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History of the Andean music
    Land of winds > Music > History | Issue 12 (Nov.-Dec.2012)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Introduction to Afro-Bolivian music


Introduction to Afro-Bolivian music

The royal Instrucciones signed by the Catholic Kings of Spain in September 1501 authorized for the first time the introduction of African slaves in American colonial possessions. This marked the beginning of a long and painful history of exploitation and violence that would end toward the mid of the 19th century having left a lasting legacy in Latin American identities and culture.

The presence of African slaves in present-day Bolivia can be traced back to 1550 when first appeared the buy-sell agreements in the Imperial Village of Potosí; half a century later their number reached 5.000 in this town and neighbouring Oropeza. Many of them came from the Caribbean Islands through Panama and Lima, though most of the slaves were smuggled through the port of Buenos Aires (where slaves commerce was prohibited until 1776).

Slaves were taken into Bolivia to work in the silver mines of the Cerro Rico de Potosí. After their population was decimated by exploitation and disease indigenous workers were recruited to mine silver. In urban areas black slaves were used as coachmen, house servants, couriers, labourers, loaders, while in rural areas (especially in the yungas or warm valleys to the north and east of La Paz and Cochabamba) were brought in to work coca-leaf plantations. Since 1574 they were also send to work at the National Mint of Bolivia in Potosí (where silver coins were said to have been minted with their sweat).


National Mint of Bolivia, in Wikipedia.
Article. "Bartolomé de las Casas y la esclavitud africana", by Luis N. Rivera Pagán [es].


All Afro-Bolivian people, whether slaves or free men, were subjected to strict control, marginalization and discrimination during the colonial period, what provoked strong resistance and led many to escape and join different geographic/social/cultural groups. They even managed to established strategic alliances with rebel indigenous groups (i.e. the Avá or Chiriwano) to organise rebellions against colonial authorities.

Independence and the Republic were proclaimed in 1825, however the livings conditions of the Afro-Bolivian people remained mostly the same: they continued working in estates located in the yungas, where exploitation forced them to flee and become "cimarrones" and bandits. Therefore they were stigmatized as anti-heroes and thieves, mostly by their Aymara neighbours, who since colonial times had regarded them as dirty, contemptible and unreliable people. Slavery was abolished in 1851 under the presidency of Isidoro Belzu, but despite the legal relationship between patrons and Afro-Bolivian people had changed, the latter continued being discriminated and neglected.

Their situation improved in 1952 after Bolivia’s Nationalist Revolution (which sought greater social justice) and the Agrarian Reform of 1953; Afro-descendants communities became owners of their land which were fertile enough to produce citrus fruits, coffee and coca. Rural-to-urban migration intensified in the 70s and 80s. After arriving in the cities, immigrants set up organisations to maintain a collective identity such as the Movimiento Cultural Saya Afroboliviana in La Paz (created in 1988) and the Centro de Residentes Yungueños in Santa Cruz (created in 1993). These movements started to mobilize against long lasting discrimination and humiliation by (re)constructing and spreading their social and cultural history. A review of existing documents describing the past and present challenges Afro-Bolivian people face/have faced in their lives show that most of them have been elaborated by these organizations.


Introduction to the Afro-Bolivian music

The 1996 census showed that Afro-Bolivian population was above 20.000, mostly settled to the east of La Paz department: in the surroundings of Coroico (Tocaña, Mururata, Chijchipa, Yarisa), in the province of de Nor-Yungas, and near Chulumani (Chicaloma, Colpar, Naranjani) in the province of Sud-Yungas. This population is smaller than the informed one in other Andean countries like Peru or Ecuador, perhaps due to the smaller number of Africans imported as slaves to labour in the silver mines of Bolivia.

Although the customs and traditions of the native Aymara people (including their clothing, beliefs, music and dance) soon dominated the Afro-descendants' lifestyle, they retained some of their old customs and practices. One of them was the saya.

The saya (allegedly from Kikongo nsaya, "community activity led by a leading voice") is a form of collective music-making, singing and dancing which, unlike Aymara musical expressions, is not associated to an agricultural or religious calendar but to important moments for the community life.

The saya is performed on a set of three different drums (tambor mayor or "large drum", tambor menor or "small drum" and ganyengo), a güiro (cuancha) and the rattles attached to the dancers' feet; four decades ago they also used a matraca (ratchet). The signing is basically talking poetry: it consists of coplas improvised on fixed traditional chorus which defines the topic for the song (religion, love, history). The dance is sober, subtle and rhythmic; community dancers are guided by the so-called "guides" or "caporales", while the complete musical representation (percussionists, singers, dancers) is conducted by a "dance captain" or "square major".

Afro-Bolivian people also perform other dances and musical expressions such as the land dance or black cueca (Spanish, baile de tierra or cueca negra, representing the process of falling in love, engagement and marriage), the black huayno (a farewell chant to say goodbye to the newly married couple performed by the godparents), the mauchi (funeral music) and the semba or zemba (pair dance to honour fertility, which used to be performed at the beginning of Easter). Regretfully, other old dances such as the tundiqui have disappeared – at least in their original form.

Within Bolivian modern culture, mostly based on the traditions of the Aymara people living on the Altiplano and, to a lesser extent, on those of the Quechua people settled in the Andean Valleys, African "influences" are also incorporated. However, the role of the later and their process of influence have not been properly understood since most of the cultural expressions in present-day Bolivia do not portray Africans in a fair, realistic light, but in rather a sarcastic, stereotyped and discriminatory manner.

Despite an official (even academic) narrative stating until recently that an important part of the present-day Bolivian folklore (including such famous dances as the morenada, the caporales, the "saya andina" and the negritos) derives from African slaves or is inspired by their culture, the fact is that all of them mock not only their physical appearance but also their pain and suffering.

The case of the so-called "saya andina" is even worse: some urban music and dance groups appropriated the term "saya" and "re-invented" it, adding sexual overtones to it plus a number of exotic touches which certainly are not part of the original saya. Under the title of "Afro-Bolivian saya" and such labels as "the sensual rhythm" or "the hot flavour", groups like Los Kjarkas offered a clearly manipulated version (which took advantage of a disfavoured identity) obtaining profitable sales. A very popular variant of this "saya andina" is known as the caporales, which neither has anything in common with Afro-Bolivian culture as it is suggested in copla belonging to an Afro-Bolivian saya:

Después de quinientos años no me vayas a cambiar
el bello ritmo de saya por ritmo de caporal.
    [After five hundred years do not dare to change the beautiful rhythm of the saya for the rhythm of caporal.]
Los Kjarkas están confundiendo la saya y el caporal,
lo que ahora están escuchando es saya original.
    [Los Kjarkas are mixing up the saya and the caporal, what you are now listening to is the original saya.]

Nowadays, Afro-Bolivian organizations are mobilizing to bring attention to the issue of their cultural identity being appropriated and distorted by third parties. One of their achievements was the recognition of the Afro-Bolivian saya of La Paz department as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO (2007). In addition, on September 23rd is celebrated the National Day of the Afro-Bolivian People and Culture. For their part, Bolivian scholars are clarifying the origins of several dances and rhythms hitherto regarded as "afros", while commercial music groups which, until recently, had taken advantage of them (like Hiru Hicho) are now focussing on other areas of the folk music tradition.


Afro-Bolivian Saya, in Wikipedia.
Afro Bolivian, in Wikipedia.
Article. "Expresiones controvertidas: Afrobolivianos y su cultura entre presentaciones y representaciones", by Lioba Rossbach de Olmos. In Indiana, 24 (2007), pp. 173-190 [es].
Article. "La Reymundita se está casando: Testimonio de vida de una mujer afroboliviana", by José Luis Delgado G. [es].
Article. "La música afroboliviana", by Walter Sánchez C. In Boletín del Inian-Museo [es].
Article. "Saya afroboliviana". In Projeto Paralelo 15 [pt].
Articles in the weblog Raíces Afros en Bolivia [es].


Imagen 01. Afro-Bolivian saya drums at the Festividad del Gran Poder in La Paz.
Imagen 02. Afro-Bolivian saya drums in the yungas.
Imagen 03. Percussion section of the Afro-Bolivian saya.
Imagen 04. Dance ensemble of Afro-Bolivian saya in the yungas.
Imagen 05. Dance ensemble of Afro-Bolivian saya.
Imagen 06. Female dancers of Afro-Bolivian saya.
Imagen 07. Group of Afro-Bolivian saya (female dancers and percussion).
Imagen 08. Afro-Bolivian women.
Imagen 09. Street procession of Afro-Bolivian saya.


Video 01. Solidarity in saya (documentary trailer).
Video 02. Saya MOCUSABOL.
Video 03. Afro-Bolivian saya.
Video 04. Reino de saya (literally, Kingdom of saya, documentary film 2007), first part [es].
Video 05. Reino de saya (literally, Kingdom of saya, documentary film 2007), second part [es].
Video 06. The Afro-Bolivian saya at the Carnival of La Paz 2012.
Video 07. Saya Afroboliviana Mauchi.
Video 08. Cueca negra (Black cueca).
Video 09. Huayno negro (Black huayno).


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