By Camilo Pardo Q., EL ESPECTADOR, March 20, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Here is where children and teenagers have created the first indigenous Philharmonic in Colombia. The harmonies are transforming a community that has endured the conflict.
The indigenous Emberá Chamí have been in Valparaíso for more than fifteen years. It’s a small municipality in southern Antioquia where they ceased to be nomads when they found a home that could maintain them on the margin of the armed conflict, especially after the dozens of forced displacements they experienced in the decade of the ‘90’s and at the beginning of the current century, when they lived in Cauca and Risaralda.
Moving around to form a community in Valparaíso was not easy. They started out as squatters on farms and after they confirmed their status as victims, before the Unit for the Attention and Complete Reparation of Victims, the entity determined that they had been the targets of acts that victimized them as indigenous people (Current figures are climbing to 80,500 cases.), the government offered them a reservation, which they called Marcelino Tascón, in the Municipality of Valparaíso, in Antioquia.
For more than ten years they have been working to make their culture thrive. The children are brought up using the Emberá language, and then they learn Spanish. They observe their own laws, and their way of life is based on honesty and respect. Their ancestral sounds and music are also planting their roots in Valparaíso and, after the merger of the foundations Music for Peace and Passion and Heart, the dream of forming the first indigenous Philharmonic in Colombia was undertaken. It was a project that the pandemic failed to weaken, and a commitment that the children and young people of the Marcelino Tascón would be the protagonists, taking their instrumental talents to an international scale.
Alejandro Vásquez Mejía, Director of Passion and Heart, sees in this ethnic and children’s Philharmonic, even though rudimentary, a demonstration proving that the taste for a certain kind of music cannot be something that’s defined by people’s socioeconomic or geographic status; rather it’s a way to unite people and redefine their ways of life.
“I grew up in a ward in Medellín that was swarming with the violence connected to the drug trafficking, and the young people had no better options for progress. I came across Passion and Heart; they gave me access to a violin, and that’s how I got started. Now I want the Emberá youth to be able to struggle for their dreams with the music as a tool, so that their dreams are not dashed in any situation. You grow up with the idea that instruments like the violin are just for the upper classes, but here we are breaking with that image, because the instruments make us forget our families’ tough times. They give life to a passion and they help promote the desire for getting better,” he says.
Juan José Velez is one of the more than 50 children, between six and eighteen years old, that make up half of the musicians in training that he is helping. He’s a violinist. His story, as happens repeatedly in the rural population, is marked by low interconnectivity and limited access to the Internet. In the pandemic, the tutorials that he has been able to see when the Internet and his time permit, have given him some regularity in his practicing, and that keeps him going as one with promise of being a national scale violinist; his teachers and his classmates see him that way.
Juan José and the rest of the Philharmonic want to tell what the Emberá have already lived through. They use rhythms that previously were sung in healing rituals and community meetings, in order to reach the music that will be played by instruments that, little by little, are being converted into their partners. Then a lot of people will know that in the hearts of the Emberá Chamí, they are forgetting the sadness of the war with their orchestral harmonies.
As of now, the Emberá Chamí Philharmonic has violins, violas, cellos, traverse flutes, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and basic percussion instruments. Because of a lack of funds, they still lack oboes, French horns, tubas, symphonic cymbals, cornets, symphonic snare drums, cymbals, and marimbas, because some of those instruments cost more than 30 million pesos (nearly USD $8,500) and there are no sponsors that can pay that.
Nevertheless, the lack of some instruments is compensated by the quality of the training that they receive. Sister Philharmonics and, with much more experience, like the Metropolitana in Valle de Aburrá, or the Binational in Medellín, find musicians in their ranks who can serve as teachers, and that will lead, in the not too distant future, to the Emberá Chamí reaching the Latin American concert halls, just as those musicians have.
For Alejandro Vásquez and Rakel Cadavid, Director of Music for Peace, the message they want to send with this Philharmonic, a pioneer in including the indigenous population, is that they will not need patrons or quirky events in order to enter the world of symphony orchestras. Cadavid believes that “the Emberá Chamí Philharmonic has to be just the first step, so that people can see that in Colombia there are many people that want to destigmatize things that are ethnic and something remote, and that more groups like this one should be created. That permits community development and it redirects ways of life, related to stories that many people would have preferred not to tell, for fear of retaliation by capunias (In indigenous towns, that’s what they call the white people.) Here the young people are like guides and they tell stories to the people with the beauty of their music.”
Before the coronavirus, the Philharmonic was in Mexico, where they accompanied a tour by the Binational Philharmonic. That event motivated them and now comes the next step; if the pandemic is kind, they will make more such trips, so that the world will be able to hear the musical expression of the Emberá Chamí.