Unity In Ecuador, Part 1: Music

Recently I had the opportunity and the honor to go on a three week long medical anthropology research trip in Ecuador along with people from the university I attend (California State University, San Marcos) and an educational institute located in Quito, Ecuador, called Fundación Cimas del Ecuador, or , as we called it for the majority of our time there, Cimas. (If you would like to learn more about the lovely foundation, here is their website.) At the risk of sounding cliche, I can honestly say the trip changed my life, and I’m so humbled by the experiences I had and the things I saw on that journey.

I learned how to live like an Ecuadorian in Quito, figuring out bus routes, taxis, learning about boiling tap water and that aji, a special sauce that was everywhere we went in the country, is one of the best sauces ever, and the United States is missing out. But one thing that stood out to me the most in my three week stay in the country was the sense of community, most importantly the over-arching sense of unity among the people, that is just not seen at such a level in the United States. In this three part series, I will discuss music, ceremonies/rituals, and community, all with their own unique attributes, but with one important, over-arching theme: unity. It was overwhelming to hear about, see, and participate in these communities and how that take care of each other. While not without it’s faults, politics are politics all over the world, there was a wonderful feeling of connection in Ecuador that I wish could be brought here to the United States.

I shall start with one of the most universal forms of communication and community: Music.

Music and Identity: 

In a rapidly changing world, with European Western influence, sometimes referred to as ‘modernization’, rapidly taking over country after country, it is often difficult to have an identity that sets one apart, that honors their heritage and their culture, that keeps tradition alive in a fast changing world. Music, however, is a form of expression and tradition that is uniquely qualified to not only keep a culture and it’s identity alive, but also spread that culture’s identity out into the world, gaining appreciation and assistance in preservation, from the world.

At an Inti Raymi celebration, held at the courtyard of the FLASCO building in Quito, Ecuador, the Andean group that put on the ceremony, as well as other participants, take over the street outside the building, dancing, playing music, waking up Mother Earth, and beginning the ceremony. The beautiful Andean flute music played during fiestas, such as the summer harvest festival of Inti Raymi, is so beautiful that you can’t help but be drawn into it and join the circle of dancers.  If you are privileged enough to be invited to take part in the ceremony, be a part of the circle of dancers that stomp and move to the music to wake up Pachamama (Mother Earth), you know the power of this music, the power of the connection it instills within you, and an understanding of the power not only held in community, but also the celebration itself. Everyone joins in, from the tiniest little toddler to the oldest attendee, the music played during these ceremonies and fiestas unifies across age and cultural lines. Moving  from traditional Andean flute music, we look at another type of music I got to experience in person: Bomba. Specifically Ecuadorian Bomba, or Bomba del Chota, it is the Afro-Ecuadorian variation of Bomba music, a style of music seen in both Ecuador and Puerto Rico, centered around a type of drum by the same name. It can be lively, it can be soulful, it can get you on your feet almost instantly, it can make you pause and listen intently, it can even be and make you feel all these things at the same time, and it is an experience that is hard to explain outside of a group that has experienced it in person. Traced back over 500 years to when slaves from Africa were being brought to South America, Bomba music shows the spirit and resilience of the people who crossed the waters, taken from their homes, surviving centuries and providing a connection for the descendants and their ancestors in a profound, deep way. Modernization and the draw that it brings, especially to the younger generations, hits many communities hard, and there have been plenty who decide to head to the city rather than stay in the community, as is their right. But to know that there are still connections in the community, bits of culture and tradition that have survived and will hopefully continue to survive, is gratifying. The commitment to the music is an echo of the commitment of the community  to take care of each other and the traditions that have been passed down through generations. I will speak quite a bit about unity in this series, and there are many ways to show this and the connections it brings across communities and cultures, but the power of culture and connection that spans centuries, connecting the present to the past, is one of the most amazing and wonderful forms of unity I have ever experienced.

View my group dancing to Bomba music here!

Tradition, Preservation, and Modernization

As an archaeologist, I could help but have that thought process of ‘how to preserve/can it be preserved’, while on this trip. I was first and foremost in anthropologist mode, but old habits die hard. Preservation of culture and tradition is becoming rapidly difficult in a world that is increasingly being ‘modernized’, and the old ways of any culture are considered obsolete and unworthy of people’s time. On some level I get it, the world needs to move forward and grow, but on the other side of this is the argument, one I am a proponent of, that there’s no need to eliminate cultural traditions to make way for the new. It would be quite easy for the old and the new to co-exist side by side.

The Bomba music I heard in Valle de Chota is powerful, powerful and magical in how it draws one in and provides a look into the souls of the Afro-Ecuadorian community and their ancestors. Anyone who experiences it would probably say the same thing. It is a beautiful traditional part of the culture, and so far it has managed to survive. However there is a rather large problem. There is only one man in Ecuador who knows how to make the bomba drums, the center of this tradition and a big part of the culture, Cristóbal Barahona, a member of the band that I got to see perform, and he is 86 years old with no apprentices learning how to make the drums in the traditional way. Once he is gone, the art of making these drums will go with him, and another part of the traditional culture will be lost, something that hurts on a cultural level, both for tradition and for identity. Barahona is still alive and currently doing well, but  without an apprentice to carry on the work, there’s no telling whether or not the tradition will stay alive.

On a more hopeful note, there are younger people out there that are working hard on keeping traditions alive, such as musician and instrument maker, Ali Lema and his wife Andrea Buatista, whom we were told to call Carolina. They run a music shop in Peguche, a community located within Otavalo,  in the Imbabura province. There, Lema and his wife create and sell traditional instruments and other traditional Kichwa items, welcome tourists to instrument building workshops, and give free music lessons to children, among other amazing ventures. Lema has found a calling that not only teaches tradition and music to locals and outsiders alike, but also helps to support his family, and helps to keep a beautiful form of traditional music alive and well in a world where so many instrumental music is fading into the technological realm.

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The sign outside Lema’s music shop.

We crowded into his shop and learned to make a flute like instrument called a ruku. We also learned much about the history and tradition of not just the ruku but several other traditional instruments as well. Lema and his wife were gracious enough to perform for us, both singing at some point, but with Carolina truly shining, her singing voice being strong and well rounded and wonderful. Keeping music and tradition alive is possible, if only more young people were there to take up the handles, and it is something I hope will happen in the future.

Unification Through Music

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Valle de Chota resident and community leader Saloman Acosta and my friend Rachel.

Much like the photo shows above, it is possible to connect, easily, through certain parts of culture, and become friends, despite things like culture and nationality. Music is such a universal language that one could listen to something in another language, one they couldn’t understand and be able to get the general idea, if only from the mood of the music, of what the song is supposed to be saying. In Ecuador there are many variations of what is ‘traditional’, it is a very diverse country after all, but one thing remains true no matter what: music can bring people together. Whether it was the traditional flute music played during the Inti Raymi ceremonies or Ali Lema, or the pulse quickening music my group heard during another Inti Raymi fiesta in the mountain community of San Clemente, or the dance compelling Bomba music, humans seem to always be able to connect through music. Music is culture, it is tradition, it is identity and community and a connection to one’s ancestors. Music is a unifying element that gets overlooked as a tool to bring people and cultures together, and that is something that should be changed.

Music is alive and has quite a lot to say.

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