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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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!