Interview with Peter Wade
Simon Rentner, Afropop Worldwide’s newest producer, had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Peter Wade, author of the book “Music, Race and Nation: Música Tropical in Colombia.” This book is a “must read” for any Colombian ethnomusicologist – or anyone interested in learning about the happy, bouncing music from Colombia’s Atlantic Coast. After reading it — and speaking to Colombian musicians – Simon discovered the importance of Wade’s work. For example, it influenced entrepreneur Robert Kelley to launch his Costeño music record label, Chonta Records, based in New York City. Then, Kelley recorded Martin Vejarano, the co-founder of La Cumbiamba Eneye, who is bringing traditional gaita music to international audiences, in some cases, for the first time. This is quite a feat, given that the musicians from the gaiteros in Colombia have been marginalized and discriminated against for centuries. Martin Vejarano is also prominently featured in this great Hip Deep radio program. Certainly, we must give some credit to Professor Peter Wade for these chain of events, which adds a bit of magic to his already groundbreaking research. Thank you Peter Wade. Below is Simon’s full interview with him.
Simon Rentner: When did you first get involved with writing about Costeño music?
Peter Wade: I first got involved in writing about Costeño music because I was working on a Ph.D in ethnic relations while staying in Colombia. I found that, although I didn’t anticipate that music would be a fundamental part of what I was doing, it was actually impossible to avoid it. Music seemed to insert itself into the everyday life of people and the way that different ethnic groups in Colombia thought and reacted to each other. There were even conflicts that broke out because of music. It was obvious that each ethnic group had their own musical preference. As a result, that music automatically entered into what I was doing. Additionally, living in a small cowboy-like town in the frontiers of Colombia near the Panamanian border, there wasn’t much to do on the weekends except dance. Thus, dancing became a very important part of my daily life. Later, I formulated a relationship with the Colombian musicologist Egberto Bermúdez who helped me contrive a project that specifically examined the history of Colombian music and the way that it interrelated with ideas about race and the Colombian nation.
S.R: What kind of conflict was there with regards to Costeño music?
P.W: The area that I was working in encompassed a variety of ethnic groups. To understand Colombia, you have to understand its geography and demographics. There are four big regions in Colombia. One is the main central highland Andean territory, which is somewhat the center of wealth and power. It is the area where the Spanish settled but is now populated by white and mestizos who are of fairly lighter skin. Then, there is the Pacific coastal region. This region is very under-developed, poor, and malarial. It is populated mainly by black people who were brought over as slaves. Next there is the northern coast, which is the Caribbean coastal littoral, that is wet, hot, and tropical region. The fourth region is the Amazon plains which go off to the east and into the Amazon basin. In the town that I was working for my Ph.D, people had very different musical tastes. There were people from the highland interior, who are white and mestizos. Their main musical tastes ran from tango to Mexican rancheras. There were also people from the Caribbean coastal region that are dark skinned. The people of this area preferred Costeño — vallenato, cumbia and some salsa. You have black people from the Pacific coastal region, who also liked vallenato. So I used to get into these situations in the dance halls and the dance bars in the cafés. The people from the interior had their bars, who would listen to tango and ranchera and so on, and you just wouldn’t see black people in there. Occasionally some would go in and conflicts developed. You know, people would get drunk, fights developed over whatever. It was clear that there was a kind of a ethnic segregation in the way that people enjoyed their music and danced to their music.
S.R: Can you talk more about the race and class structure of Colombia?
P.W: The racial and class structure of Colombia is very regionalized. Wealth and power are concentrated in the highland interior of the country, which is populated with elite, upper class, and middle class European-looking whites and mestizos. However, the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia is encompassed by poorer and marginalized people of darker skin. The main tension within the region is based on power and wealth. The conflict is who controls what and represents Colombia. Colombia has always represented itself as a European nation that is quite white; everything that happens culturally, politically, musically is centered around big cities like Bogotá or Medellín in the interior. So places on the coast like Cartagena, and Barranquilla — you know, Barranquilla was a very important port city in the first half of the 20th century — the people there, especially the elite there, never felt like they got the recognition, and it felt like they were looked down upon, and they were excluded from political control. So there’s always been that tension about politics and about power. And there has also been, in a way, a kind of racial tension in the Caribbean coastal region, which is seen to be much blacker and more indigenous than the highland interior, in most respects.
S.R: Where do the Colombian natives fit in?
P.W: The native population generally fits into Colombia at the bottom of the pile. Estimates vary, but they’re about 2% of the population. But that seems to be growing actually. So they have been regarded as very marginal to the nation. They live mainly in quite peripheral areas of the country, either in the Amazon, or the coastal regions, or right up in the high mountains of the interior. They’ve always been accorded a kind of special place — politically and symbolically — as being kind of the ancient roots of the nation but now, they are an endangered minority that has to be protected and is legally seen as minors. They weren’t allowed to vote until fairly recently, and are now protected by new multicultural legislation that protects indigenous minorities.
S.R: Some literature says that Costeño, Colombia’s mixed music tradition, began about 400-500 years ago. Would you say that is accurate?
P.W: Colombian music started when people started living in the Colombian territory. There were indigenous people there well before the Spanish got there. Then the Spanish came with their forms of music. There was also a large number of African slaves, who brought their own memories and skills of music, both rhythmic and melodic. So right from the beginning, especially from the Caribbean coastal region, especially in a city like Cartagena, which was a big slave importing city right on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, there were indigenous and black and European people altogether. All of these cultures and musics began to mix at a very early time. Obviously it is very difficult to know what kind of music was being played at that time because we have no recordings; we only have a few descriptions in the archives and so on. But we know that in colonial times, for example, there were slave institutions, or associations called Cabilos, which literally means councils, where slaves and indeed freed black people were allowed to get together on the weekends and evenings and dance. And one of the specific things they were allowed to do was play music and dance. So we know, for example, in the 18th century that these groups of people who often had African names could get together and celebrate and would also be allowed to get out and go to specific religious festivals. They would get out on the streets, and processed down the streets playing music and dressing up in finery and dancing around — that was going on. We also have, at least from the early 19th century, descriptions of the Caribbean coastal region people. These are ordinary people; they could be slaves, indigenous people, or freed blacks (now, they have a very racially mixed population). So they would dance in a circle around a central core of musicians, who were mainly playing drums but also maybe playing cane flutes, and people would be dancing around a core of drummers. That description of a wheel of people circling around a central core of drummers is one that you find until the 18th century right through to the 20th century and is often the classic form that is called cumbia now. Although the word cumbia, as far as I know, is only found in the archives until the late 19th century, the form of people dancing, the circling of people, often holding candles aloft, going around the central core of drummers seems to be the old form.
S.R: Would you say what happened in the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia is similar to what happened at Congo Square in New Orleans, Louisiana?
P.W: What was going on in Cartagena in the late 18th century with the slave cabilos — these slave councils, the slaves getting together to play their music and going out into the street to play publicly during religious festivals — is probably fairly similar to what was going on in Congo Square in New Orleans. These slave cabilos also had a subversive function and were feared by the colonial authorities because there was some evidence that they were involved in slave rebellions, and they had links with runaway slave communities places called palenques, where slaves would disappear into the forest and hinterlands, and set up these independent communities. Also, the religious authorities were kind of nervous about them, because they would begin to encroach on territory that the church saw as its own. And there were all kinds of questions about the morality of the kind of behavior going on in these cabilos, so the church would sometimes break them up and so on.
S.R: The story of cumbia is somewhat subversive, isn’t it?
P.W: Cumbia is talked about by folklorists as a product of an encounter between black man and indigenous women hundreds of years ago in the colonial period. It is not exactly clear to me why it is seen in that way. Why it is a black man, and an indigenous women, as opposed to an indigenous man and a black woman, that is never talked about, but that has all to do with the kind of sexual imagery that exists around the black man versus the indigenous man. Often the black man is seen as sexually potent, sexually powerful, whereas, the indigenous man in Latin America doesn’t have a kind of sexual imagery associated with him. So cumbia is often talked about as this fundamental encounter between two subordinated groups — indigenous people and black people. But probably what came out of cumbia was a much more complex set of interactions between indigenous people, black people, mixed people of all kinds — probably European people in there as well. You know a very complex dynamic of people and cultural influences.
S.R: When did Cumbia die as a popular art form?
P.W: Cumbia undergoes certain kinds of changes in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s. In the 1960s and ’70s smaller bands are using the more electronic Hammond organs. They are also using electric pianos, electric basses, electric guitars, and they are smaller than a jazz band so they are easier to move around and go on tour, and they become the key element in the recording industry strategy; the recording industry is no longer interested in recording the big band. They are interested in the smaller, younger, more electronic sounds, and they are tapping into what is going on in the 1960s internationally, in terms of The Beatles and rock ‘n roll and all the rest of it. A lot of people start complaining that the key groups lose the authenticity of cumbia, that they start to play a more mechanical beat, a more plasticy sound. Some of the groups come from the interior of the country. They are no longer Costeño’s. So this music cumbia was a big international success, and it goes to Mexico. It gets extremely popular and Mexican bands start to play it and then it goes to Peru and it combines with local Andean genres. So there is major changes happening in Cumbia in the ’60s and ’70s, many of which is decried by enthusiasts as leading to inauthenticity, degeneracy, loss of quality in the music. So you can compare a classic cumbia track, which is one of my favorites “La Pollera Colera,” which means “The Red Petticoat.” You can compare the version of that, by Pedro Salcedo, in probably the early ’60s, which has a really good kind of rootsy sound. You can compare that to what I would identify as a much more plasticy, mechanical sound of a version played by Los Immortales, which I would imagine was recorded sometime in the 1970s. And you can see the difference of the sound of cumbia between those two recordings.
S.R: When did the wind bands appear in Colombia’s Atlantic coast?
P.W: The wind bands enter Latin America, not just Colombia. Broadly speaking — so, all over the place — brass bands begin to enter Latin America in the beginning of the 19th century. They are basically playing military music — European music marches that were popular at the time and, a bit later on, mazurkas, polkas, this kind of thing. And what happens in Colombia is that these brass bands are made up of local musicians. These local guys are not rich. They have rudimentary musical training. The director of the orchestra may be a more academically trained musician. He may be a European. He may come somewhere else in Latin America. In Cuba, you had musical directors coming over in the late 19th century. The person that paid for it was likely a local big shot — a land owner, a cattle rancher, or maybe a local institutional authority. But the people that are playing in these bands are local guys with rudimentary education in music. So they are also well-versed in the kind of folkloric music that is going on, that is being played by groups, peasants, rural laborers on drums and cane flutes and so on. So the story is around 1860, 1870, 1880, people that are playing in the wind bands begin to adopt certain elements of the more kind of peasant folkloric tradition in into their music into their brass band music. And that is the story of the emergence of this genre known as porro.
S.R: The origin of the word Porro is kind of fascinating, don’t you think?
P.W: The origin of the word Porro is unknown. There are various theories. One folklorist says that there is a secret society in Sierra Leone in West Africa, which is called Poro. P-O-R-O with one R. who knows if that has some connections with porro –- P-O-R-R-O. Other people say that porro is connected to the word aporrear, which means to hit or to beat. When the indigenous people of particular regions of the Caribbean coastal area are burying somebody, they take huge tree trunks and go around in a slow circle around the grave of the person and beat the ground with these big tree trunks. Maybe this is somehow connected to the origins of the genre porro — you know, nobody really knows. It’s kind of interesting that both of these stories pick up on either “it’s an African origin” or “it’s an indigenous origin” so they are both somehow emphasizing the indigenous and African roots of the genre.
S.R: What is one of your all-time favorite porros?
P.W: One of my favorite Porro tracks is “La Vaca Vieja,” which means “The Old Cow.” What is interesting about it is that you can find a recording of it on an old 78 disc from around 1942. It is one of the first recordings made by Disco Fuentes, which was the first record company in Colombia. You listen to it and it is one of these records that you ask, “Why were people making such a fuss about this record? Why did this record seem so vulgar or sexually explicit?” It is quite hard for us listening back now to understand it. It sounds very kind of controlled, and kind of stately, but the very fact that they are talking about an old cow would seem weird to a conservative parent in a social club in Bogotá in 1940; it would seem vulgar talking about those kinds of things in those circles. So you can hear it in his 1942 version and you can hear it. It is been interpreted by lots of other people and my favorite version of it is actually a Venezuelan band called Billos Caracas Boys, who do a really stomping version of it, which dates from the 1960s were the 1970s — not sure which — has a really rollicking sound to it which I really like.
S.R: Is there any reason why the rhythm gaita is also named after the cane flute?
P.W: A gaita is a genre associated specifically with cane flutes, which are definitely of indigenous origin and known as gaitas. In Spanish, gaita is the word used for bagpipes, a fairly generic term for pipe, a musical pipe, but in Colombia and in some other areas in Panama define these particular vertical cane pipes. They come as a pair — male and female. The gaita is a long cane flute which has a short section of duck quill inserted in one end of the cane pipe and sealed in with a kind of mixture of resins and waxes and you blow down this feather in order to produce the sound. So it isn’t like a reed in the sense that it doesn’t vibrate, but it produces a kind of haunting, breathy, very soft, very melodic sound, and so the gaita flutes appeared to have been around as an authentic. So when you hear those flutes playing in a folkloric outfit, it is called gaita. It is called a gaita band or the music that they are playing is called gaita. So gaita emerged as one of the terms that was used to label this type of Caribbean coastal music.
S.R: What is the first recorded Costeño music?
P.W: Well, one of the first recordings made of Colombian music was made in 1929 by Camacho Y Cano. He was taken to the New York’s recording studios of Brunswick and recorded a variety of Colombian sounds. And they were given kind of strange titles. Some of them were given the typical titles of Colombian music so they were called cumbia and some of them were given very generic titles like paranda, which just means party. So one of the songs that he recorded which was a paranda called “Se Lo Digo Yo” which just means “I’ll tell you.”
S.R: How did of the elite in the Andean territory, for instance, in Bogotá, react to the music of Camacho Y Cano?
P.W: Camacho Y Cano’s records were probably seen as a bit sexually suggestive. For example, one of his songs means “underneath” or “going low” or something like that. The lyrics kind of go “I want you to love me, black woman, only undercover. Love me, black woman, only undercover.” So you know, kind of slightly suggestive lyrics. There’s another one of his songs called which literally means “grab it.” Or perhaps “grab him from behind.” So again, who knows what that means in terms of sexual innuendos or something. Then there is another one which means “getting hot.” So there are all these slightly suggestive lyrics which are characteristic of the songs by Camacho Y Cano. In the 1930s, Colombia, in the very catholic interior, or in Bogotá or Medellín, or in other places where these records would of been available, it would have been seen as pretty risqué, and frankly unacceptable by many members of the conservative elite.
S.R: Why were Colombian wind bands so loud and raucous and messy and then all of a sudden became more refined in the mid 20th century?
P.W: Porro was played by wind bands, which were very loud and very raucous. They were bands that were used by local big shots and towns councils during town festivities, where people were getting drunk, chasing bulls around the place, making a lot of noise with a lot of dust, very hot, chaos basically. In a two or three day fiesta, people are drinking continuously and so on. So you know, there were bands that were made for noise and volume and durability that could just play for hours on end. So it was a pretty rough sound, and there are still these wind band groups that exist today and still play that kind of music. One assumes that the kind of music they play is from the 1920s. Around 1930, you get a lot of orchestras that emerged in urban areas of the Caribbean coastal region and indeed in other areas all over Latin America. You get essentially jazz band orchestras that emerge that are copying North American jazz band styles. But they are also playing a wide variety of Latin American styled music. So a Colombian jazz band will be playing Brazilian music, Argentinean music, North American music, but all the jazz bands are concerned to play their own national music so that they have some kind of claim to distinctiveness or authenticity. So in Colombia, you have these jazz bands, particularly emerging in the Caribbean coastal region, which begin to adapt this very raucous loud wind band sound into a much more orchestrated and smoother sound. So do take a song like “La Vaca Vieja,” which is a very famous porro, which was written in the late 19th century. You can get a version of that which is played by a big wind band that makes a lot of noise, and then you can also get a version of it that is played by a jazz band orchestra, which would be playing in an elite social club in Barranquilla or Cartagena or Bogotá, which is a completely different sound, and sounds much more like a generic popular music, a sound that you would be able to hear anywhere in Latin America in the 1930s and 1940s.
S.R: Can you talk about the rise of Barranquilla as a major metropolis in Colombia?
P.W: Barranquilla in the early 20th century was a relatively provincial port. At that time, Cartagena was the big city of the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia. This is where the elite and the rich people of the Caribbean coastal region lived. It was the big city with a colonial background. Barranquilla was a relatively unimportant port that just happens to exist because it was at the mouth of the Magdalena River. The Magdalena River runs from the Caribbean Sea, right down to Bogotá. It was a very important trade route in Barranquilla. In the early decades of the 20th century, it transformed into one of the most modern and dynamic cities of Colombia. It gets a lot of immigration from Europe and North America, very dynamic businessmen, who take it upon themselves to transform the city, to develop it, to build elite neighborhoods. They created elite social clubs where they could socialize; the first airline in Colombia started there; the first postal service in Colombia started up there; and, indeed, the first radio station starts up in Barranquilla in 1929. Radio becomes very important for the entry of a whole range of different musics into the cultural and social life. Even though people might not be able to afford a radio set, radios were used as kind of a public address system; shops would have a radio which they would then relay outside their shops with big public address systems. So even if you didn’t have a radio, you could still be exposed to radio, and therefore to a whole variety of different music coming from North America all over Latin America, Europe and so forth.
S.R: Did you hear a particular vallenato tune that turned you on to that specific Caribbean coastal style?
P.W: Vallenato for me was part of my induction into Caribbean coastal music. When I was doing my Ph.D fieldwork, in this small town near the Panamanian border, I hadn’t really liked vallenato much. Certainly, it was regarded by lots of people in Colombia as being very plastic, schmaltzy, sugary, overly romantic music — kind of monotonous, and so on. But when I got into dancing it on a regular basis, I really started to like it. There’s something about the rhythm or the embodied experience of dancing it that gets you into it, I think. One of my favorite artists is a guy named Alejo Duran, who I saw live once, who was already very old. It was a fantastic live show. He’s a very simple accordionist with a very simple sound. He’s got one classic track, which is called “La Cachucha Bacana” which means “The Cool Hat” or “The Cool Baseball Cap” and that has been interpreted by a lot of different people after him. And then there is another great track, a kind of plaintive simple song called “Alicia Aldorada” which means “My Adored Alice,” which, again, has been interpreted by a lot of people after him.
S.R: Why was the town Valledupar so invested in keeping and claiming its vallenato music tradition?
P.W: The history of Vallenato for me is a very interesting history. It is quite contested. There is a lot of regional pride riding on this music and there’s a lot of dispute and debate about it amongst folklorists and so on in Colombia. Basically alongside the musical traditions of the Caribbean coastal region that relied on drums and flutes and scrapers and rattles — music that emerged into cumbia and porro — you have a whole tradition of singing, work songs, narrative songs, telling stories through song — ballads, especially — songs about romance, about relationships between men and women, etc. That comes from all kinds of different sources that can be traced to African traditions of the storytelling through the griot tradition of storytelling, and can even be traced in narrative storytelling traditions in Europe. It is either just song on its own or is increasingly accompanied with a guitar in many regions, because it is a portable and simple instrument to carry around. In the late 19th century, the accordion comes onto the scene, which is being imported in different areas of Latin America from Germany and comes into the Caribbean coastal region around the 1880s, and the accordion becomes one of the instruments that is used to accompany this kind of singing. That gives rise to a style of sound that we now call vallenato, which is now a much richer, more orchestrated sound, with a lot of other instruments involved. But originally it was typically an accordion, a small drum, and a scraper. Now the dispute and debate about where vallenato comes from is that there is one particular region around the town of Valledupar, which is one town in the northeastern corner of the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia, which has a very strongly claimed ownership as the birthplace of this kind of music. Now it seems to me that it is quite likely that the accordion in these kind of singing traditions was very widespread; you can find it all over the Caribbean coastal region. In the 1950s and 1960s, there emerges in and around the town of Valledupar a quite middle-class literate elite that begins to write songs in the Vallenato tradition. And they are orchestrated and played sometimes by them, but more usually by accordionists from the lower classes, and they begin to say that this is our music, that this is represented from our particular region. And this becomes aligned in the 1960s to create a status for that region, which gives it more political recognition, and then more money, and then more power in the national frame. So, although the music was actually quite widespread, they decided to say “Hey, this music belongs to us. It is our music.”
S.R: What is your impression of Carlos Vives?
P.W: Carlos Vives is a very interesting character. When I first saw him, he was acting on a soap opera about a young boxer and he was playing a Costeño. So the whole soap opera was based in the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia, and I was living with some Costeño people at the time. They were kind of laughing at him because his Costeño accent didn’t sound very convincing. But he is, in fact, a Costeño. He comes from the Caribbean coastal region, but he wasn’t presenting himself like that at the time. But he was doing the soap opera acting and he was also a ballad singer. And then late ’80s and early ’90s, he got a role playing a very famous vallenato composer Rafael Escalona, who came from this quite middle-class or even upper-class background. He was one of these people in Valledupar who were writing these vallenato songs, and he himself wasn’t a performer. He wrote the songs — the lyrics and the songs — and then they were performed by other people. And he was playing Rafael Escalona in this TV series, and then he produced an album that came from the TV series. And that was pretty successful. So then he took on this very clever, very good adaptation of traditional and very good vallenato tunes — and mixed in some reggae and a little bit of rock. It was a complete hit. He was very good-looking, he was young. The typical vallenato artist would wear glitzy, chintzy, sequins or just a boring shirt and a pair of jeans, whereas Carlos Vives was young and trendy. He wore the kind of clothes that middle class kids in Colombia wore, but his image was a major factor that made the whole thing take off. “Alicia Aldorada” is a very nice tune. Vives does a very good version of it on his big hit album “Clasicos de Provincia,” which means classic hits from the province.
S.R: Why is Lucho Bermudez so important in the history of Costeño music?
P.W: Lucho Bermudez was the most important figure in the popularization of Caribbean coastal music. His key role was that, whereas Pacho Galan stayed mainly in Barranquilla, and really didn’t go out side of that area, Lucho Bermudez — around 1942 and 1943 — went with his orchestra to Bogotá, and played a gig there. Most of his musicians returned to Cartagena where he was based at the time, but he stayed there, and he began to recruit a new orchestra that was mainly made up of whiter-skinned people, who are all trained musicians, whose background was not in Caribbean coastal music, but was in other kinds of music associated with the interior of the country. And then, Lucho Bermudez met and very soon later married the woman called Matilde Diaz, who was a white woman from the interior of the country, who became the main singer in his orchestra. So him, and Matilde Diaz, and much whiter-skinned and technically trained musicians became the key force that made cumbia and porro and fandango — in their orchestrated form — popular amongst the middle classes and the elite of the social clubs in Bogotá, Medellin, Cali, and the other big important interior cities of the country. When Costeño music first began being played in the elite social clubs in the interior of Bogotá, there was a kind of strong reaction from the conservative minority that was published in the press. A newspaper article published in 1940, where a guy talks about the sweet music of porro in a satirical way. He said this, “A cow being dragged by the nose, three canaries, a broken can being beaten with a broomstick and an idiot selling alcohol would be more harmonious than the sublime harmonies thrown out from a musical group in the midst of proclaiming to the world that ‘Santa Marta Has A Train.’” (Santa Marta is a city in the Caribbean coastal region, and there was a famous porro song called “Santa Marta Has A Train.”) And he says, “The dancers that are dancing to this music are no better than this, because they move with the grace of a sausage suspended on a string, supposing that the string in question were attached to the tale of a dog chasing a cat.” So all of this imagery of animals of chaos and disorder was very much the kind of attitude. It was music that was seen as loud, that was sexually explicit, that was often identified as African, and therefore foreign, and not part of what these kinds of writers wanted to see in Colombian.
S.R: Did Lucho Bermudez feel pressured to fire all the black people in his band in order to become popular?
P.W: Mr. Bermudez certainly reformed his band. If you look at a photo of them they are much darker skinned than the musicians he ended up with a few years later. Now, whether he did all of that on purpose because he specifically wanted to whiten the profile of his band is very difficult to tell. If he was going to find people in the active jazz band circuit in Bogotá who were good musicians, he was inevitably going to contact whiter-skinned musicians, just the same with the woman he met in a recording studio one day, who was Matilde Diaz. She is a white woman because she came from the interior of the country. So it is difficult to know if he did it all on purpose. One of the consequences of what happened was that he whitened his band. Whether it was on purpose or not, that made it more acceptable to his audiences. Now that is not to say that he whitened his band completely, because he had a black drummer for a while. Later on in the 1950s, he had a black singer, and the music was still seen or heard as having some kind of African or black elements in it, in its rhythm, its hotness, and so on. The key thing about whitening in this context, I suppose, is not to whiten completely, because if you whiten completely then you kind of lose the spice, the sexy attractiveness of the music, which was what precisely made it successful.
S.R: How is Lucho Bermudez perceived decades after his popularity? Was he ever criticized for “whitening” his band?
P.W: Lucho Bermudez was acclaimed as a national hero when he died. I don’t think the racial politics in Colombia are such that he would have been seen as such, as he betrayed, or sold out, because most of his band ended up being pretty white. You know the racial politics of Colombia aren’t as dramatic, as clearly drawn, or as intense as they have been in the USA. The politicalization of race is just never as intense and never as dramatic and emotional; it is much more masked and subliminal and subterranean then it is in the USA. What he did in getting rid of his black band members — not that he actively got rid of them — but that they just went away, and recruited white band members is not seen as a betrayal. It is just seen as something that sort of happened. Normal people don’t really talk about that very much. It wasn’t something that people noticed. The attacks that were launched against Lucho Bermudez in the 1940s in the press, I mean, they were racist, but you didn’t find that in all areas. There were specific racial incidents Matilde Diaz told me about; there was one occasion when they were in a lift and the black drummer, Virolí Lee, was in the lift with them, and another person wouldn’t get into the lift because there was a black guy in it. So you get these incidents of very explicit racism, but there isn’t a kind of discourse about race and the importance of race in the national frame. Although all of those things are going on, people don’t talk about it very much. It is not really a public thing. So there is a very contradictory aspect to race in Colombia in Latin America more generally, I think, which is the combination of quite explicit racism, with a kind of silence about race in general.
S.R: Why do you think Antonio Fuentes, from the record company Disco Fuentes, was so successful?
P.W: Antonio Fuentes was a very important figure in the commercialization of Caribbean coastal Colombian music. He was a guy that came from a well-off, elite family. His family ran a pharmaceutical and chemicals company. And he was a musician himself. He started up a radio station quite early on and he became very interested in sort of amateurish recordings of artists and he would bring in artists all over the place — anybody really. He would drag them in, stick them in front of a microphone, and make a recording. He was very experimental. He had a couple of house orchestras, and he would pull in artists from all over the place and set them up. As he was a musician himself, he took a very strong hand in arranging things,. He became very successful. He was able to ride on the back of the whole process of new radio stations of Caribbean coastal music becoming popular in the interior of the country; there was a bigger market for what he was trying to sell. People like Lucho Bermudez, they played in Cuba, they played in Mexico, they played in Argentina, they played in the USA. So, gradually, they were expanding into an international market for the kind of records that he was producing. So, he got an early start and the recording industry of the time was very eclectic. He was very flexible. He was very experimental. He tried anything once to see if it worked, and then would go with whatever seemed to sell in the marketplace.
S.R: How did the older, elite generation from the interior of the country respond to Antonio Fuentes’ recordings?
P.W: As part of my research, I did interviews with a whole range of people in Bogotá and in Medellín who could remember back to when they first heard Costeño music in the ’50s. It was very interesting to see how they reacted. They were kind of middle-class people, who, on the one hand, would know their parents were very against the music; they saw it as vulgar, as sexually explicit, as involving styles of dance that were too risqué. At this time, you had not only the bands coming into the interior to play this kind of music, but also had a lot of Costeño people coming in for university education. So they were a kind of identifiable minority in Bogotá. And so they were seen negatively because they were too loud and vulgar and made too much noise, and they liked to listen to this unacceptable music. On the other hand, while their parents are trying to control the situation, the younger generation was enjoying this music and found it exciting. This kind of music was sexy and hot and modern and fashionable. This is what the younger generation was listening to. So this is a pretty classic situation that we are familiar with today with parents and children, and children finding a type of music that their parents don’t like. And it’s partly the fact that the parents don’t like it that makes it attractive.
S.R: What made Antonio Fuentes the most money at Disco Fuentes?
P.W: The hits that made the most money for Disco Fuentes were obviously something they were not going to reveal, but it is said that in the early days, the person that made the most money for Disco Fuentes was a guitar player named Guillermo Buitrago. We are talking here mid- to late-1940s, when Disco Fuentes was just getting going. He played vallenato tunes on a guitar, because at that time, the accordion was seen as too plebeian. Again he came from a very white, middle-class Costeño family. He was one of the main people who popularized that singing tradition of vallenato romantic songs, narrative songs.
S.R: What does the song “La Candela Viva” mean?
P.W: “La Candela Viva” literally means “The Live Candle,” but it really sort of means “The Live Flame.” “Candela” means hotness and fiery red hotness is a better translation than live candle probably. So it’s getting at precisely the hotness of the music, the fire. The way it inspires, it keeps the body up and inspires people to dance. One of the ways that people would talk about Costeño music in their memories of it from the 1950s and the 1960s was the way that it heated things up. So in Bogotá in the 1950s was a very conservative society. It was very cold, people wore a lot of clothes, and they were very subdued. It was a subdued society; people were sort of repressed, I suppose, and it was very Catholic. So when Costeño music comes along in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, people talk about it as really changing the whole atmosphere of the city, of heating it up — literally. It becomes a warmer city. People don’t wear as many clothes. People dance more. They express themselves through their bodies. All of this is taking place when there are real changes going on in gender relationships, in sexual morality, women are leaving the house more, they are working more, they are commanding more independent incomes. So Costeño music is allied to all of those changes. And it is often talked about in terms of its power, or its vitality, or its hotness, the way it inspires people’s bodies, and makes them move. So the image of “La Candela Viva,” fiery hotness captures that that whole image.
S.R: What does the history of Costeño music mean to you as an anthropologist?
P.W: The history of Costeño music is a history about what happens to blackness in Colombia in a national frame. In the earliest 20th-century, there were some debates about whether bambuco has African roots or not. And the consensus of opinion is that it doesn’t, even though it obviously has a very syncopated rhythm. So basically, blackness is kept to one side. At that time, it is not completely erased — everybody knows that there is a black population in Colombia — but it is marginalized in that it is not seen as central to Colombian identity. Then in the 1940s and 1950s, you get a sudden shift, where this music that comes from the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia — which is associated with tropicality and blackness — suddenly becomes the national music. Lucho Bermudez becomes the ambassador of the music, internationally. But at the same time, the music that Lucho Bermudez is playing, the blackness is very controlled, it is very conditional. You know he has one or two black musicians in his group — the percussionist, the drummer and maybe a singer occasionally. There is a hint of blackness. The songs are called “Fiesta de La Negritas.” It is a very whitened form of blackness, but it has to be there, because if you lose it altogether you lose the kind of excitement that is associated with that black sound. And then in the 1970s, and the 1980s in a way, with cumbia and kind of commercialization, and the internationalization of cumbia, blackness gets even more lost I suppose, if one looks at it objectively. It is still sort of associated with tropicality and sun and fun with sex and sand. But blackness is very muted in the 1970s. In vallenato, which becomes very popular in the ’80s, and then in the ’90s with Carlos Vives, blackness begins to have a little more presence in some respects. But it isn’t really until the early 1990s that you have some very big political changes in Colombia, whereby you have a new constitution, which recognizes the country officially as multicultural and pluriethnic, which brings in all kinds of new legislation to protect Afro-Colombian minorities and indigenous minorities. So suddenly, Colombia is recasting itself as a multicultural nation in 1991, and this creates the scene for a totally different profile for blackness on the Colombian scene. Musics like champeta, which is the music that was and still is popular in the Caribbean coastal region, that was around in the late ’70s, which is a music that comes basically from West Africa, and was played on big sound systems, Jamaican-style sound systems in the street, where DJs would bring in music from West Africa or the Caribbean. And then, gradually, local Colombian, local black Colombian groups would get together and start playing this kind of music using Spanish lyrics instead of African languages. That is a very explicitly black music. The people that play it are black. It is clearly rooted in West African music and it is a much more explicit and public display of blackness then something like porro in the 1940s, or cumbia in the 1970s, or vallenato in the 1980s. So in that context, blackness has become a much more musical presence then it has ever done before.
S.R: Is Costeño music in a good state now, or is a dying off?
P.W: Costeño music in some ways as kind of lost its coherence, because in some ways, cumbia is not really Colombian anymore. People listen to it more in Argentina or in Mexico than they do in Colombia. It has become this very international sound. Champeta has never really taken off. It never became a national sound. The record companies tried to do it in the late ’90s and early 2000s, but it didn’t really work. Vallenato has really been the music that has been the most successful. If you go to London, and you hang out with Colombian migrants — there are many in London — the Colombian music that they will listen to is vallenato, even if that isn’t music that they would listen to back in Colombia. They listen to it in London because it sort of symbolizes a Colombian identity, and Carlos Vives has managed to make that the sound of Colombia. Internationally, vallenato, at least played by Carlos Vives, has become the international sound of Costeño music. But people don’t necessarily identify it with the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia. For them it is just Colombian music that has become nationalized, like all these musics have become. They start off regional and then they become national.
S.R: Has Colombia’s violence and political struggle at all informed Costeño music?
P.W: The whole period of violence in Colombia, which is obviously ongoing, is quite hard to relate it to musical trends. During the entire period of the 1950s, there was practically a major civil war going on in Colombia with really horrible atrocities being carried out in the countryside, in conflicts between the liberals and the conservatives. And one thinks, “Well, what does the relationship with the music of Lucho Bermudez have with these kinds of conflicts?” It is something that I haven’t really managed to pin down. I have some thoughts, which are, basically, that a lot of those conflicts that were going on in rural areas, and most of this music was happening in urban areas. People were perhaps looking for some kind of escape in the music from the reports or experience of these atrocities and very vindictive violence that was occurring in the country at the time. It is a weird thing because the two seemed to be pretty disassociated in many ways, so that leads me to think that perhaps that there is a connection in that dissociation, that people were seeking refuge in this happy music from the pretty unpleasant nature of the daily realities of the time.