In small, neglected Colombian villages, not too far from the Caribbean coast, descendants of runaway slaves and freed people have managed to hang onto musical traditions connected not only to Afro-Cuba, but Africa itself. Theirs is the story of neglect, isolation, marginalization, and poverty that often accompanies preserved traditions in so much of the world. Access to education and health care are few; illiteracy looms large, and at least one the performers here has no birth information. However, what they do have is a rich tradition of bullerengue, a vocal-based music driven by cantadoras, elderly women who engage in call and response over complex hand drum patterns and clapping.
While Chaco has already released two critically-praised recordings featuring single cantadoras Magin Diaz and Petrona Martinez, this collection brings in 7 more singers from four Caribbean Colombian maroon villages, including Antonio Berdeza, a 90 year old man, which is a rarity in bullerengue. Furthermore, this album is the first time they’ve been recorded. As a result, Chaco is truly responsible for putting this music, which has been so long a tradition in Colombia, on the world’s map, showing there are still discoveries to be made.
Accompanying the music is a thorough booklet, detailing artist information as well as a bit of musicology in English, while the artists’ own stories, told in first person, appear in Spanish. The package itself relies on warm yellows and light greens, with drawings of the singers’ faces rather than photos.The notes reveal that all of these people learned this music from neighbors and relatives, meaning this is still an oral tradition at its heart.
And from what’s on offer here, bullerengue feels vibrant and healthy despite singers who are no younger than 53, with one woman possibly as old as 105. Typically, no matter the tempo, the songs feature one singer with the others in the group repeating phrases as a response, coming in at certain intervals to punctuate the vocals. “Navega,” which features the vocals of Fernanda Pena, the oldest performer here, is an excellent example of this. Handclaps drive the tune, with the alegre drum complimenting the groove, while Pena drives song forward. Due to the ease with which anyone can clap or join the chorus on this music, it serves as something truly communal in a culture where women are heads of households. And while there may be kinship with Garifuna performances found in Caribbean Central America, a quick comparison reveals radical differences in vocal and rhythmic approaches. In short, Chaco records and producer Manuel Garcia-Orozco have done exhausting work that allows the rest of us to learn about a vibrant, largely untouched rural tradition. - Bruce Miller