Dispatches from Colombia: Battle of the Bandas

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Dispatches from Colombia: Battle of the Bandas

A musician friend here in Bogotá told me something once that perked up my gringo ears: “Every Colombian is a drummer.”

It feels true, genetic. I hear Colombian rhythms in dozens of places each day, the lively beating heart of a nation with the same wild mix of colors and cultures and ethnicities as you find in that throbbing musical groin of the USA—good old New Orleans.

In the Big Easy, sailors, settlers, and traders of white, black, Spanish, French, British, you name it, stock created a gumbo of colors and cultures. Here in Colombia, Europeans and blacks intermingled too, with an added spice, indigenous peoples.

You hear the mixed rhythms in the many musical expressions born—or borne along—on Colombian drumbeats: Vallenato. Cumbia. Porro. Joropo. Bambuco. Champeta. Pasillo. Mapalé. Tropipop. Bullerengue. Salsa, of course. Recently, reggaeton. And rock, pop, and musica romantica.

[CM note: New Orleans might well have had more Native American rhythms. But after Andrew Jackson took care of a little “British problem” in New Orleans in 1814, he moved on to cruelly end an “Indian problem” in the Southeast. Jackson rides a high horse in a square in New Orleans that bears his name, but ask Native Americans about The Trail of Tears (1938-1939) and see if they don’t support taking Old Hickory away in the dead of night, the way New Orleans recently did with its monuments to the Confederacy. Many Cherokees and Creeks may even suggest Colonel Jackson be dropped—high horse, pigeon-droppings, and all—off a bridge into the Mighty Mississip’.]

Whatever pulse of heritage can be credited, our 12-year-old, Juan Manuel, seems bound to make a mark for himself as a drummer, if he chooses.

One rainy, cold Friday a few weeks back, our whole family turned out to see Juanma in a battle of the bands—a Batuta de Plata, as it’s called—in a small stadium north of metro Bogotá.

Batuta means baton—the prize of silver carried off by the winner of this contest among bandas marciales, military-style bands, like the one at Juanma’s school, Gymnasio Moderno. The 11- to 18-year-old band members march to drums, trumpets, and xylophones. That’s it.

The bands wear smart uniforms trimmed in school colors (green and orange for Moderno), and the young musicians make a stirring sight spread out, 100 strong, in echelon over a soccer field.

Stakes are high in the annual event. Moderno, like the Crimson Tide in U.S. college football, lays claim to a tradition of excellence in band competition matched by few other private schools. In fact, only one, a bitter rival, has won as many Batutas in competition.

To get an idea of the pressures on these kids, consider this. In all Bogotá, a city of 11 million (more people than in the state of Georgia) Moderno arguably ranks among the best private educational institutions. All male, its founder a European-influenced visionary, the school this year alone has hosted two former Nobel literature laureates (J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul) and the world-renowned Colombian musical ensemble Monsieur Periné.

A high standard of excellence always challenges the young men of Gymnasio Moderno. The school knows it. The students know it. The parents and families know it.

What’s remarkable here is that the band does not have an adult instructor. The kids themselves do everything. They select the musical numbers. They choreograph on-field movements. They orchestrate the pieces, select soloists, maintain the instruments, set practice hours, and motivate performance.

And they practice, practice, practice. This April and into May, rain fell almost every single day. The Moderno band played through tempests, splashed through on-field movements. Juanma came home after dark, exhausted, to late supper and study.

He ran into some issues with his grades in early 2017. Juanma got his phone taken away first. Then the lackluster grades forced a decision on band membership.

Oh, it hurt. This is a kid who played cymbals last year at age 11, then stepped up with a precocious snare drum in 2017. It’s been a marvel to hear Juanma develop this skill out of nowhere. (Still, when he practices in the apartment sometimes, I’m reminded of an old Japanese saying: If you want revenge on your enemy, buy his child a drum.)

Talent only goes so far. When Juanma failed to meet academic expectations, he failed to earn the privilege of band. He stayed home and studied. The band played on.

Then something remarkable happened.

The leader of the drum section wrote a letter to Adela, Juanma’s mom. Remember, this section leader is 16 or 17, a high-school kid. His letter made an eloquent plea to bring Juanma back to the practice field.

The section leader wrote that even at 12 years old, Juanma had proven to be among the best drummers on the field and that, in the leader’s opinion, he would be one key to the drum section’s performance in the upcoming Batuta. Most surprisingly, the section leader offered to tutor Juanma in his studies if that would convince his parents to let him rejoin his band of brothers.

Discussions followed. Juanma made commitments to his studies. (He has devotedly kept them, with better grades to show for it.) He returned to drills, drumming like a champion.

On the night of the Batuta, Gymnasio Moderno proved to be a champion too. The kids paced in perfect order through Bohemian Rhapsody and My Way and Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major and six or seven other numbers.

Other schools played to win too. A strong challenge came from the old rival, Gymnasio Campestre, which impressively circled and wheeled and blew sweet.

To no avail. The evening, raw and chilly as those for autumn football games in the USA, ended in triumph for Gymnasio Moderno.

The band without an instructor brought home the Batuta.

And we brought home a young man beaming with accomplishment. His heart pounding with a drumbeat of his beloved Colombia.

Image: Holmes Palacios Jr., CC-BY

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