In South America, a good-sized portion of the Orinoco River basin is in Colombia that is identified by expanses of llanos and the east facing slope of the Eastern Cordillera in the country, which is part of the great Andean range. The region is marked by a diverse spectrum of Indigenous families and languages, including the Arawak, Carib and Chibchan speakers.
For the llaneros, who live in the region, cattle ranching is their economic lifeblood — el trabajo de llano. For example, very soon, beginning in November, ranchers will recruit cowboys who will drive and herd the cattle. Through many generations, the cultural archetypes of the working llaneros have been crystallized in joropo recio, a musical language and tradition which differ significantly from the more familiar cumbia many listeners associate with the Latin American diaspora. However, Joropo music is at its most distinctive character in how it melds African, Andalusian and Native American roots.
This week, joropo come to center stage in Salt Lake City as one of the stops for Cimarrón (which translates to ‘wild bull’), a group based in the Colombian town of San Martín de Los Llanos, which will perform in Kingsbury Hall at The University of Utah on Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. The performance is sponsored by Utah Presents.
Since Cimarrón, a musical enterprise that has been active for nearly a quarter of a century but with ethnomusicological roots extending further back, last performed in SLC at the Utah Arts Festival in 2016, the group has carried its groundbreaking artistic mission to more than 40 countries around the world. One of its most prominent elements is its leader and front singer Ana Veydó, who, as she described herself, “is a woman leading a men’s band and I am into male dominated music.” More importantly, Veydó explained, “The music we start from is really the leading discursive practice of a single identity: the man on horseback. So we are trying to be more inclusive and working hard to recognize the diversity of the region and all the identities outside of the norm of the cowboy codes.”
Veydó’s life partner and cofounder of Cimarrón was Carlos ‘Cuco’ Rojas, who was a master of Arpa Llanera, a diatonic harp that recalls in its playing style elements of the European harp and the kora, the African harp. He produced in 2004 the Grammy-nominated album Sí, Soy Llanero: Joropo Music from the Orinoco Plains of Colombia, the first album recorded in Colombia to be tapped for an ‘Anglo’ Grammy honor. That project was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways Recordings label and was followed by a 2011 release of ¡Cimarrón! Joropo Music from the Plains of Colombia. In 2019, their album Orinoco was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Folk Album. That album was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 50 most important recordings to ever come out of Colombia. A year later, Cimarrón was named Best Band 2020 in the UK at the Songlines Music Awards in London.
As with every performing group, Cimarrón was waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic but also right before shutdowns cascaded around the world, Rojas died and the reins of leadership passed to Veydó. In an interview last week with The Utah Review, which was assisted by a translator, Veydó said, “We suddenly were trying to figure out how Cimarrón would come out of the void without Carlos and how to recover from the pandemic lockdown.” She added, “I needed to find the strength to face an unfamiliar situation, as a woman and an artist. Carlos had always fed us with his guidance and wisdom. And, now that he was no longer with us, I had to learn to deal with my own reflections about our artistic responsibilities.”
Veydó explained that her life partner had mastered to perfection the group’s instrumental sounds. She also realized that one of the best ways to honor Rojas’ enormous legacy of pride in the Colombian joropo tradition was to expand its spiritual and emotional realms in expressing the region’s multifaceted cultural soul. Thus, it became imperative to capture as comprehensively as possible the rich diversity of its roots and the voices of those who had not been heard as prominently in the region.
The instrumental sounds include, in addition to Arpa Llanera, the cuatro, a small four-string guitar that functions as a rhythm-harmonic accompaniment instrument. Others are the llanera bandola, a four-stringed lute reminiscent in its sound of North African lutes; llaneras maracas of American Indian origin, an instrument still used by indigenous shamans in their traditional healing processes. The zapateado dance is a key part of llanera music, with its percussive rhythm and voices typically featuring high pitches and passages of tight trills.
In a 2016 interview with The Utah Review, Rojas explained, “Actually the music of the Orinoco Plains has had little diffusion not only in the U.S., but also in other continents; audiences are surprised when they hear this kind of music, because although they perceive a special Latin flavor, they cannot associate this musical style with the most common Latin musical styles such as mariachi, salsa, tango and Brazilian music. They are discovering joropo music and they love it for its liveliness, joy and power on stage.”
The llanero songs usually have reflected the daily life of the prairie and the inhabitants of the region, in verses dealing with love, the land, work with cattle and the pride of belonging to a region, a country and a culture.
Building upon that legacy, Veydó envisions how their music could liberate the association with the region as being primarily based on the cowboy archetypes. Instead, it could capture a more historically accurate portrait that includes the sounds of ancestral instruments and Indigenous communities. As a woman leading a band that grew and flourished in the heart of the llanos, Veydó has observed how challenging it is for women in the communities to feel confident about expressing themselves as honestly as possible, given that commercially joropo has often been seen as a near-exclusive domain for male performing artists.
Veydó said she is sensitive to the challenge of keeping joropo’s distinguishing integrity from being absorbed into the transglobal music scene and lumped in categorically with other Latin America diaspora musical traditions. While virtuosic instrumental solos will enthrall audiences along with stomping percussive dance rhythms and the occasional singalong, Veydó added that the journey is meant to encourage audiences, musicians and scholars to connect emotionally to the spiritual roots of historical and cultural DNA in the Orinoco Plains that are much more than just the traditions of llaneros. The musical provenance reaches much farther back than what local commercial circuits have popularized as joropo songs and dances that began populating the landscape two centuries ago in Colombia.
As an example, a year before Rojas died, Cimarrón produced a music video, which was filmed at the point of the Mavecure mountain range in the Amazonian rainforest. The song was Tonada de la Palomita, associated with the milking of livestock, which included the sound of a deer-skull whistle, an Indigenous instrument that up until then had never been recorded for listeners outside of Latin America.
Cimarrón’s latest album reflects Veydó’s emerging artistic vision, breaking away into exciting branches of music to signify the Orinoquia. La Recia (2022) is an album that has anchored its latest international tour, garnering unanimous positive praise. The album rose to the top spot on the Transglobal World Music Chart and was named among the Top 10 of Best Folk Music Albums by Financial Times.
La Recia is instantly recognizable for Cimarrón’s distinct instrumental profile — Cimarróneando and Parranda Quitapesares con Zapateo, for example. It includes a tribute to Rojas in Cuco en el Arpa, with improvisational music that he recorded before his death. Listeners also will take note of rare Indigenous-origin sounds such as the manguaré, a percussion instrument from the Amazon rainforest.
Many of Veydó’s song lyrics convey the central recognition of women and Indigenous peoples in the Orinoco Basin, including Recia como el Orinoco (about women’s contributions to the livelihood of their place and the urge to speak candidly and openly), Velorio (a narrative about a miracle performed by the Virgin Mary who restores the sight to an orange grove farmer) and Pajarillo de la Noche (about the confidence of women who eschew traditional pathways to define their lives and livelihoods independently). Others are heartfelt poetry set to song: Agüita Fresca and Del Viento. El Gavilán is an ode to a sparrowhawk.
In The Utah Review, in 2016, Rojas recalled how the musical traditions are passed down through generations. “The llanero musicians and dancers develop their techniques through the observation and imitation of musicians experienced in this style, frequently in the family environment (often, the beginners come from traditional musical families),” he said. “They learn music and technique at family parties, at gatherings and in circles of friends, through observation of the work of professional and amateur artists.”
Likewise, Veydó and the musicians on Cimarrón’s latest tour are committed to the same considerations, as they have widened the radar of musical material on the Orinoco Plains, the river basin and the Amazonian rainforest. “We cannot let ourselves be carried away by the temptations to standardize our sounds for commercial success,” Veydó said. “We are exploring a whole new range of sounds rather than trying to homogenize the music, just for the sake of preserving it. We especially want to encourage young people from the region who want to become musicians to follow a path similar to what we are taking, so that all of the roots we have will be valued. We also are committed to not converting the music to a more danceable version for big concert stages. But, we also want to create a contemporary sound that does not put joropo music under glass, as if it would become a permanent museum exhibit. It is music that is always alive and evolving.”
The Salt Lake City concert is part of Cimarrón’s USA Tour/La Gira Mundial del Joropo (The Joropo Ultimate World Tour), which includes stops in France, Germany, Norway, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Wales and England. For tickets and more information, see the Utah Presents link.