Monthly Archives: April 2009

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Gabriel/Flickr

Beyond the uber-famous, internationally-known Shakira and Juanes, Colombian music is a thick stew of flavors and spices ladled in from the three founding cultures of the country: Euro, indigenous, and, most potently, Afro. And, as in most post-colonial societies, it is the music of Colombian artists that speaks most loudly against injustice and in homage to marginalized groups, all the while urging feet to tap and booties to shake. Check these:

CHOC QUIB TOWN, a powerful triumvirate of lyricists from Quibdó, the impoverished capital of the mostly-black, oft-maligned, and federally-neglected department of Chocó, on the Pacific coast. In what is virtually the Mississippi of Colombia, the scant resources sent to the region are stolen by corrupt officials and starvation, illiteracy, and narco-trafficking are rampant. Out of this struggle, of course, comes amazing creativity, manifested in Colombia’s world-class entry into the realm of hip-hop.

Cabas, a son of the Colombian Caribbean, infuses his pop-rock melodies with the syncopated rhythms of his native region. Raised by a musician around musicians, Cabas’ youthful voice and style add a playful air to his aural flirtations. The video below caught my eye when it rotated heavily on MTV, but his most recent hit also makes me smile (the refrain is “spend the night with me, gorgeous, and stay all day tomorrow”).

Living world music icon, Totó La Momposina (NOT pronounced like Dorothy’s dog), represents the epitome of traditional Afro-Colombian and indigenous folk music. Born in Mompox, a colonial river port deep in the swamps of the Caribbean interior, Totó chants and sings over the drumbeats of cumbia and mapalé with the soulful mix of Southern church lady and Yoruba griot.

The “niche” (pronounced NEE-chay) in Grupo Niche refers to a hip, stylish, fly black male—I’ve been called it a few times by people who thought I was from the Colombian capital of salsa, Cali, where this salacious musical combo is based. In fact, no where else in Colombia is salsa danced or played with as much boompangfwap as in the country’s third largest city, very much like Atlanta with its black middle class, its history as the seat of a slave-based agricultural economy, and its present as the seat of a black music movement. Also check out their cousins, Orquesta Guayacán.

Lastly, Bogotá-based La Mojarra Eléctrica mixes traditional Afro-Colombian beats with reggae, funk, jazz, and electronica. The group is named for a traditional and plentiful fish eaten on the Caribbean coast, only electrified like their music. The video below, Calle 19, was filmed on the major commercial strip near my old crib in Downtown Bogotá, so when I watch it, I get a li’l nostalgic for the street vendors, juice bars, cheap lunch counters, car exhaust, noise, and gritty Ande-urban flavor.

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Recently screened at the Havana Film Festival New York, the 12-minute short film, Hispaniola, tackles Haitian-Dominican relations on the Caribbean’s second-largest island.

Director Freddy Vargas shows us how childhood friendships can be marred by issues of race, class, and nationality as we watch a rich, light-skinned Dominican kid befriend the son of Haitian migrant workers living illegally across the street. The opening sequence underscores the misinformation taught to Dominicans about their historical ties with Haiti (the Haitians freed the entire island from European colonial rule and liberated the slaves on both the French and Spanish sides), and alludes to the legacy of former U.S.-backed Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ensured that education in the country minimized any references to African heritage.

My only criticism of the film would be that the obvious phenotypic differences between the characters in the movie don’t speak to the complexities that arise when Dominicans of my own skin color (or darker) behave with the same rancor and hatred toward Haitians (or even very dark-skinned Dominicans). And believe me, I love my Dominicanos, but when it comes to the race issue, sometimes I be havin to let ’em know.

Best line comes from the little rich kid when he goes over to see his friend in spite of his jackass dad and tells him, “We’re still friends and we’re going to play baseball, okay?” with all the verve of a knowing Caribbean uncle. A mi mencant’el acento’minicano, sabeh?

HISPANIOLA from Freddy Vargas on Vimeo.

Carnaval de Barranquilla, February 2009

One of the traditions of Carnival here in Colombia is the throwing of corn starch and water on unsuspecting revelers. This is the first time in three years that someone has succeeded in tagging me. Leave it to three intrepid Colombianas down from New Jersey…they had been plotting from the moment they saw me.

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Photo by Colombian soul

The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in all Catholic-leaning societies is called Holy Week, Semana Santa in Spanish. The end of the sacrificial season of Lent, the start of which is commemorated lustily with Carnival, offers the faithful their chance to celebrate with pageantry, color, and prayer, Christ’s resurrection from the dead. In Colombia, as in most Latin American countries, it is in the small towns where Christian beliefs hold tightest, and where the most elaborate expressions of devotion are displayed by front-pew matrons and back-door backsliders alike.

The two largest celebrations are in Mompox, the steamy river station upstream from the Caribbean seaport at Cartagena, and Popayán, the white-washed grande dame of colonial cities in the southwest of the country. Both events are marked by daily masses, processions involving robed participants, and re-enactments of the Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, witnessed by thousands of pilgrims from all over.

I, being the heathen my mother hoped I wouldn’t turn out to be, will be celebrating this work-free week solemnly reading, writing, watching DVDs, and hitting the gym.

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Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel, May 2007.

The Middle of the World is a dusty place. And actually, there are three Middles of the World in Ecuador.

The sun beats down ferociously on the equatorial line less than an hour north of this country’s capital, Quito. A bus from the city dropped me off at a rough-and-tumble traffic circle near a couple of very off-priced eateries and the entrance to the official middle-of-the-world attraction, Mitad del Mundo.

For two U.S. dollars, I entered the site, which straddles the line charted as the equator beginning in 1736. At the center of the complex sits a stone tower topped, cherry-style, by a metal globe. Inside the tower, I found the comprehensive Ethnological Museum, highlighting Ecuador’s many indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities with traditionally dressed wax figures and reproductions of houses and fishing vessels.

A pilgrimage to the top grants a panoramic view of exhibition pavilions and souvenir shops surrounding the tower on either side of the red stripe that indicates the equator. I took a picture behind the yellow sign that read “Equator,” each sneaker planted in a different hemisphere.

The second, less official Middle of the World is a few hundred yards to the north along the rough-and-tumble roadway. Entering involves traipsing up a dry, gravel driveway with the hope that no cars pass by and coat you in chalky powder.

At the Inti Ñan Solar Museum, where the equator is “calculated by GPS,” I saw traditional indigenous living quarters, shrunken heads and plastic life-sized natives. There was a seemingly-convincing water test in which water spiraled out of a basin in opposite directions in the different hemispheres, which were marked by a red stripe. I took a picture behind a yellow-and-white sign that read “Greetings From the Middle of the World — Calculated by GPS,” each of my tennis shoes on a different half of the Earth.

The third Middle of the World, according to Google Earth, crosses an empty gravel lot, the same rough-and-tumble roadway and a warehouse a few hundred feet north of the Inti Ñan Solar Museum. I wasn’t able to take a picture on this equator. I found it after I had returned home — while trying to figure out which of the first two was the real Middle of the World.

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