EL JUNCAL, Ecuador – Culture, history and traditions are combined with joy, playfulness and hip movement in the Bomba del Chota, an instrument and music genre from the Ecuadorian Sierra, where the Afro-descendant population wants it declared an item of cultural heritage.
The Bomba, a symbol of resistance of the people brought as slaves from Africa to the New World hundreds of years ago, looks like a simple drum made of goatskin and a treetrunk tied together by thin cords.
The materials used in its construction represent the four elements of nature: blood from the goat is water, the drying process of the skin is fire, the tree trunk is the earth and the holes that generate the sound symbolize air.
The musical genre is a “symbol of resistance and an emblem of the struggle” of those who came from Africa and “enchanted their masters with their music and dance,” Xavier Mendez, a cultural coordinator in northern Ecuador’s Valle del Chota, told EFE.
The music is comprised of “codes, rhythms and melodies that our ancestors created to preserve their traditions,” said Mendez, who has been teaching this custom to young people for years.
The inhabitants of the area would use the speed of the rhythm as a secret language to alert others about approaching danger or the need to flee.
In the 17th century, the Jesuits and slavetraders shipped many Africans to Valle de Chota to be used as labor for mines and plantations.
Their wisdom was passed down from generation to generation, and over time they adapted to Ecuador, where over a million Afro-descendants, both black and mulatto, live in the country’s northern provinces.
In the coastal province of Esmeraldas, the melodic rhythm mutated into a marimba, while in the Chota Valley, located between the Andean provinces of Imbabura and Carchi, the genre took on a new identity: the Bomba.
It is a musical style that is special to the 2,500 residents of the small town of El Juncal.
As an “emblem of struggle,” according to the 32-year-old Mendez, the Bomba encourages people to be “happy, mindful,” and continue to feel united as brothers because “united they will remain free.”
Ecuadorian anthropologist Karina Fonseca Hurtado, the cataloger of intangible heritage at the National Institute of Cultural Heritage (INPC), told EFE that the genre is part of the cultural history of the residents in the Valley and gives them “a way to express their customs in spite of their past as slaves.”
She said that the lyrics, composed in the same manner as the quartet verses of the Spanish Copla, “represent the past” and recorded historical events and the events of the everyday lives of their ancestors such as the flow of the river, births and many other social happenings.
While waiting for the musical style to be declared part of Ecuador’s intangible heritage, because of the “information” and history it holds, Mendez said that “joy, playfulness and hip movement” are fundamental in dancing to its beat.
The music, the dancing and the instrument are an inseparable trio in this “song of life” as it fights to stay alive for future generations.