Blessed Saint Barbara,
Your divine majesty,
Pray that heavenly God
Gives Colombia peace
Marina Solis Montaño sings to her municipality’s patroness along with the Fundación Cantando por la Vidaensemble, joined by other displaced women seeking to heal from Colombia’s armed conflict. These verses are part of a couplet sung alongside a marimba, bombo, cununo, and guasá in what is known as the marimba cultural complex.
Solis lives in the municipality of Santa Barbara of Iscuandé located in the department of Nariño in southwest Colombia. Her town, Santa Barbara, lies next to a river that acts as the main form of communication. In this region of the Colombian Pacific, the river and sea replace roads, currents replace traffic lights, and longboats automobiles. With their aquatic and tropical geography, communities on the Pacific Coast of Colombia and Ecuador have lived on the fringes of the nation for hundreds of years. This isolation has allowed for the emergence of a native musical tradition that is only recently resonating nationally and abroad.
The history of marimba in Nariño began long before the department existed, when this region and the Esmeraldas province in Ecuador were one and the same. In the sixteenth century, after landing in Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, enslaved Africans who managed to escape traveled by foot to the Pacific coast. They took shelter in the inhospitable rain forest and settled down outside the colony. Making the most of the environment and continuing their African traditions, these communities fabricated marimbas using the chonta palm or pambil, distinguishing them from the rosewood xylophones of Central America.
The marimba and its accompanying percussive instruments, along with singing and dancing, are an essential part of the Pacific Colombian-Ecuadorian culture. They take a central role in rituals such as funerals and religious and community celebrations. This music cries for the deceased with alabaos, it celebrates saints with arrullos, and escorts fallen children with chigualos. But from colonial times to the early twentieth century, marimba music was the victim of bans and discrimination due to the marginalization of Afro-Colombian and Afro-Ecuadorian societies. As a result, younger generations—even today—have neglected the tradition. Nevertheless, women as singers, composers, teachers, and instrumentalists are taking the future of marimba into their own hands.
Traditionally the role of women in the marimba cultural complexwas singing and playing the guasá, a seed-filled rattle, leaving the marimba and bombo and cununo drums to the men. Because of this division of labor, women were perceived as having supporting roles in the chorus, while men often took center stage as composers and lead vocalists. This only intensified when the music started to be professionalized and exported from the region. Now, La Red de Cantadoras del Pacífico Sur (literally, The Network of Women Singers of the South Pacific) is shifting the discourse by placing women at the center of the marimba tradition.
“These women have been preserving and safekeeping Pacific traditional knowledge from generation to generation, but they have no space and their roles are not praised,” explains La Red founder and manager Paola Navia. To rectify this problem, her grassroots organization works to give women visibility through music. In 2009, several of their members performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as part of the Las Américas: Un mundo musical program.
According to singers Nubia Angulo and Beatriz Hernandez, voices play the most important role in currulao marimba music of Nariño since they set the tone and melody for the instruments to follow.
“A woman’s singing role, whether the main voice or chorus, links together the arrullo, currulao, alabado genres,” Angulo proclaims. “There is a myriad of rhythms within the cultural complex, and women are always the link. Without her voice, there is no perfect intonation.”
“It is she who composes for a newborn,” Hernandez adds. “She who sings, if this child or any child dies, special songs. She who sings to deceased adults, during the overnight vigil and its one-year anniversary.”
Their songs are not just for the rituals of others. Marina Solis Montaño explains that singing and performing helps them overcome hardships and heartbreaks.
“We shelter in songs.”
Whether happy or sad, women spread the stories of their towns in verse. This act has become increasingly important as Colombia’s armed conflict has displaced thousands in the Pacific region. Since the 1960s, Colombia governments and guerrilla groups have fought for greater power, compounded by heavy drug trafficking and terrorism. As of August 2018, a report claimed that more than 260,000 people—mostly civilians—have been killed over the six decades of conflict. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 7.3 million Colombians have been internally displaced from rural areas, and hundreds of thousands more are living abroad as refugees.
“With migration, these customs are disappearing,” Solis says. “They have to leave their homes because of violence. As a result, our tradition in the villages is ending.”
In Solis’s poetic plea to patroness Santa Barbara, she underlines the region’s situation calling for divine intervention for the very human truth of Colombia’s armed conflict.
“We tell everything through song, couplets, poetry, and oral tradition,” Hernandez says. She explains the traditional rhyming structure of a verse: in a stanza of four lines, every other line rhymes, as in ABAB.
In the past, learning these lyrical structures and other rhythmic rules was taken for granted, because music was everywhere. Many musicians, like Hernandez, learned from their families.
“My grandmothers played and sung currulao, so I learned by looking at my grandmother and my aunts,” she recounts.
There was no need for these women to leave home to take part in the marimba tradition. However, with urbanization and the arrival of new musical trends pushing marimba into the past, the singers are determined to pass their musical heritage onto the younger generation through an educational project called Semilleros (“seedbeds”).
“La Red de Cantadoras is trying to rescue those customs lost with time because society is imposing new foreign rhythms,” Solis explains. “Some mixture is good, but we cannot forget our roots. If we adopt rhythms that are not ours, we lose our own.”
La Red holds classes in the Nariño municipality of Colombia to teach young girls and boys to play instruments, compose songs, and cultivate creativity and foster marimba music as a performance art. As teachers, Solis and Hernandez are constantly seeking out and recruiting children interested in music to participate in Semilleros.
“We are planting seeds,” Solis says. “We choose seeds and help them sprout.”
La Red’s work has become more important since 2015 when UNESCO added marimba music, traditional chants, and dances from the Colombian South Pacific region and Esmeraldas Province of Ecuador to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. In addition to supporting intangible cultural heritage research, the Colombian government has supported their grassroots project, providing space to hold their classes. The Ministry of Culture has also established other projects to teach traditional Pacific music and dance.
Eriyen Korath is one of the students who has gotten to reap the benefits.
“I started getting involved with Pacific music and dance when I was five years old,” says Korath, now twenty years old. “My parents took me to the Buenaventura Culture House. I started by playing the guasá. Then I learned the bombo, the cununo, and finished with marimba and singing.”
Korath represents the new generation that learns the tradition in a classroom rather than the home. This young musician has been able to break with the status quo by learning to play all instruments, especially the marimba.
“The fact that we are young, that we have been in this group since we were very young, and that it is a woman who plays the marimba has created some controversy among older teachers who think percussion instruments must be played by men,” Korath says. For her, the controversy only fuels her passion for playing.
Just like La Red’s singers, Korath has resolved to give women within music more visibility. With the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, her group Cantares del Pacífico has participated in cultural exchanges in Ghana and the United States. Through these journeys, they have helped to export traditional marimba music and shatter the paradigms by featuring women as lead singers and percussionists.
Although it is not traditional, it is not new for women to take on these roles. Folklorist, researcher, artist, and marimbera Petita Palma was at the center of one of the more successful grassroots incentives to promote marimba culture in Ecuador, where the tradition has much less visibility. In 1969, she formed Tierra Caliente to help preserve Esmeraldan folklore at a time when the state, urbanization, and tourism threatened the tradition through imposed permits, bans, and association with lower classes. Backed by the Tourism Initiative, she also founded a marimba school that stills exists today. Palma taught music, songs, and dances to students of all ages, giving older students the chance to take part in Tierra Caliente.
Today, her children follow in her steps building instruments and continuing her education project. As Esmeraldas’s marimba icon, Palma has taken this tradition across Ecuador and abroad. Her work earned her the nation’s Eugenio Espejo National Award in 2007, a high distinction similar to the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowships in the United States.
Marimba has gained recognition in Colombia and Ecuador, in large part due to the contributions of women. Since 1996 Cali, Colombia, hosts the Festival de Musica del Pacífico Petronio Alvarez, an annual celebration of Pacific music: currulao, abozao, bunde, and juga. In 2017, the festival celebrated women in Afro-Pacific folklore, and specifically their role as carriers and protectors of tradition. The opening concert featured singers such as Eva Pastora Riascos and marimba group Perlas del Pacifico. During the festival, several teachers were awarded for their work.
Despite the efforts of the festival to make the role of women more visible, it may also be responsible for pushing women into the background in the first place. Researcher Oscar Hernandez describes what he considers to be some of the effects of the Petronia Alvarez: using certain song forms such as the alabaos out of context as a way of opening songs and an increased prominence on the role of the marimba in improvising melodies. Although he doesn’t speak of its effects on the role of women specifically, both of these outcomes have strong gender implications. Giving the traditionally male marimbero a new improvisational role pulls the spotlight from the singers. Changing the social contexts in which certain song forms are sung also undermines the leadership role women have in actively maintaining those cultural frames.
La Red singers see the Petronio Alvarez as an opportunity to highlight traditions and catapult local talent to a national level. At the same time, Solis believes that through that stage, marimba music has attracted younger generations who previously disregarded that “crazy people music.” However, the singers criticize the event’s musical competition format, arguing that it has become too commercialized.
“When we are all here to show how we live in our towns, how can there be a winner?” Solis argues. Hernandez also contends that the 2017 festival did not have a direct impact on women in her community, and that La Red’s efforts have done more to give women visibility.
The efforts of women like Navia, Solis, Hernandez, Korath, and Palma keep the tradition alive even when it has been threatened by forces such as discrimination, globalization, violence, and neglect. Though they have been the source of these threats, both Colombian and Ecuadorian governments have supported these important efforts to preserve culture by sustaining educational projects, celebrating women in events, and awarding individual efforts. Whether highlighting women’s roles as singers, interpreting “typical” male-dominated instruments, or teaching future generations, women in Colombia’s South Pacific and Esmeraldas, Ecuador, are at the forefront of preserving and disseminating marimba culture.
“Preserving these traditions are important so that we don’t forget our legacy, our essence,” Solis says. “If we are playing and remembering, our ancestors don’t die. They are always with us.”
Valentina Pilonieta-Vera was a program coordinator at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2015 for Peru, 2016 for Basque, and 2017 for On the Move. She holds a master’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies from Florida International University.
Cristina Díaz-Carrera is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage specializing in Iberian and Latin and American programs for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Her maternal grandmother was from Esmeraldas, Ecuador, although she did not connect with the musical heritage of the Afro-Pacific until working on the 2009 Las Américas and 2011 Colombia Festival programs. Her heritage and experiences inspire her continued research and programming work around the marimba cultural complex.
This project received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.
In 2019 we are celebrating the Smithsonian Year of Music, with 365 days of performances, exhibitions, and other music-related programming around the institution. Learn more at music.si.edu.