sadness, increasingly less, but it´s there. The music is  a longing and desire for freedom. You go to a disco and they´re playing salsa and then suddenly a song from the pacific comes on and the mood changes, the people feel something…´)

(I saw this happen in a salsa club in Cali – it was the Colombian equivalent of Three Lions coming on during the World Cup.)

Grupo Bahía in rehearsal

Here is a video I took during the rehearsal. The style of music is called Currulao and one of its distinguishing features is the two time against three time (or the hemiola for you technical musos). The music is in 6/8 but it means that sometimes you seem to be counting in 2, and then suddenly in 3, and then both at the same time.

In the following clip at about 1.20 you can hear the music change very clearly into 2 and then at 1.27 the 3-time layer is added producing a pretty complex rhythm. The 2 against 3 is an African influence. According to Hugo you see a real fusion of culture in Pacific music: the rhythms are African, the melodies are indigenous and the text is usually European.

It´s worth noting that the instrumentation in this band is not wholly traditional. The key elements of Pacific music are the marimba, the bombo and the guasá (what Linda the singer is shaking) but the drum kit, piano and guitar are later editions to the group.

Leaving a legacy

It´s safe to say that over the last 20 years Grupo Bahía has become a tradition and musical reference in itself. Hugo describes the group as an ´escuelita: una famila´ and many emerging artists have passed through him. Choc quib town and Herencia de Timbiqui are two such groups, the second of which I also was lucky enough to see in rehearsal.

  • Listen to Cho quib town´s modernised version of the traditional song San Antonio here
  • Herencia de Timbiqui are another group who have been rising to fame through the Petronio Álvarez festival and who I maganed to catch in rehearsal. Here you can see one of their most popular songs, another aguabajo.

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Herencia in rehearsal last month

  • And this is Herencia working with Quantic, Colombia based UK DJ who has been doing some incredible productions of Pacific and Tropical music.
  • And one last track, the incredible Nidia Gongora singing on a Quantic track. I saw her perform in Cali and she is just incredible! 

As I was leaving I asked Hugo what he thought of the idea of bringing this music to the UK. What did he think about young people in our schools dancing and singing music from the pacific?

´Pues qué rico que se dejen contagiar de esa espirtualidad, de ese ritmo, ese sabor, esa fuerza, esa dulzura, esa nostalgia. Es una música muy limpia, muy sencilla, muy verdadera.´

UK classrooms – ¡prepárense!

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One thought on “Todos Somos Pacífico – a beginners guide to Colombian music from the Pacific Coast

  1. Love it! It’s an incredible experience! These groups are the others faces of the Pacific coast. Faces that travel to Cali and they’re working to divulge the music of the rivers, the sea.

    Un abrazo, Sarita. 🙂

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