Grantee Report

Reflections on “Our Histories in the Music of the Barrio”

Written by Alexandra Patino (SIDOC), Moisés Zamora (SIDOC) and Ian Middleton (Universidad de los Andes)

The project “Our Histories in the Music of the Barrio” has come to a successful end, despite a difficult time, even by local standards. Residents of the hillside area of Cali (Colombia) known as Siloé are used to facing difficulties, but the past year has piled up several. In addition to the global pandemic, the return of torrential rains brought landslides that once again left various residents displaced or dead. Siloé also grabbed headlines during May 2021 when, during a national strike, four young men were killed, allegedly by police or special forces involved in violently suppressing protests. 

In this context, the project, which was planned to last 6 months, ended up taking over a year, but activities have been completed. In this blog post we reflect on the process and products, identify some unexpected benefits and point to emergent conclusions that might be of use to people engaged in similar projects. 

We achieved our central goals of giving young participants new experiences and helping them develop creative audio-visual and musical products. Participants were all members of Tambores de Siloé, a youth music group which has existed for over 10 years, funded by the SIDOC foundation. SIDOC supports lots of charitable initiatives in Siloé aimed at reducing gang violence. Until now Tambores’ activities have centred on young members learning to play musical instruments, while developing interpersonal skills aimed at giving them life alternatives, in particular avoiding involvement in gangs. Moisés and Ian thought it would be beneficial for Tambores to be more involved in the creative process. In ongoing work with Tambores, Alexandra had also noticed a reluctance among members to be explicit about the ways in which they identified. To address these two factors, we organised a series of workshops on local history, identity and audio-visual stories, as well as activities in which participants researched their family and local histories, using the information they discovered to write songs. The three oldest members (Valentina, Maira and Carlos) were also appointed as “monitors” of the project, as a bridge between us and the kids. Their pay would also allow them to dedicate more time and energy to the project, rather than worry about making ends meet.

Having bought two top-of-the-range video cameras, we drafted in a local community documentary maker called Eduardo Montenegro. He taught participants to use the cameras and develop audio-visual narratives through interviews and storyboarding. This branch of the project resulted in two short films: One shot with Eduardo and a professional crew about the musical and family life of project monitor Valentina Urcuqui, and another, “Showing and Sounding Our Histories”, pieced together from recordings made by the participants in their free time, with voiceovers from monitors narrating the development of project itself. 

Image 1: Moisés facilitates a story-boarding activity (photo by Alexandra Patiño).

As can be seen in the second film, “Showing and Sounding Our Histories“, participants appreciated the chance to learn from local (or locally-based) historians, but also to experiment with the cameras and interview family members and neighbours. 

With the interview I did with my neighbour, the information she gave me, I was like, really? A jeep ride [typical local transport] used to cost $250 [Colombian pesos] and now it’s $2,200 [approximately 55 U.S. cents]

Maira Gómez Pipicano, 2021

These interviews became the basis of the collaborative compositional process, which resulted in a new song for Tambores. The song and two films were shared in an event in October at an arthouse cinema in Cali called La Tertulia. It was attended by participants, project collaborators, past and present colleagues from SIDOC, as well as Tambores’ family members and interviewees. We would have liked to do this event in Siloé, but it was, nonetheless, a nice way to round off the process, having as it did a warm, familiar, “horizontal” feel, with Tambores taking centre stage.

Image 2: Tambores perform at the closing event (photo by Miguel Ángel Hoyos, used with permission).

The process led to four unexpected benefits for Tambores, especially regarding aspects of group and individual identity indicative of social capital, which is vital for resisting cycles of violence.

Benefit One

The Tambores members have started having spontaneous get-togethers, which evidence and help build increased group cohesion. Social capital can be thought of as the connections we have that make life easier. People who live in violent contexts are in a double bind regarding this form of capital: life is already tough but building a support network that would make it easier is made trickier by the very same context. Previously, many Tambores members attended the group’s activities then went home, without forging further connections with other members. Now they are much more likely to socialise together outside of official Tambores sessions and count each other as close friends. 

This increased cohesion was sparked primarily by two parts of the project: 1. The day they spent shooting the film directed by Eduardo; and 2. Unguided composition activities. The film shoot was demanding, involving a full day of work for all participants, mostly in the home of Valentina. It seems to have provided a common sense of achievement on completing the arduous task and a feeling of closeness as Valentina opened up. 

Image 3: Participants record the interview with Valentina (photo by Alexandra Patiño).

The song-writing sessions followed more structured activities in which participants analysed existing songs, and developed their own verses, which were shared, critiqued and edited. Various themes emerged, including family history, the image of the neighbourhood and the political upheaval of the strike. We suggested various options for proceeding, but the group decided they wanted to produce a single song together and Moisés tasked them with combining their ideas in their free time. Six or seven of the group met at Valentina’s home to work on the task. Mayra and Valentina narrate how recochar (roughly translatable as messing around, playing, not being serious) and eating together helped the creative process flow and friendships flourish: 

We sat down to eat together and among all the recocha (messing around) we started coming up with ideas, lyrics, rhythms

Velentina Urcuqui, 2021

It came out just like that! From recochando. So, in that case, messing around was productive

Maira Gómez Pipicano, 2021
Image 4: A sub-group of participants lunch, laugh and develop lyrics (photo by Valentina Urcuqui, used with permission). 

We reflect more on the song itself below, but for now we would highlight this as an example of how relatively free ludic musical activities with a shared goal can help participants develop important connections and skills for building social capital. It can be seen as an example of what Sherry Ortner calls “serious games

One question we are currently less able to answer is to what extent the project has led to “bridging social capital”; the kinds of connections that go beyond our immediate social groups to facilitate broader social interaction (e.g., with distant family members, neighbours, strangers, people outside the neighbourhood).

Benefit Two

Tambores has become more independent as a group. Previously, they depended a great deal on Moisés for musical direction during rehearsal and performances, as well as the logistics of activities. Recent months have seen various events in which Tambores has performed without Moisés. Even when he is present, his previous roles of counting in, marking changes, presenting the group and so on, are increasingly taken on by Tambores members. This may be partly the result of the increased age of members and the longevity of the group, but we feel it is also related to an increased awareness among participants that they are capable of performing a variety of musical, logistical, creative and social tasks. 

Benefit Three

During the project, participants became much more likely to participate in activism. This normally occurred in the frame of the national strike and organised marches and events in opposition to police violence. Sometimes Alexandra and Moisés would call on Tambores to take part as a group. For instance, the cacerolazo sinfónico (symphonic protest) shown in the film. More frequently, however, a message would be posted on the Tambores whatsapp group and those interested in participating would simply congregate as part of the larger group of protesters. We see this as a manifestation of what Paolo Freire discusses as “critical pedagogy” and “critical thinking”, which necessarily go beyond mere reflection, to involve organization and action that reimagine and reconfigure the societies in which we live.

Image 5: Participants at the cacerolazo sinfónico, part of the musical manifestations of the national strike (photo by Alexandra Patiño). 

This more spontaneous participation attests to the greater social and political awareness of participants, which may be partly due to growing up, and doing so in a tumultuous political context, but may be partly the result of greater understanding of their positionality through the project. They have become aware of their usefulness as activists capable of maintaining chants and rhythmic patterns that help maintain morale and sustain protests. 

Benefit Four

Finally, the self-understanding of participants also developed in unforeseen ways. Our workshops related to identity focused on categories that have become central to national discourses since Colombia’s constitution of 1991, when the country was defined as “multi-ethnic”. We presumed terms like “afro-descendent”, “indigenous” and “mestizo” might help participants think about their backgrounds. Surprisingly, they have come to use a broader range of tools to think about who they are. Most recognised a common factor in their proximity to rural life under the term “campesino” (roughly peasant farmer, or rural dweller). This recognises Siloé’s location on the outskirts of the city, where the urban landscape blends into the countryside, but also the migration of most families to the neighbourhood from more isolated rural settings. Most participants now also see themselves as victims of conflict. Colombia legally recognises family members of people directly affected by violence as “victims”, but there is ambivalence towards this marker among the general population in part because it can stigmatise its bearers. Tambores members seem to have concluded that they have all faced adversity related to the many layers of Colombia’s long duré of violent conflict. Various participants now highlight aspects of their sexuality that challenge dominant heteronormative discourses. Finally, one participant is beginning to articulate a complex narrative in line with marrón movements in other parts of Latin America, recognising herself as having descended from indigenous peoples without currently being a member of such groups. 

The way the song was composed and how it now sounds reveal some interesting facets of Tambores and the project. Left to their own devices, participants veered towards a compositional paradigm central to “urban” genres such as hip-hop, reggaetón and local salsa choque. They found an open source backing track they liked on YouTube and recited lyrics over it, playing with the lines to accommodate them to the track’s rhythmic cycle and structure. Wordplay included shortening “corazón” (heart) to “cora” in order to scan and rhyme with “gente trabajadora” (working class/ hardworking people):

Esto es pa’ gente humilde 

y trabajadora 

Yo nunca los olvido 

créanme los llevo en el cora’

This is for humble people

Hard-working/ working class people

I’ll never forget you

Believe me, I keep you in my heart

Moisés then worked with the whole group to add melody to some verses, increasing the contrasts between sections. Participants accepted, modified or rejected his proposed melodies for vocals and accompanying instruments, until everyone was happy with the result. In this process one verse became a catchy call and response chorus, which allows for audience interaction during performances. All of these features are combined over a rhythmic pattern bringing together salsa-style congas with a bass-drum part from the Colombian Pacific region called “aguabajo”. During the song’s public debut, Ian was pleasantly surprised to see many of Tambores going beyond the mere execution of their individual parts and mouthing the lyrics along with lead vocalist Sofía, evidencing what we feel is a broad appropriation of the song among members as theirs. This can be seen in a later recording of the song as part of Tambores’ performance in the festival Tamborimba.

Tambores’ performance in the festival Tamborimba (from 52:10).
Reflections on the project

One overall reflection came through diffusion of the project in academic settings (the British Forum for Ethnomusicology (BFE) annual conference 2021) and discussions with Agrigento’s Director of Research, Geoff Baker. Geoff was surprised we had managed to achieve the broad range of tasks we included in our proposal. This speaks to the commitment of participants and those working with them on the ground; Moisés, Alexandra and our collaborators. However, we also believe it relates to a local cultural tendency against prioritising. Afro-Colombian communities from the Pacific coastal region have developed a clear political philosophy that promotes a decent life for marginalised groups in opposition to the multiple violences of late-capitalist neoliberalism. Importantly this “decent life” resists discourses of progress that seek to prioritise economic profit over community, individual and environmental wellbeing. 

Image 6: Moisés directs a run-through of the song-in-progress (photo by Alexandra Patiño).

We believe this tendency to resist prioritisation may be generally present among working class caleños, and perhaps even across the Global South. In our project it was manifest in a general attitude of saying “yes” to everything that would be of benefit to participants, their community and their surroundings. It often led to timetables being stretched and might seem to some to “dilute” the project by trying to do “too much”. However, by trying to juggle everything that is part of a good life – in this case learning about ourselves, connecting with others and our surroundings, sustaining ourselves economically, creating, performing, reflecting and intervening for positive social change – we avoid entering into the potentially fatal game of prioritising. We would be interested to know the extent to which people engaged in similar projects (especially across the Global South) notice or foster similar forms of resistance.

The project was not perfect. It may have been more effective had we been able to maintain the initial time scale, making the experience more intense for participants. We also wanted to involve them more in the edition process of videos, but technological and logistical constraints meant they edited only one sequence of Eduardo’s film. The other film used their material, but was mainly edited by Ian with input from Alexandra and Moisés. We initially planned to do more reflexive workshops in which participants would critique each other’s videos and evaluate the ongoing process. Again, the logistics of the way the pandemic played out in Siloé made this difficult, but there was also a general inertia regarding this kind of critical thinking. People in Siloé are much more accustomed to getting things done and building consensus. Developing a culture of more reflexive critique will take more time. We know the project helped improve social dynamics within the group of participants, but we have been less able to tell how much it has affected their relations beyond. For example, have we helped to develop what sociologists call “bridging trust” with people outside the group? Finally, it is really important to us that more residents of Siloé see the film and hear the song in the neighbourhood itself. Organising a launch event in Siloé was more difficult than expected, but we are working with contacts at a local school to realise this in the near future. 

Other upcoming plans for Tambores include a trip to Bogotá to take part in the Universidad de los Andes’ cultural week, which this year focuses on artistic projects related to peace building. It remains to be seen how far research and (collective) composition can be incorporated into Tambores’ everyday way of working, but various members are motivated to maintain the momentum generated by “Our Histories”:

I’m putting together my own recording studio… and I’m thinking about writing a story called “My Story”

Carlos Vega, 2021

I have a project in mind, to have an impact in the town where I was born. It would be nice to think about the union between visual art and music

Maira Gómez Pipicano, 2021

I’d like to be a music producer and support young people in Siloé. Show them this kind of project and offer them an alternative [way of life]

Velentina Urcuqui, 2021

We are the voice of the people, the voice of Siloé. Youth that want a change. Youth that want to grow… We want there to be a change: A genuine future

“Nuestras historias” by Tambores de Siloé, 2021