Monday, June 22, 2009

la saya

Many people who visit Carmen Pampa are often surprised to learn about the Afro-Bolivian communities in the Yungas.  The descendants of slaves brought to Bolivia from Africa to work in the silver mines of Potosi in the early 1600s, Afro-Bolivians eventually settled in the sub-tropical, coca-growing Yungas.  

A young woman dances the Saya in Coroico. The women's costumes, typically white dress with colorful details, incorporates the cholita dress with the full, pollera skirt.

Today, there are several Afro-Bolivian communities scattered throughout the Yungas.  Most of our Afro-Bolivian students here at the UAC-CP come from the small village of Tocaña--about a half hour drive from Coroico. (In fact, several of our graduates and students have been working to promote tourism in the little village--it's a potential land mine for tourists, who would undoubtedly love the experience of Tocaña, if they knew about it. Any travel guide I've seen makes minute mention of Afro-Bolivians.)

On Saturday night I went to Coroico to see the first annual International Saya Festival which (coincidentally?) was also the Aymaran New Year. It was a showcase of La Saya--the music and dance of the Afro-Latino people. A Wikipedia entry about the Saya says:  "The biggest African influence in Bolivian culture is Saya music or La Saya. Saya, which is growing in popularity in Bolivia, is still very misunderstood. In fact, no one except the Afro-Bolivians themselves seem to be able to interpret it. The reason for this lack of understanding of Saya is because the interpretation of the instruments as well as the rhythm is very peculiar. It involves Andean instruments incorporated with African percussion." 

Men beat the drums and play an assortment of other Andean "music-makin'" instruments.

For me, it's impossible to listen and watch the Saya without feeling. The music--the drum beat, the singing--is physically moving. And the words, the lyrics, are the music's emotional counterpart.

Saturday night, the first group to dance represented the Afro-Bolivian town of Chicaloma located in the South Yungas. As women and men danced, the strong voice of an Afro-Bolivian man sang "Orgullo. Orgullo. Orgullo. ...Orgullo ser campesiño." Proud to be a peasant farmer.

Other songs had similar messages--they told the stories of former slaves, who now work harvesting coca; the stories of people who are proud to be Bolivian; the stories of people who are ready to move forward, without forgetting who they are or where they come from.  In fact, the last Saya I watched on Saturday was about raices--roots.

Men and women from an Afro-Bolivian community dancing La Saya in the streets of Coroico. 

Traditional music and dance here in Bolivia is such a central part of peoples' lives. In fact, to call it 'as American as apple pie or baseball' would be a grave understatement.  I know it's something that I, as an outsider will never be able to completely appreciate. Though on Saturday, as I waited for a midnight ride back to Carmen Pampa, a UAC-CP student provided me with sincere and valuable insight.

"La Saya," Fabiola said, "is so important to the Afro-Bolivian community. They are people who have suffered so much; they have had so many things taken from them. They have had to work so hard to have so little in their lives. But the Saya," she continued, "the Saya belongs to the Afro-Bolivian people, it's theirs. And nobody can ever take that from them."

Full disclosure: The pictures on this post were taken by a visitor at Coroico's October 20th festival last year.  It was much too dark to take pictures at the International Saya Festival on Saturday night!

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