El Sexteto Tabalá
A new rhythm has appeared on the Colombian Atlantic coast, along the Caribbean Sea: the sexteto, an offspring of the Cuban son and the cumbia, the latter, sprung from the triple root of Colombian culture –African, European and indigenous– being already hybrid music itself.
The Sexteto Tabalá originates from Palenque de San Basilio, the famous village which was founded by fugitive slaves some forty-three miles away from Cartagena and one of the main centres of Black resistance to slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries. This sexteto plays a “raw” and warm type of son in which deep, ancient-sounding percussion instruments accompany the tenor voices of Palenque farm workers. These men are heirs to a long identity-building process, from the time of runaway slaves and rebellion against the Spaniards; this is the source from which their interpretation of the “son palenquero” draws its authenticity.
The “Son palenquero”
The Colombian coast of the Atlantic has been the cradle of a wide-ranging musical culture, the result of constant exchanges between Indians, Africans and European colonists which are still fruitful today. The most widely spread musical genres are the cumbia and the vallenato, accordion music from the Valle de Upar (see: Colombie, Le vallenato, Ocora C 560093). In addition to these, many rhythms were brought in from Africa and “reinvented” in the palenques: bullerengue, mapalé, chandé, baile de muerto, chalupa…
Palenque de San Basilio remained totally isolated until the beginning of the 20th century, when North American investors acquired concessions to grow sugarcane in the region of Sincerin, a short distance from the village. Black people from Palenque were then hired in the plantations of “Central Colombia”, a sugar-producing complex under Cuban technical supervision. In their free time, the Cuban engineers would play the music which was most fashionable in Cuba at the time: the “son montuno”, then played by sexteto groups at the height of their glory in Santiago de Cuba. The sugarcane workers soon fell in love with this music and learned to play it.
The son which had been taken up by the Cuban sexteto groups was hybrid rural music, born from African and European influences in the province of Oriente. One of the most popular sextetos of the 1920s was the Sexteto Habanero, with its excellent singer and pregonero de oro Abelardo Barroso. There were also the Sexteto Boloña, the Boton de Rosa and the Sexteto Occidente, whose singer Miguelito Valdez, was especially remembered by the Palenque musicians. These sexteto groups and the son swept through La Habana and the whole Caribbean, overruning the old danzon.
The typical instruments of the Cuban sextetos were the guitar, the tres, the claves, the bongos, the maracas and the marímbula –the latter a sort of contrabass, of African origin, made of wood and metal. This association was modified at the beginning of the 1930s with the arrival of the septeto, to which a trumped had been added.
The sexteto fever broke out in Palenque almost at the same time as in Cuba –which was remarkable at a time when there was hardly any radio, and the means of diffusion of music were fairly limited. As a matter of fact, Cuban music spread almost exclusively through contact with the engineers of “Central Colombia”, and very little through records.
The first sexteto palenquero group appeared in the Barrio Arriba, and was formed by a handful of sugar workers. It is known by certains as the Sexteto Matentera, and was founded by Eusiquio Arrieta, Martin “hombron” Cassiani and Pantaleon Salgado a “Central Colombia” worker and one of the first son palenquero composers who had learnt to play the marímbula from the Cubans. Pantaleon Salgado belonged to the Batata dynasty, the family ruling the Cabildo Lumbalú in Palenque, where the village elders gathered for the Lumbalú ritual (funerary songs for the deceased).
«The adequacy between palenquera music and the world beyond is best expressed in the context of funerary rites.»1 In this ritual, the old women of the Cabildo beat drums and sing their lamentos during the nine days of mourning which follow the death of palenquero: a soloist introduces the phrase which is repeated throughout the wake, then the others all take it up in chorus in a kind of vocal polyphony which is backed by the beat of two drums, the pechiche and the yamaró (llamador).
The aim of the lumbalú or canto-lloro songs, and baile de muerto dances or bullerengues is for the palenqueros to invoke African divinities from the Congo-Angola pantheon, such as Zambi or Kalunga (supreme god, representing Death), Lemba (goddess of Fertility, Orisha of Creation), thus “helping the deceased to leave this world contentedly and peacefully”.
These songs, which have been handed down by oral tradition throughout centuries of resistance to slavery, bear witness to the origins of most of the community: the region of Luango, in Angola.
I'm from Congo / I'm from Angola / I'm from Luango Angola / My name is Juan Gungù / Juan Gungù I have to be called. [See Colombian version on page 4]
Ever since its creation, the Sexteto Matentera had been part of the Cabildo and has accompanied them on the occasion of village funerals and other important events (festival of San Basilio, Holy Week…). Sometimes, the bullerengue group of the Cabildo and the Sexteto Matentera even played together; this unique contact between Cuban son and African-Colombian ritual music was crucial in the later development of the son palenquero. In fact, it is peculiar to the sexteto palenquero that it has been included in the magical and religious context of palenquera music right from the start.
In the early 1930s, a second group appeared, the Sexteto Habanero (named after the famous Sexteto Habanero from La Habana), which was formed by peasants from the Barrio Abajo. One of its most popular primo (the Creole name for Palenque “singers”), Manuel Valdez “Cho Maney”, remembers: « Cuando se moria cualquier persona, en el pueblo buscaban a esos dos grupos pa tocar ahi, a la hora del entierro, nosotros teniamos sus sones especiales para el entierro, para cada parte de la procesion. Incluso una vez, cuando se murio el difunto Mecino, un tipo palenquero que vivia en Barranquilla, pero el vino a morir a su pueblo ! Pidio los dos sextetos. El uno iba cantando alante y el otro cantaba atras. »
«When someone died, the village would bring in one of the two sextetos to play during the funeral, as we had special sones for each moment of the procession. Once, a palenquero named Mecino, who lived in Barranquilla, sensing that death was near, came back to his village and required both sextetos to play, one at the head of the procession, and the other one at the rear».
On the last day of mourning, the women sing about the life of the deceased and act out scenes from it; if he was a fishmonger, for example, they imitate his way of shouting and selling his fish, etc.
At the height of their glory, the Sexteto Matentera (from the Barrio Arriba) and the Sexteto Habanero (from the Barrio Abajo) used to meet on the village square and compete in legendary piquerias where the best singers and marimbuleros improvised their own verses. Palenque musical dynasties would thus demonstrate their skills in front of other sextetos neighbouring villages. The contest could continue for several years in a row, and sometimes ended with the bankrupt losers having to sell of their instruments.
The music of these first sextetos often varied according to the instruments which were to hand. When members of the group went off to seek employment on the great landowners' large farms, they would bring back new songs, which they had composed during their working day in the fields. Most Sexteto Tabalá compositions, even today, are derived from this type of working songs.
Both sextetos played in Palenque for about twenty years, before disappearing during the 1950s and 60s, when “Central Colombia” suger mill closed down. The sexteteros then emigrated from their village to larger cities such as Barranquilla and Cartagena, or to Venezuela. With the closing-down of “Central Colombia”, a whole chapter in the history of the “son palenquero” vanished forever, as no recording had been kept from that time.
The Cuban son did not only root itself in Palenque, it also travelled down the Magdalena river to the south of the country, thanks to the palenqueros who migrated there in search of employment, transmitting the son disease –not forgetting the marímbula, which has since been widely diffused. Today, sexteto groups can be found all the way along the Atlantic coast as well as in several other regions. All play the same instruments: clave, percussions and marímbula.
Sexteto music remains little known in Colombia though, as it developped in the Black communities and palenques of the Atlantic coast, away from the musical industry. To this day, no record by a rural sexteto group has been produced.
released May 23, 1998
Rafael Cassiani Cassiani (main vocals and claves) - Jose Valdez Teheran “Paito” (second voice) - Jose Valdez Simanca dit “Simancongo” (marímbula) - Cayetano Blanco (bongos) - Bartolo Cañate (maracas) - José Torres Valdez (guacharaca) - Manuel Valdez Cañate (timba) - Emiliano Herrera (second marímbula)
Thanks to Palenque Records (Cartagena) and Cumbe Records (Maracaibo), without whom this album could not have been produced, Sebastián Salgado from the Culture House of Palenque, Yves Monino, the Documentary Film Foundation in (Bogota), Défi Jeunes (Hauts-de-Seine/France), Association “Que Pasa”, Sociedad Dramatica of Maracaibo (Venezuela), Fundacion Afro-america (Venezuela), Paulino Salgado “Batata”, Stéphanie Rouxel, Carmen Bohórquez, Victor Cimarra of Palenque Records for his important field work on the history of the sexteto, Justo Valdez “The Champeta King” and all the people of Palenque.
Music by the Sexteto Tabalá is performed in the film “The Champeta Kings”, by Lucas Silva and Sergio Arria, which was produced in 1997 by La Huit Production (Paris, France) and Palenque Records (Cartagena, Colombia).
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