Interview: Q&A with Adrian Sabogal; Marimbea – A Marimba Will Save the World

Foto Marimbea 1

To save the world you have to start somewhere… And what’s better than the smooth and soothing sound of a marimba as an inception?

At Rhythm Passport, we always look forward and warmly embrace projects aiming to effectively make a real difference through music. Some months ago, at Womex in Porto, we had the opportunity to meet Adrian Sabogal. A guitarist, educator and prime mover of a little miracle happening on the Colombian Pacific Coast, Marimbea.

 The organisation, launched in 2016, and its activities are not just meant to shine a light on the importance and spread the sound of an instrument like the marimba, welcoming “musical tourists” from all over the world to discover the culture and traditions of the region through first-hand experiences and courses. Its ambition is also to make an effective and positive impact on the local communities who, too often overlooked by their national government, are in desperate need of new opportunities and scope.

To learn more about Marimbea and the organic microcosm which was set in motion and is starting to revolve around the organisation, we couldn’t help but reach out to Adrian (via email) in Colombia and be introduced to his forward-looking project…

Can you briefly introduce us to Marimbea? When did the project start and why?

For a better understanding, I think it’s important to start with a little background from myself. I was born in Cali, a city that’s very close to the Colombian Pacific, and I was raised in Bogotá, the capital city, which is very far and disconnected from the Pacific. In Bogotá, I studied jazz guitar at the Javeriana University, and despite my numerous travels to Cali to visit my family, never felt exposed to the Afro-Colombian culture from the Pacific. In Colombia, we have a very diverse culture, but very often we know very little about those different cultures, sometimes it feels like we live in different countries. My interest in the Pacific started in 2004 during my studies at the university, attending some classes out of my curriculum focused on Afro Colombian music. That was the first time I heard the “Marimba de Chonta”, and that beautiful and mysterious sound got stuck in my mind and heart, and planted in me an enormous curiosity. 

That’s how, a musician from the interior of the country, started a quest to meet and learn from the traditional musicians from the coast, travelling to Festival Petronio Álvarez in Cali initially (A massive festival of Afro Colombian music in Colombia), and then travelling to the towns of the Pacific: Guapi, Tumaco, Timbiquí, and Buenaventura. In a short time, I had a band in Bogotá, combining local musicians with some musicians from the Pacific that lived in the city, that band was named Pambil, and we performed and toured a lot for several years. After years of enjoying this process of learning, practising, and getting a better understanding of the culture of those Afro Colombian communities, in 2016 I started a workshop in Bogotá for musicians and not musicians, to practise the Marimba Music and traditional chants from the Pacific. That space was embraced by locals, and it evolved from a workshop to an experience, when the same students told me they wanted to taste the “Viche” (an ancestral alcoholic drink based on sugar cane), to learn the dance, and the traditional recipes because all of that is named constantly in the traditional songs we learned. Well, we ended up bringing the traditional musicians to Bogotá to tell the histories and teach the music, we included the Viche, dancing, and traditional cooking during the musical sessions, and ultimately, we took the whole experience to the Pacific coast beaches. With that evolution from workshop to experience, Marimbea was born.

We know that the region where you work, the Colombian South Pacific departments of Nariño and Cauca, is one of the most vibrant and stunning in the country considering its cultural expressions and natural wonders. At the same time, it is also one of the least developed, poorly resourced and overlooked by the government, and it can almost be considered as a country on its own. What’s your relationship with the area and why did you decide to base and launch your project there?

Two contrasting realities coexist throughout the Colombian Pacific coast. First, is the reality of violence, abandonment, and historical marginalisation that the Afro-Colombian population experiences. Second, the magic of a territory inhabited by communities that resist and vibrate with music and dance, keeping alive the traditions of their ancestors. Its roads are the rivers and mangroves where days pass by while fishing and cultivating the land. They are skilled artisans, and they heal themselves with ancestral drinks prepared with plants that grow in the jungle. Moreover, they are exceptional chefs, who impregnate their recipes with their enriching and uncomplicated way of looking at life. 

In Marimbea we design remarkable experiences to immerse people in the music, dance, cuisine, and other ancestral knowledge from this region, and the final goal of all this, Is to contribute to the well-being of the Afro-Colombian communities. We do this by generating alternative sources of income for their inhabitants, enabling knowledge exchanges, and cultivating support networks for their cultural agents. We see our role as a bridge between two worlds that need each other, the Pacific needing resources and recognition, and the other part needing more joy, community sense, and resilience through culture.

The main focus of Marimbea is to offer its participants unique, enriching, and formative experiences. How does that happen?

Our experiences combine in the best way possible all the powerful components of the Afro-Colombian culture from the Pacific: gastronomy, music, dance, ancestral drinks, and instrument building amongst others. People are invited to take an active role in all we do, not only hearing the music but playing, not only seeing the dance but dancing, not only understanding how a recipe is made but cooking, and so on. The most important thing here is not your experience in any of those fields, it is embracing your curiosity and being open to having a life-changing experience, at the same time you leave a relevant contribution to these communities. 

Our experiences go from a three-hour experience in Bogotá, if you’re on your way to Cartagena or somewhere else, or don’t have that much time in the country, to a 4-day trip to the Pacific Coast, combining cultural activities with relaxation on its astonishing beaches, watching humpback whales, and ecological tours. We have also taken our experiences to the US, Spain, and Chile, and we’re already thinking of the UK, so this experience might come close to you!

Sadly, the South Pacific Coast region of Colombia is often represented and reported as being one of the most dangerous of the country, with news recording clashes between armed groups, killings and threats to the population. How is this affecting the project and how could you be able to create some sort of “safe haven” with Marimbea?

We can’t deny the realities of the towns we work in. And safety is the number one priority on our trips. The big national and international media do great damage to these populations by isolating them and making the situation even worse because It’s true that violence occurs there, but it’s very focused on certain areas and it doesn’t happen all the time. So what we do in Marimbea to prevent any security situation, is to program activities in places far from the focus of violence, mostly touristic places. We are connected all the time with local organisations that provide real-time information about the safety situation in the towns, so anytime they turn on some safety alert we immediately take any action needed to protect our participants. 

About the subject, this is Kim Rowell’s post from the BBC on her personal social media after attending our Marimbea Retreat in Tumaco:

A local in Bogotá said to me retrospectively: “Didn’t the British Embassy tell you not to go there?” 😳 Had the absolute DELIGHT of visiting one of the areas affected most by conflict in Colombia: Tumaco.

We explored cultural alternatives for communities there, whilst learning to play the music on an island just off of Colombia’s South Pacific coast. It was amazing.

To what extent is Marimbea already connecting with and helping the local communities and what are your aspirations? Where do you see the project and its involvement with the local communities in 5 years’ time?

Marimbea is not a small organisation, but we are glad to be benefiting around 110 musicians and cultural workers of the region, and 15 cultural organisations. Because of Marimbea’s work, those organisations had claimed to have an important increase in their income through cultural activities, and have also more visibility that helped them to find more opportunities and strategic allies to sustain their cultural activities.

Apart from the income they got from the experiences we sell, people are connected to a worldwide network that Marimbea has built. Amongst the most recent impacts of this international network, there’s a 7” vinyl that will be released in Tokyo by Okra label, with the music of one of the oldest and most important traditional singers we work with in Tumaco: Alba Maria Valencia and Cantoras de Yerbabuena. Also in Tumaco, the Bejuco band and foundation received a donation of Roland equipment, which was possible through our ally In Place of War from the UK. We are also recently supported by the program Territorios de Oportunidad from the USAID, to enhance the activities we do around cultural tourism in areas affected by conflict.

In 5 years’ time, I see Marimbea being a worldwide model to work with music, culture, and communities. I see how the music industry is struggling with the all-time models, so this could be one way to help the growth of income, audiences, and sustainability. It has been very interesting to see how the path has led us to step into cultural tourism, documentary film, social impact, experience design, and innovative musical and cultural research. I’m also curious about what else we can explore to expand the potential of Marimbea in the upcoming years.

Marimbea is already counting on a well-assorted and close-knit team. Can you introduce us to the Marimbea family members?

Local Links: We will name them in the further question, they are our main allies in the towns of the Pacific, and they help with logistics, performances, classes, and security information.

Gaviota Acevedo: Political Scientist with MA in Peace Building, she’s the one in charge of monitoring the social responsibility of Marimbea’s projects, the international cooperation communication, and the designer of the training process to strengthen locals’ capabilities for cultural tourism. 

José Cardona: Graphic designer, he’s in charge of the design of our visual identity, promotional pieces, and visual resources for the training of locals. He specialises in working with indigenous and afro communities, respecting how people want to be represented in graphics. 

Carlos Manuel Palomino: Audiovisual director with experience in working with indigenous and afro communities of the Pacific Coast. He’s in charge of the production of promotional audiovisuals to sell our experiences. 

Edwin Ospina: Film songwriter working in Antonio Pinto’s studio in Brazil, he’s in charge of the incidental music of the films produced by Marimbea. 

Andrés Santiago Moreno: Lawyer, he’s in charge of all the legal advisory for our activities. 

Mario Mendoza and Rodrigo Echeverría: Two professional musicians, enthusiastic about the culture of the Pacific, they help us with logistics and monitoring musical activities. 

Lina Soto: Accountant, She’s in charge of all the administrative labours in the organisation.

We know that a crucial aspect of the project is the presence, guidance, and support offered by local “cicerones”. Can you introduce us to some of these “local guides” and how did you get in touch and start collaborating with them?

Our relationship with the people of the Pacific starts with great admiration and respect for their ancestral heritage. But ultimately, we always approach them as equals, building most of the time a durable friendship, and creating a safe space where they can share their knowledge in a spontaneous way, where they can be sure they are being treated fairly. Our goodwill inside the communities comes from the voices of those who have participated in Marimbea’s activities, and have received the benefits promised, in some opportunities much more than what they expected. 

One of the strong points of Marimbea is its first-hand, direct participation model, but the project can also count on virtual/online experiences. Would you like to tell us a bit more about the two souls of the project? How do the in-person and online dimensions work and interact?

During the Pandemic, we looked, like everyone else, at how to take our products to the virtual world. Fast enough, we realised that it was impossible to recreate our face-to-face experiences in a virtual scenario because of its sensory content. So we decided to create a new type of experience in a form of a virtual course, where the interaction is based on resources we made for people to practise at their homes the traditional music, dance, cooking, and other ancestral knowledge like hand-crafts and poetry.

For creating this material we won a grant from the program Territorios de Oportunidad, a program funded by the USAID. With that support, we had the amazing opportunity of creating high-level content with a film crew under the direction of Jose Varon, a young talented film director from Cali. We filmed in four different towns in the Pacific: Guapi, Tumaco, Timbiquí, and Barbacoas. These courses are called #VibraPacifico (Pacific Vibes), and it is online, fully translated to English, ready for anybody who wants to have a first approach to this culture. Wherever you are, you can dive and learn with this very rich and unique material guided by locals, see images of towns that most of the same Colombians haven’t seen, and of course, support locals with your contribution.

The marimba is not only the first source of inspiration for your project, but also one of the main cultural expressions of the region. Can you explain to us the significance of the instrument for the local communities?

The Marimba de Chonta, as you said, is one of the most representative instruments of the region, and it is very relevant in its music as well. But, voices are not left behind in importance in the traditions, indeed, you have plenty of rhythms and spiritual celebrations that were traditionally played with only voices and drums. The presence of the Marimba is requested in a particular rhythm like Bambuco Viejo or Agualarga, but in other rhythms, mainly the ones played in spiritual celebrations like the Juga, Bunde, and Tambarria the Marimba, the chonta has been included just recently.

For locals, the reason for having the Marimba relegated only to specific rhythms has two main reasons: one is the diabolization of the Marimba that occurred during the colonial times, where catholic priests burned and threw the Marimbas into the rivers because they said it was an instrument from the devil, and somehow they left people to praise Catholic saints with the drums and voices. The second reason was because some of the spiritual rites happen in marching processions, so it was almost impossible, or at least very difficult, to march with big and heavy Marimbas that besides, were held in the houses of the musicians. With the appearance of modern lighter and smaller Marimbas, they have been including it more in those kinds of spiritual events. That’s why the recognition of UNESCO as a World heritage includes “Marimba Music and traditional Chants from the Southern Pacific Coast of Colombia”.

For someone who has never listened to the sound of marimba and/or knows anything about the music from Nariño or Cauca… Where should they start from? Would you like to suggest any artist/band/album to listen to, a book to read or movie/documentary to watch as an introduction to the culture and traditions of Colombia South Pacific Coast?

I will give you three recommendations: 

A book: Rites, Rights and Rhythms: A Genealogy of Musical Meaning in Colombia’s Black PacificMichael Birenbaum

A documentary: La Marimba de los Espíritus (Sadly it doesn’t have original subs in English, but you can activate automatic subs offered in YouTube)

A music videoclip: “Bogando” by Semblanzas del Rio Guapi

Let’s wrap up our interview on a “music note”. Would you like to put together a playlist to introduce our readers to the sound of marimba and Marimbea?

We created this playlist including some of the artists we mentioned that work with us.

And a very last question… How can people learn more about the project and its activities? And what would you say to invite them to join and experience Marimbea (both in person in Colombia or online)?

You can be connected to all of our activities through our social media, or just write us an email, telling us where you are based and saying you are interested in receiving more information about our activities. 

I positively invite you to dig into this beautiful culture and get as fanatical as I am. Our main goal with Marimbea is that you come with us to the Pacific to have the most amazing cultural experience of your life! But, if you feel you need to have some steps in between, you can always visit our virtual experiences of Vibra Pacífico, or ask us for a live online experience. Last but not least, we might come close to you with one of our experiences, so stay tuned!

 


The next Marimbea retreat will take place in Tumaco in May 2023. In the meantime, you can get in touch and follow Marimbea vie social media and email:

 

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