Sounding tradition : Colombian gaita music and investment in the discourse of tradition
Cumbia is arguably Colombia’s best-known musical export. This popular dance music from the country’s north coast is today ubiquitous throughout Latin America, yet surprisingly little has been written about it. This report examines cumbia in its most traditional setting, the conjunto de gaitas, an ensemble featuring flutes of indigenous origin and Afro-Colombian drums. Musicians and scholars alike have interpreted the ensemble and its repertoire as a site for preserving tradition and an audible symbol of how three distinct racial groups—black, white, and indigenous—combined to form the Colombian nation. This report examines the investment in a discourse of tradition and explores how this discourse has served to sound a marginalized Colombian identity while simultaneously limiting its place within the national imaginary. After an introduction that lays out theoretical literature on tradition, race, and place, I consider three instances where the discourse of tradition has prominently shaped gaita music. First, I turn to Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, the most successful and archetypal conjunto de gaitas. The group’s history, from its beginning as a part of a staged folklore troupe for national and international tours to its recent Grammy award win, is a prime example of how the very appeal to traditionalism that garnered the group’s success has also been its greatest limitation. Second, I turn to scholarly literature on gaitas, comparing work from the mid-20th century and the early 21st. Despite notable differences between these two historiographical moments, especially in representations of the coast, appeals to tradition remain the central narrative, delimiting alternative interpretations of race and region. A final chapter offers three case studies on how different musicians have taken gaita tradition as a point of departure. From the development of gaitas in Western tuning by Juancho Nieves and Elber Álvarez, to Carlos Vives’s use of gaitas in his pop-vallenato musical blend, and lastly to the “progressive folklore” of experimental group Curupira, I explore how these different trajectories complicate notions of tradition.