Rivers only have an illusion of permanence, something the Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out when he said you never put your foot in the same river twice. They can be named, mapped, talked about like any solid object, but rivers are, in fact, always being replenished. Likewise, notes from a hit of the marimba last only for a moment. It takes a steady stream of notes to fill sonic space, but when the marimba players of Rio Mira really get going they build something that sounds almost static even as it flickers and flows, with eddies of melodies that build into full-on waves of call and response.
Marimba del Pacifico is Rio Mira‘s new full-length album, out July 14 on AYA Records. It is a record of folkloric music that immediately welcomes listeners in, and rewards them with each play, revealing its subtle charms slowly. There are moments of trance-inducing repetition and playful runs that wouldn’t sound terribly out of place on a Lionel Hampton record.
Rio Mira’s namesake is a river that begins in Ecuador and flows into Colombia, a metaphor the band seems to find particularly apt. Their music is not exclusively Ecuadorian or Colombian—it is Afro-Pacific. Enslaved people of African descent, who escaped from nearby plantations or from shipwrecks, settled in the area and brought their music with them. The marimba, an African instrument, found a place in the nascent culture in the 16th century.
The group is based out of Esmeraldas, Ecuador on the country’s northwestern coast. Although UNESCO declared the marimba music of the South Pacific Colombia and Esmeraldas Province, Ecuador to be Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2015, Afro-Ecuadorian music hasn’t enjoyed the local acclaim that Afro-Colombian music has recently. It’s unfair to expect any one album to reverse all of that, but behind their charismatic lead singer Karla Kanora, it’s easy to imagine Rio Mira winning some fans.
The reference points definitely sound Colombian more often than Ecuadorian to my ears. “Guarapo” has a bit of a Caribbean feel and “Aguacerito” has the call and response like Colombian bailes cantados, or “sung dances.” Lest you think it’s just marimba, both songs prove that this group can really sing.
The marimbas mostly create the substrata for the sung melodies to bound over, but on “Patacore” the mallets really loosen up, with Cuban-inflected little hooks and builds that rise for a moment only to come tumbling down like Lincoln Log cabins.
“Nina Elena” has that flickering interplay between the marimba and the congas and shakers, perhaps best exemplifying the way this music is both intensely physical while being playful and laid back.
The first single is called “Roman Roman” and it is an ode to the intimate connection the El Pacífico communities have with the rivers. The driving marimbas gather like storm clouds, but never break. The river carries all the way out to the sea.