On Music, Tradition and Race: Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto take Brooklyn

When I was a kid, my dad, my stepdad and one of my dad’s friends sometimes helped organize concerts in Bogotá for this band called Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto.

San Jacinto is a small town in the Bolívar region, in the Colombian Caribbean, not too far from Cartagena, and a gaitero is someone who plays a gaita (a word which also means “bagpipe” in Spanish), which is a long, wooden flute-like instrument, topped by some bee wax holding a small straw made from a duck’s feather (or plastic, sometimes).

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The concerts were always held at small venues in dark, empty streets, that I shouldn’t have been allowed into, and they tended to start at a time when I probably shouldn’t have been awake. But, despite my young intolerance to late nights, I did my best to stay up, because I was constantly mesmerized by the sound of these men, the intricate banging of their drums, the dexterity with which they played maracas, the high-pitched, yet subtle gaitas commanding the orchestra, and the honesty with which every song was sang: how true their voice sounded, how it made me feel like I was in the depths of La Costa, tending to my animals and dedicating love poems to girls, even though I had never been in that position.

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Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto have been playing since 1940, and have bestowed their name and musical traditions upon generations of sons, grandsons and apprentices. For the past seven decades, they have toured Colombia and the world, bringing to audiences the original sound of cumbia, a genre that has traveled far and has evolved in different countries (like Mexico, Peru, Argentina and others) into true national folklore, but whose roots remain popular.

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After one of their concerts in Bogotá, my stepdad was gifted two gaitas which we kept in our living room. One of them had three holes at the bottom, the other one had five. I remember being frustrated because my arms weren’t long enough to cover all of the holes. On the one with more holes I could manage some sounds, but the other one was impossible for me. One time, one of the gaiteros explained to me the differences between both types of gaitas: “there are female and male gaitas,” he said, “and the female gaita is of course the one with more holes!” It took me a few years to catch that joke.

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Gaitas are indigenous instruments, played for centuries by the Koguis and Arhuacos of what is now northern Colombia. But the drums used by Los Gaiteros – alegre, llamador and tambora – are distinctly African. This makes sense: Cartagena was once the biggest slave port of the American continent. Many aboriginal tribes thrived not far from it, and survived despite’s the Spaniards best efforts. And it is perhaps in the music of such places (and not only cumbia) where lies the truest instance of the “mix of cultures” tale we Colombians tell ourselves (sometimes to hide our racism towards Afro-Colombians and indigenous people).

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So I was excited when I found out that Los Gaiteros would be part of the amazing Afrolatino Festival of New York, and that they would be playing in Brooklyn, where I now live. Daniela Valero (a wonderful Latin America is a Country contributor) and I were lucky enough to get an interview with the current line-up (which you’ll be able to see soon!) just before their set at a venue in Bushwick. It was the largest place at which I had seen them play, and it seemed like an ocean of people was present, ready to dance to every intonation these men had to offer.

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One time, back in Bogotá, one gaitero came near my dad’s friend during the after-party of a concert and told him “you know what? Don’t pay us money today. Just don’t leave and give us more rum!”. Maybe he was being facetious – my sense of humor hadn’t developed yet, if it has developed at all – but that set the tone for me for every time I heard Los Gaiteros’s music: it was, more than a performance, a communal celebration, more than a service, a party with close friends.

IMG_8556 2revIn Brooklyn, led by the wonderful voice of maestro Rafael Castro, Los Gaiteros performed most of their classics, some songs composed by the newest generation, and even debuted a song penned by Castro himself. At some point they also brought out a clarinet, a definitive instrument for cumbias from the 60s and 70s that have become staples of any Colombian party, and that were also performed in this show.

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It seemed to me that all of Latin America was there listening to them, and everyone I saw or spoke to seemingly agreed that we were seeing something remarkable. It was definitely the best show I’ve seen Los Gaiteros perform. This one started as late as those in Bogotá. But by the end of this, I was pretty much awake, and just as happy.

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(All of these pictures were taken by me at the day of Los Gaiteros concert in The Wick, Bushwick, including those below):

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