Location: Bowdoin / Latin American Studies / activity / 2011 / Faculty Focus: A conversation with Michael Birenbaum Quintero

Latin American Studies

Faculty Focus: A conversation with Michael Birenbaum Quintero

Story posted May 04, 2012

Michael Birenbaum QuinteroWhat got you interested in studying Afro-Colombian music of the Pacific?

I was really interested in questions of racial identity in Colombia.  I actually started off working on the Caribbean coast with a popular music called champeta, a local version of Nigerian, Congolese and Haitian music played on these huge sound systems. That music was super interesting and a lot of fun. Then in the summer of 2001, while I was waiting to hear if I would get into graduate school, I taught English in Japan. On the way out there, I visited a friend in San Francisco, where I ran into a CD of music from Colombia’s Pacific coast, a kind of music that I’d never heard of before. I didn’t actually listen to it until I was in Japan, but when I put in this CD …I’d never heard anything like it before: it was very strange, but absolutely gorgeous. The music was love at first hear.

How long have you been doing research on this music?

I’ve been visiting river communities on the Pacific coast since 2002. The Pacific coast is the heart of the black social movement in Colombia. I started researching how discussions of “tradition” and “culture” were used in the movement. And, in fact, the black social movement in Colombia is about territorial claims, and those territorial claims are based on particular cultural practices that involve music. 

Can you tell us a little more about how music and territory work together?

Territory is essential to how music works among Afro-Colombians. People live along rivers in the rainforest; it’s a very particular kind of sound environment. Singing, for example, uses a lot of leaps to falsetto because of how that sound reverberates off the river. The construction of the instruments also depends on people’s knowledge of their environment. So, the bamboo used to make marimbas needs to be cut when there is no moon: the full moon brings up the tide and the water table in the bamboo so that it takes longer to dry. Pacific coast riverbank communities also have particular relationships with the spirit world and with saints. Their musical practices bring all of these aspects of culture, environment, and sound together.

What is this kind of music called?

It’s usually called currulao. It’s played on the marimba and percussion instruments, with harmony singing. It’s beautiful, complex, very distinct, very spiritual music -  deep stuff.

ColumbiaHow is currulao linked to social movements in Colombia?

In part because of the pressures of the Afro- and indigenous movements, Colombia passed a new constitution in 1991 that recognized a pluri-ethnic and multicultural nation. Afro-Colombians mobilized themselves politically around the idea of themselves as a cultural minority that should be recognized by the state. In Colombia, in general, people understand (ethnic and racial) difference through indigenous people – different languages, different cultural practices. Black Colombians are not seen as different enough to be Indians but are viewed as too debased to be full citizens.

In the Constitutional Assembly, Afro-Colombians faced a lot of skepticism from politicians who thought the idea of black cultural rights was just opportunism. In response, the activists made a cultural demonstration of music, local language, and oral poetry, right there on the floor of the Assembly to show that Afro-Colombians do things differently – and their right to collective territory is based on this cultural difference.

These questions are not just academic musings – there is a lot at stake here. Afro-Colombian communities have been deeply affected by Colombia’s internal conflict – a war that’s been going on 50 years. Drastic human rights violations have affected black and indigenous populations disproportionately. Culture is one of the few resources they have to defend themselves, but it’s also one of the elements most threatened by the conflict.

So what will your book be titled?

Rites, Rights, and Rhythms: A Genealogy of Musical Meaning in Colombia’s Black Pacific. I’m in the process of writing it up. The book basically goes through the history of the last 300 years and asks how this music became the black music of the southern Pacific: How did this music become black? How did it become linked to the Pacific? How did local intellectuals make a place for themselves and for this political movement in the context of the Colombian state’s own nation-making? And, finally, how do local people react to all of these large-scale processes in their musical practices?

Michael Birenbaum Quintero, Assistant Professor of Music, studies music and political movements in Colombia, focusing on the Afro-Colombian music of the Pacific coast. He began his tenure track position at Bowdoin in Fall 2010. He teaches courses on Black Musics in Latin America and the Caribbean, Latino Music in the U.S., Ethnomusicology, and the Afro-Latin Music Ensemble. - Interview originally published in the Bowdoin Latin American Studies Newsletter
— By Krista Van Vleet