Dispatches from Colombia: Disconcerted and Concerted in Bogotá

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Dispatches from Colombia: Disconcerted and Concerted in Bogotá

Bogotá has a beat. Colombia’s capital moves to big-city music: reggaeton and Shakira and a lot of USA radio hits. One could make an argument about this last category that American rock and pop music shape the world’s hearts and minds more than any other cultural force—and that includes Trump, 50 Shades of Gray, and Wonder Woman.

Even so, local musical flavors thrive. Cali serves up its salsa, Valledupar the famous vallenato. Medellin plays trova paisa. South, on the great grass plains that spread to the Amazon basin, you hear harp-driven joropo. South by southwest, near Ecuador and Peru, Andean music takes over, timeless tunes played on pan-pipes and charangos, a stringed instrument made of an armadillo shell.

Adela and I recently broke out of our own shells to sample two concerts in Bogotá. Most normal weeks, our 12-year-old young man and 9-year-old young lady devour all our attention. We somehow found a little miraculous free time from parenting.

What musical events do two shell-shocked parents suddenly footloose for a couple of nights choose? Well, what’s cheap? What’s close at hand?

Luckily, we have friends with connections, and a world capital like Bogotá holds a world of musical diversity. Two years ago, por ejemplo, we had chances to pick and choose from among 50 different performances going on citywide to honor a dead white Austrian named Mozart. This year, several dead white Russian composers have the city spotlight, though we’ve not been able to catch a concert yet.

The two concerts we did select (one indoors with free tickets from a patient of Adela’s, the other outdoors and just up the street, and both within walking distance of Adela’s apartment) proved a study in contrasts.

One show hit the spot. The other show was spotty.

The more problematic of the two occurred midweek, in a nice new performance space at Hall 74 of the Universidad Sergio Arboleda. Here, three flautists somehow found their way onstage through a dense layer of special-effect smoke to trill their hearts out for a packed house.

The Ensemble Souffle Nomade-Trio D’Argent proved as earnest as their name, playing technically brilliant pieces in perfect sync and with great facility. The problem? Too often for my American pop-flavored taste, an exceedingly lovely piece gave way to a party-crasher, one of those jaggedly modernist numbers with no beginning, middle, or (heaven help us) end. During those selections, the trio remorselessly fired piercing flute-note slivers into the soft brains of innocent listeners.

One number will remain especially memorable. (Thanks to a little—not enough—PTSD, I don’t recall its title.)

The trio played a round-robin of high-pitched shrills, relentlessly repeated. It would have shattered Philip Glass. We in the audience endured so many long unhappy minutes that I began to reflect on my life and my shortcomings – no winning lottery ticket, a crooked pinkie, incurable blepharitis, etc. Finally, it crossed my mind to leap into my chair, rip my ears off, throw them onstage, and scream, “Stop! I confess! I CONFESS!!”

Adela gently reminded me that our tickets had been the kind gift of a gentleman in the audience, and that she would surgically kick me in the groin, the gut, and the head if I did that. So I sat a while longer, carefully weighing whether I would prefer that pain to the actual pain I heard. Finally, mercifully, it ended. The flautists paused for breath and flipped their scores to another number.

They finished with sweet redemption. Suite Nomade, by Francois Daudin Clavaud, showed off the amazing range of colors and intricacies possible for three men to produce from long hollow pieces of metal using human breath, pursed lips, and precocious fingers.

During that finale, I remembered the leg bone of a crane that archaeologists unearthed in a cave a few years back. It held distinct drilled holes for fingers. It was, of course, a flute, maybe the earth’s first musical instrument after the drum.

So the flute ensemble plays its part in an ongoing human tradition.

The second concert, on a Saturday night, brought home a celebrated native Colombian band. Monsieur Periné spends so much time in Europe and elsewhere in the world these days that the home-town folks in Bogota don’t get to see them much.

On recordings, Catalina García, a charming, fresh-faced chanteuse with a beguiling voice, seems like the whole show. Her peppy style might have something to do with family tradition – it seems caffeine plantations in Colombia’s coffee country have been in her family for four generations.

Yet it’s not just Catalina, it turns out. Live, Monsieur Periné’s two guitarists, Santiago Prieto and Nicolás Junca, along with a T-bone player, two drummers, a bassist, and a bounding sax/clarinetist, make things a party. Gypsy and Euro-cabaret influences show up – natural when you learn that the guitar players obsessively worship Django Reinhardt, the path-breaking guitarist with Romani roots whose distinctive jazz sound colors much 20th-century guitar playing. To copy Django’s chops, both guitarristas ordered their axes online – they couldn’t find the right guitars in their home town.

García got Frenchified in childhood language classes in Cali. In the day, the film industry was big there – Colombians called it Caliwood. Moviemakers brought European sophistication to town, and the young singer picked it up and layered it into her native Colombian music.

This winsome blend of Old World and New World style is delightful. (Adela and I aren’t alone in our tastes. Monsieur Periné’s album Caja de Música earned a 2015 Latin Grammy for Best New Artist.) The band is also delightful to watch, blending the joy of a New Orleans street festival with the giddy abandon of a gypsy wedding.

For folks who don’t get out much, both concerts nicely broke the humdrum routines of the workaday world. Thank goodness for bird bones and flutes. Thank goodness for chanteuses and Django.

Adela and I sang like free birds all the way home those nights.


Charles McNair is Paste’s Books editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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