Saturday, October 3, 2015

Black Bolivians Jam to their Own Form of Rhythm & Blues

Black Boliva has been on my list of places to visit for quite a few years. The closest I came to entering Bolivia was during my trips to Ecuador and Perú where all I had to do was cross the border. As a budget traveler, I find ways to visit nearby countries of the countries I'm visiting, usually for a few days. 

However, Bolivia is a challenge because of their high visa fees. Why pay nearly $200 to cross the border and only stay a few days? However, thanks to my Afro-Bolivian Facebook friends, I will find a way, and once I do, I will have some friendly contacts who can show me the ropes.

The black music of Bolivia is known as Saya. It is inspiring how the Afro-Bolivian community uses their traditional music, their own cultural form of rhythm and blues, as a manner of resistance and empowerment in a racist society. 

There is a film coming out that explores what is rarely told in history books of how black Bolivia's African ancestors came to the colonial region as slaves, and goes on to explore the resilience of Bolivia's black community today, and their culture and their tradition of Saya music and dance. It is their movement for recognition in the world.

The Saya music of Afro-Bolivians comes from the word, “nsaya.” It is from the Kikongo (Kongo) language in the are of the African continent now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. It is an art form of traditional Andean and Afro-Bolivian music and dance which originated in the jungles of the predominately black Yungas areas of Bolivia's Department (State) of La Paz.

Today, Afro-Bolivians have use Saya music and dance in their struggle to reclaim their rights within Bolivian society. In this movement, the Saya has functioned both as a way of expressing and solidifying black Bolivians, and as a way to express their identity in the context of national social movements based on ethnic identities.

Solidarity in Saya: An Afro-Bolivian Music Movement - TrailerHD

Monday, September 21, 2015

Black Latin America Honors the Black American Struggle

Rinaldo Campos, inspired by the U.S. black pride movement of the 1960s, started Perú Negro, an Afro Peruvian dance troupe that performs throughout the world.

In my first trip to Perú back in October of 2005, I had just gotten off the plane at the Jorge Chávez Airport in Lima, and in the midst of my haggling with cab drivers, I heard someone from behind me shouting, “Martin Luther King!” When I turned around, I saw a smiling black security officer who misread the back of my t-shirt—“Luther,” as in the late R&B singer Luther Vandross. Happy to see a black face, I smiled and acknowledged him, before continuing my haggling.

Every February and March, black Peruvians celebrate 
their African heritage with food, music, and dance.

As a black American, I often hear about the negative perceptions that many, not all, black Latinos have towards U.S. blacks, especially some of the black Puerto Ricans, black Cubans, and god forbid, so many Dominicans. 

When I was in Cuba, however, blacks were much friendlier, open, and extremely helpful to me as a visitor. Young blacks in Cuba have been embracing the black American hip-hop culture (minus the stupid-ass violence, drugs, and disrespect for women). They pick up rap music from radio stations in and around Miami, only 90 miles away. And as expected, these young Afro-Cubans incorporate black American hip hop culture into Cuban life and issues.

Somos Ebano (We are Ebony people) is a community center serving youth in the El Carmen District of Chincha, Perú, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture.

From my travels to Cuba, Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, and from my contacts in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, countries on my list to visit, the perception of Black Americans is honorable. They make the black experience in the U.S. applicable to their own struggles. When Barack Obama first got elected to the U.S. presidency in 2008, an Afro-Peruvian friend sent me a message saying, ¡Viva Obama (Long Live Obama)!

In Chile, South America, the city of Arica is a historically black city stemming from slavery. However, through centuries of interracial marriages, the visible black population just about disappeared, yet the people still openly celebrate black heritage. 

Mónica Carrillo, head of Lundú, a black Peruvian civil rights organization engages herself throughout the African diaspora in the western world.

I recently referred one of my blog readers to a family in Arica, Chile. She pointed out to me that, unlike many black Latinos living in the U.S. who are obviously black but deny being black, the people of Arica, who are not so black are very proud and outspoken about their African roots. It would be very interesting to see how they would mix with U.S. Latinos, black, brown, or white if they were to ever migrate here in large numbers.

Makungu Para El Desarrollo, meaning Developing the Souls of our Ancestors, is an organization whose purpose is to strengthen the identity of young Afro-Peruvians

Even Mexico historically aided black American runaway slaves who crossed the Rio Grande. After Texas gained independence from Mexico, the number of runaways across the border mushroomed. When Mexico's Afro-Mexican president, Vicente Guerrero, took office in 1829, he immediately abolished slavery in his country, and Mexico became the underground railroad South of the Border.

Black people in Latin America, for the longest, have been following the black struggle in the U.S., and have been inspired to start their own black civil rights and black pride organizations, which have been popping up all over to address the racism that plagues blacks; even in countries like Argentina. I have friends in Puerto Rico, Central America, and South America who precede their Facebook names with Afro, Black Panther, Martin Luther, and Malcolm. 

Afro Peruvian drummers jamming to African rhythms

Perú, a country I visited six times, has four or more organizations dedicated to the black Peruvian struggle. I had the opportunity to spend a day with members of two of such organizations, and am certainly honored to be connected with Mónica Carrillo, an Afro-Peruvian civil rights leader who was featured on the PBS program, “Black in Latin America,” hosted by Harvard University professor Dr. Louis Gates.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Black Man's Guide to Mexican Independence—September 16

 Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña
Mexico's Liberator and First Black President

If I were vacationing in Mexico today while people are celebrating Mexican Independence Day, I'd be celebrating this son of an African slave mother and a Mestizo father who guided Mexico to her independence on this day of September 16 in the year of 1810. His name is Vicente Guerrero.

He was not very well educated, formally, but he was very intelligent and extremely tough. Before Mexico went to war with Spain to fight for their independence, Vicente Guerrero earned his living as a mule driver. When war broke out, he joined the revolution,  distinguished himself in major battles, and gained rank rapidly until he finally was awarded the rank of general.

As a general, he took a rag-tag gang of men and built them into a powerful brigade of over 1000 soldiers. Of all the major rebel leaders who died or were captured, Guerrero was the only rebel leader still at large, and at Midnight, September 16, Mexico declared herself free from Spanish rule.

In the year 1829, Vicente Guerrero became Mexico's First Black President. That same year, he abolished slavery in Mexico, which at that time, included what is now known as the state of Texas. Guerrero's abolition of slavery in Texas was one of the major reasons why Texas rebelled, became a lone-star state, and later joined the U.S.A.

As president, Vicente Guerrero was treated far worse than Barack Obama. Guerrero's term in office did not last six months before he was thrown out of office and later killed over some trumped up charges.

I am always amazed when I meet people in U.S. who come from Mexico's state of Guerrero, named after Vicente Guerrero, and are clueless as to who this man was and what he contributed to Mexico. I would venture to say, half of those marching, waiving Mexican flags, singing songs in commemoraition Mexican independence  know little or nothing of Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña; a black man who guided Mexico to independence.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Black People Dancing to Spanish Music

Nicaragua's black community has its own Spanish music of African roots

One evening at a salsa club in San Francisco, California, I asked a olived-skinned Latin-American woman to dance. I can tell by the look on her face that she wanted to dance with me, but doubted that I (this black guy) know how to dance to this type of music. To avoid any embarrassment or frustration, she played it safe and declined my invitation. She later appeared pleasantly surprised when she saw me dancing smoothly and joyfully with other women, and seemed to be hoping that I would ask her to dance one more time. I felt no need to bother because there were too many women willing to dance without question or concern about race or even dancing ability.

Black Bolivians dancing to Black Bolivian music known as “saya”

It was during my high school years in New York City when I first  saw black people dancing to Spanish music. One day after school, my black-American classmates Lucious and Deborah were dancing to a popular song called “Mozambique” by the Latin music icon Eddie Palmieri. In those days, Palmieri had a lot of black-American fans in the New York City area as did other Latin music giants like Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, and Joe Cuba.

Puerto Rico's world famous salsa group, El Gran Combo, is directed 
by it's founder, a black man by the name of Ithier Nadal

Years later, at an Oakland, California salsa dance club, I told a black American women, who happened to be attracted to Latin-American men, that if it were not for black people, there would be no salsa. She asked, naively, how do I figure. I didn't have the time nor the inclination to lecture her on the dance floor, but as I myself got better educated and more culturally aware, I learned that people of African ancestry played major roles in the creation of the most popular Spanish music genres throughout Latin America, and that includes the tango of Argentina, and cumbia of Colombia, which made its way through Central America and Mexico. 

Black Peruvian women dancing to the Afro-Peruvian festejo music

More than 100 years before slaves ships began docking in the USA, slave ships have been transporting African people all throughout Latin America. And just as the blacks in the USA created blues and gospel music based on their immediate cultural environment; bomba and plena music was created by blacks in Puerto Rico; festejo music by blacks in Perú, and saya music by blacks in Bolivia. Every country in the Western hemisphere has a history of slavery, and thus, have their own music and dance based on their African roots.

Concha Buika, West African born singer, grew up in Spain 
where she gave flamenco an African flavor.

Most of us in the U.S. do not know that there are more black people scattered throughout Latin America who speak Spanish and dance to Spanish music than there are black people in the U.S. who speak English and dance to R&B and hip hop. As the Latin-American woman who declined to dance with me because of my color, many of us here in the U.S. are living in a bubble thinking you have to look like Ricky Martin and Jennifer López to know how to dance to any type of Spanish music. That is pure bull!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Message to My Dissenting Blog Readers


It has been almost six years since starting this blog, and I received a lot of wonderful feedback. I even developed a following of 235 members, plus an additional 135 Google connections.

One of the things that makes blogging so interesting is when people express disagreement with my views. I welcome such opposing comments because they do give me broader perspectives on things, and who knows, I just might learn something. 

My only request is that you woman up or man up; have the moral fiber, the intestinal fortitude to back your points. Don't just attack my writing and run away before I can respond with a thought that might be different from yours.. That is just plain cowardly! I love a good debate because it subliminally enlightens and sharpens all parties involves.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Professionalism and the Lack Thereof in the Afro-Latino Community

I am posing with a true professional in El Carmen, Perú;
the owner of Mamainé—Peruvian soul food restaurant 

I don't know if it's a spoiled American attitude or what, but anytime, I'm parting with my hard-earned cash, I “expect” to be treated with some warmth and respect just as I would equally treat others who are putting money into my own pockets. I don't think that is an unfair trade-off.

When traveling through Latin America, I make it my business to connect with Afro-Latinos as much as possible because I want to learn more about the black experience in those countries. And if a black is running a business, or at least trying to, I want to patronize that business.

In the predominately black Region of Barlovento, Venezuela. I had an empenada that was so tasty I wanted to scream. The problem was that the vendor who served me had no personality, and none of the customer service etiquette that you would expect from someone taking your money. There was no  greeting, no “thank you,” nada! 

Putting myself in her place, I imagined how much money I could make with her superior product, and how I would accompany such a product with a smile, a greeting, small talk, and a “thank you” to each person giving me business.  There is an old saying in the sales profession: “people buy 'you!'” In other words, if you want to make the money, make an effort to connect with people, and that will motivate them to want to patronize you.

Truthfully, I was hoping to establish some kind of rapport in our little business transaction letting her know that I'm visiting from the U.S. and would like to learn more about her community. I thought that such a rapport and small talk would result in my getting some leads on where I could go and who I might meet to help me with my cultural exploration. Tipping her nicely would have been my greatest pleasure had she even attempted to show a little professionalism.

The late Afro-Peruvian singer, Pepe Vazquez, was highly 
engaging when I attended his event in San Francisco, CA

In El Carmen, Perú, labeled the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, I approached a black woman inquiring about her food service. She had tables set up inside and outside of her house serving chicken dinners. Again, no personality. You would think she'd appreciate and welcome a potential customer ready to put money into her pocketbook. 

Intending to still patronize her business, I stopped by my goddaughter's house and offered to treat her and members of her family to a meal. But my goddaughter's uncle suggested another spot owned by mestizos where the food tastes much better, and the customer service is much more pleasant and welcoming; it certainly was.

I am with Maribel of Guyabo, Perú who demonstrated a nice personality and good service. Of course, I tipped handsomely. That is the way it supposed to be!

Of course, this is not unique to Afro-Latinos. Many black-American owned businesses, especially hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop stores, historically have terrible customer service. However, over the years, I've found many black-American businesses improved their customer service skills exponentially.

In Cartagena, Colombia, a black street vendor seemed so nice that, even though I didn't purchase anything, I paid her something just to be supportive, and she thanked me humbly. I approached some other black vendors with the purpose of patronizing them, and with the exception of a couple who were very warm, their attitudes appeared to be what we black Americans call “ghetto.” However, just to be fair, it's not always the black ones. I've seen some mestizos, indigenous, and whites take their customers for granted as well.

A common argument I hear, which I find bogus, is that you have to consider the culture. Such an argument would make sense in countries like Cuba or North Korea, where the profit you make is not necessarily yours, but in a capitalist society, regardless of the culture, money is money. Showing some class and customer-service skills without kissing ass, I might add, goes a long way in attracting and retaining customers, which inadvertently leads to more money.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Black Cubans Relive Alex Haley's “Roots”

One day, I was talking to a girlfriend on the phone who happened to be of the Edo tribe in Nigeria. I played some Afro-Cuban music (rumba) over the phone, and asked her to guess which type of music it is. She responded, Yoruba! Nope, but she was close because many Afro Cubans still have connections with the Yoruba culture, including the religion, the music, and the language. Another Nigerian I spoke to who has been to Cuba told me that the Yoruba tongue spoken by Afro Cubans is the ancient version, and not the Yoruba spoken in Nigeria today.

When I arrived in Cuba, I felt like a long, lost member of the community who had finally come home. I had direct exposure to rumba music and dancing, not to mention salsa, son-montuno, charanga, and timba music, all with West African roots. Many words used among the common people of Cuba mix their Spanish with West African derived words such as wanikiki or fula (money), qué bolá, asere (what's up, bruh), chacumbele (personality). 

During more than three centuries of transatlantic trade, just short of a million slaves were shipped to Cuba. The vast majority were trafficked in the 19th Century as forced labor for the island's vast sugar plantations. 

Like Alex Haley, four black Cubans found their ancestral homeland in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and made their voyage. The article below tells the story of these Afro Cubans' journey to uncover their own roots. 

Cubans Trace Roots to Remote Sierra Leone Village

For decades the Ganga-Longoba of Perico have been singing the same chants, a tradition passed down the generations. But until recently this Afro-Cuban community knew little of the origin of the songs, or of their own ancestors. Now, thanks to the work of an Australian academic, Cuba's Ganga believe their roots lie in a remote village in Sierra Leone from where it is thought their relatives were sold into slavery more than 170 years ago.

"When I first filmed the Ganga-Longoba, I believed their ceremonies were a mixture of many different ethnic groups," says historian Emma Christopher, of Sydney University. "I had no idea that a large number of Ganga songs would come from just one village. I think that's extremely unusual," she says. The initial breakthrough came when a group in Liberia saw her footage of a Cuban ceremony and recognized part of a local ritual.
Spurred on to seek the songs' exact origins, the academic spent two years showing the film across the region until she confirmed that the Cubans were singing in the almost extinct language of an ethnic group decimated by the slave trade.

Her inquiries finally led her to Mokpangumba, where villagers not only identified the Banta language but recognized songs and dances from the initiation ceremony for their own secret society, devoted to healing.
"That's the moment when they said: 'They are we'," Dr Christopher recalls, describing how the incredulous Africans began singing and dancing along with the Cubans on screen. They identified nine of the songs in total, despite lyrics twisted over the decades and distance. For the villagers it was compelling proof that the people of Perico were family.

Safeguarding tradition

During more than three centuries of transatlantic trade, just short of a million slaves were shipped to Cuba. The vast majority were trafficked in the 19th Century as forced labor for the island's vast sugar plantations.

Dr Christopher has singled out a woman known by her slave-name "Josefa" as the likely link between Perico and Sierra Leone. It's thought she arrived in the 1830s when the Gallinas slaving port was most active.
The local plantation owner includes a Josefa Ganga among the property in his will: below his real estate, and just above livestock.

Remarkably, Josefa survived to see the 1886 abolition of slavery in Cuba - far exceeding the average seven-year life expectancy for slaves here, where conditions were brutal - and she managed to safeguard the songs and traditions of home.

Divided 'family'

"Someone once said we originated from the Congo, but I always had doubts," says Alfredo Duquesne, an artist whose work has long been inspired by African themes but who has never known where his own roots lay.

"It bothered me. I wanted to know where I came from," he explains in his single-story home crowded with woodcarvings, near where his ancestors would once have labored in the cane fields. The Santa Elena plantation has long gone. But many descendants of its former slaves still remain in the small town of Perico, including the group labelled "Ganga" by those who trafficked them. 

Every December they meet to pray to Yebbe, as the Ganga call San Lazaro (St Lazarus), in a night-long ceremony of dance, drumming and song that has remained intact through the decades.
San Lazaro is a saint known for curing the sick, and is revered by Roman Catholic and syncretic faiths in Cuba. It was Florinda Diago, thought to be Josefa's great-granddaughter, who preserved their heritage in Cuba; she then entrusted that task to the current "grande dame" of the Ganga community, a frail but feisty woman in her 80s known as Piyuya.

The healing secrets have been lost, but Piyuya can still sing every chant: songs of lament and joy for the dead and in celebration. In the 1980s she wrote out their lyrics for the first time, alongside hand-drawn flowers in a now yellowed and tattered notebook. Organizing a reunion for the divided "family" wasn't easy given restrictions on traveling from Cuba at the time, and limited resources. But eventually, four Cubans did make their ancestors' voyage in reverse - to Sierra Leone.

"When I opened my mouth to sing, they just stood there staring," Elvira Fumero recalls of her arrival in Mokpangumba. "Then it was like an explosion. They started to sing the responses, and dance with me. And I knew then that this was where the Ganga came from," she says, smiling. The Cubans' journey - to Africa, and uncovering their own roots - is captured in a documentary by the Australian academic that shows the two groups singing and celebrating together as well as sharing more modern traditions like baseball.
It's still a rare experience for most Afro-Cubans. "Cuba was cut off at a time when other nations in the Americas were going through black pride and fighting for some justice for what happened to their ancestors," says Dr Christopher, who points out that the island's 1959 revolution declared racism "solved".

"That left a lot of Afro-Cubans adrift, not knowing how to celebrate where they came from and be proud of it," she says. Whilst many Cubans of Spanish descent have rushed to seek out their ancestry - and passports - Afro-Cubans have been far less anxious to do the same. But for Alfredo Duquesne, visiting Sierra Leone changed everything. "It was as if I'd just left the previous weekend. I touched the soil and thought: 'This is it. I've come back,'" he says, describing himself now as "at peace"."At last I know where I come from," Alfredo says. "I'm not a stranger any more."