The sound of Indigenous resistance in Latin America

The sound of Indigenous resistance in Latin America

From the Amazon rainforests to Central America, young, Indigenous artists like the Afro-Wayúu Colombian singer Lido Pimienta (pictured) are reclaiming their ancient heritage through music, mixing ancestral rituals and instruments with rap, electronica and reggaeton to fight racial discrimination and historical amnesia.

(Daniela Murillo)

A new generation of musicians in Latin America are going back to their roots and using music to defend ancestral cultures that have been historically persecuted by the elites and established powers. They are mixing contemporary aesthetics and sounds, such as electronica, rap and reggaeton, with the music inherited from their ancestors to connect with young people and stop their history from fading into oblivion.

“My songs are a political act,” says Guatemalan musician Sara Curruchich in conversation with Equal Times. Born into the Mayan Kaqchikel community of San Juan Comalapa in 1993, her 2019 debut album Somos (’We Are’) combines lyrics in Spanish and her native language. “Music has a remarkable ability to safeguard memory and raise public awareness about the racism we have suffered for centuries,” she says.

As an Indigenous person and a woman, her struggle is twofold. She feels part of “a wave” of increasingly socially aware women artists in Latin America that include Mexican Mixe soprano María Reyna from Oaxaca, the Kichwa singer-songwriters Tamya Morán and Mariela Condo of Ecuador, and Chile’s Mapuche singer, Daniela Millaleo.

Curruchich refers to well- known traditional Afro-Colombian folk singers Totó La Momposina, Petrona Martínez and artists from the generation before hers (such as Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs) as a source of inspiration for shaking people’s conscience through music with a feminist vision in “a racist and patriarchal society”.

She feels that what is happening in Guatemala is a reflection of a global struggle. “In the 1980s and 1990s there was already a movement of socially engaged Indigenous language singer-songwriters but, in my country, the war forced our communities to conceal their culture for fear of being massacred.

In recent years, songs of resistance have once again been resonating throughout the region, amplified by social networks and technological platforms that have helped broaden public access to them, such as Spotify, YouTube and TikTok.

Age-old cosmogony

While the Black Lives Matter movement has grown stronger in the United States, going global following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020 (with many anti-racist movements taking up the cry “I can’t breathe”), in Latin America the struggle of Indigenous peoples has been brought more to the fore, especially through the citizen protests that have been shaking the continent since mid-2019.

Music has played a fundamental role as a creator of collective anthems in this revolution driven by minorities who feel marginalised by the system. In Colombia, the anthem of the Indigenous Guard (a community network which defends Indigenous territories without weapons) has become an emblem of the struggle of ordinary people throughout the country thanks to the reinterpretation of young artists and bands like La Perla, from Bogotá, who, although not from Indigenous communities, have made their struggle for life and dignity their own.

“We are used to a capitalist vision of music, seen as a commodity. But that doesn’t fit with these communities for whom songs are a form of connecting with and honouring Mother Earth through orality and sounds,” music producer Diego Gómez tells Equal Times.

Gómez, from Bogotá, has promoted the Llorona Records label and the Discos Pacífico project, weaving networks with artists from regions with largely Black and Indigenous populations, such as the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and the island of Providencia.

He speaks of popular celebrations such as the Carnival of Forgiveness in Sibundoy, in the Putumayo department of the Amazon region, where people gather to sing the same song for several days in a collective exercise of interconnectedness and conscious-building through sounds inherited from age-old cosmogony. “These cultures are at risk of disappearing: their way of life is threatened by the idea that progress is tied to economic development,” he laments.

Alternative projects are attempting to counter this risk by building alliances based on respect and equality with creators from the communities, where there has been a growing interest for some years now in safeguarding cultural heritage in public libraries or through recordings that prioritise its use in the community over its sale on the market.

The importance of role models

Sara Curruchich’s story is an example of how inequality and the absence of opportunity in Indigenous communities (with high unemployment rates, no access to drinking water, a lack of other basic resources and few guarantees of quality education) pushes Indigenous youngsters to leave their culture behind in search of a future in urban areas.

“To develop my career, I had no option but to leave my territory and move to the city, where I suffered racism. That experience made me think, and raised my awareness until it made me into what I am today,” says the artist, who is already a symbol that many other young Indigenous women see as a reflection of themselves. Her impact has transcended her community.

This is also the case of the Peruvian artist Renata Flores, who is as much an icon as Spain’s Rosalía, as Billie Eilish, from the US, or the UK’s Dua Lipa, among late millennials and Generation Z. In her first album Isqun (‘Nine’ in Quechua, a number that represents “the reflection of the soul”), which has just been released, she vindicates female figures of Indigenous heritage who do not appear in official school books, such as Francisca Pizarro, the mestizo daughter of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro.

The New York Times called her “the queen of rap in Quechua” but that is only a simplification of a complete artist who mixes ritual dances with platform shoes in her choreography in an unprecedented fusion of ancient culture and modernity. During last year’s lockdowns due to the pandemic, Flores took the opportunity to upload videos to her YouTube channel where she offers Quechua lessons through versions of modern pop classics, from Alicia Keys’ Fallin’ to Cardi B’s I Like It.

The biographies of these artists are often marked by pain, discrimination and violence.

Lido Pimienta was born on the Colombian Atlantic coast with African-Colombian heritage as well as roots in the Wayúu community that lives in the deserts of La Guajira, which connect with Venezuela. “I am a woman, Black and Indigenous, and I am proud of those origins,” she said in our recent conversation about her latest album, Miss Colombia (2020).

She had to leave her country due to threats when she was young and has been living in Canada for some time now. “It is the tragedy of our land: the violence that pursues you just for being who you are. I will not be silenced. I carry within me the fire of a people who fight for their ideas. And that’s precisely why I cannot go back to live in my country,” she laments.

Her work focuses on representing a powerful and creative woman who presents her identity not as something to be ashamed of but as a blessing. Her albums combine her collaborations with international artists at the vanguard of the contemporary scene and the work of local folklore legends often forgotten or unknown because they never copyrighted their songs, such as the Sexteto Tabalá.

“I remember, at school, the teacher used to tell us that we were lucky in Colombia, because if Christopher Columbus hadn’t discovered us, instead of McDonald’s we would have McArepa’s [arepa is a corn tortilla typical of Colombian cuisine]. And he would hold his nose in disgust. I was 13 years old and I had to listen to such vile garbage coming from the mouth of the person who was supposed to be educating me. We’ve been taught that what’s outside, that what is white, is better than what’s ours,” she protests.

Finding a place in a globalised world

There are more than 500 Indigenous languages still alive in Latin America. There are no figures on how many people speak them. The lack of official studies and the wariness of those speaking them about being checked on and counted by the administration makes it impossible to know the real numbers.

The problems they face are growing, such as the absence of the state in the regions, the prevalence of illegal armed groups with interests in mining gold and other precious metals, indiscriminate logging that is contributing to deforestation, climate change, new technology... and now the pandemic is also taking its toll, as seen over the past year in the Amazon.

More and more voices are nevertheless working to ensure their survival, from international organisations such as UNESCO to public institutions that protect the diversity of languages such as the Caro y Cuervo Institute in Colombia, along with private and civil society initiatives.

“Our grandfathers and grandmothers are dying. We have to find a way to record their wisdom and pass it on from generation to generation, as our people have done for as long as we can remember,” warns Curruchich.

The observation Colombian music producer Diego Gómez makes regarding his country applies to the whole region. “The problem is that the government’s Ministry of Culture makes specific calls to work on projects with these communities, but always with a short-term vision, with an eye on the next elections. There is no plan for the future.”

This is why, in the absence of government in their territories, musicians fulfil the roles of anthropologists, sociologists, community leaders, broadcasters and cultural activists. “There is a need for emerging artists to find their own voice. To find their place in this globalised world,” argues Gómez.

Hope that this flame will continue to burn for some years to come is provided by diverse and localised initiatives across Latin America (as well as the United States and other countries to which they have had to migrate) with groups such as Los Cogelones, Brisa Flow, Polka Stereo and Liberato Kani stirring the embers of a culture that refuses to die out.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin