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This first journey to San Salvador de Jujuy City, in November 2007, was conceived as a Percussion Workshop aimed to those musicians who were members of Jujuy’s junior Orchestra, as agreed with Gisela Timmermann. Gualberto Mostajo, the cameraman that came with me throughout the whole trip, recorded all the activities carried out by the different workshops. The work with the Orchestra’s percussionists was mainly focused on two basic guidelines:

First: to make an assessment of the technical needs and to develop, according to this diagnose, a work method that would allow the children to do further study and a general upkeep in what instrumental performance is concerned.

Second: to start developing a percussion ensemble where all the local rhythms could be particularly taken into account and therefore incorporating into the ensemble every percussion instrument from the area.

In order to strengthen these guidelines it was really important to identify someone, among all the participating musicians, who could give continuity to the group’s development and musical studies. The idea was to achieve a dynamic through which, by the time I returned to Buenos Aires, the ensemble would be able to work autonomously, counting with as much information as possible. Luckily, I found the right person to lead the group in Alberto “Beto” Vargas, a young gifted percussionist from Jujuy that by that time was only nineteen years old.

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This first experience is recorded. The images that Gualberto Mostajo took, edited by Santi Parisow with its audio in charge of Javier Sverdloff, tell better the story. 

The other part of the project was to start to build bonds with the percussionists of the Sicuris Band from the Humahuaca Ravine (whom Gisela had already listened to during a previous journey). So, every night after working in Jujuy city, we traveled with Gualberto –who agreed to join me without the camera- down to the Ravine to initiate contacts.

At this stage, it’s worth mentioning that my musical debut onstage was when I was sixteen as a member of Ollantay-Tambo, a sicuris and percussionist band from Buenos Aires City made up of students of a Musical Workshop that carried the very same name. Thus, the challenge that I was facing was emotionally of great significance to me, due to the fact that this music and this kind of ensemble marked my adolescence and the beginning of my career.

November 21st. Our first trip was towards Tumbaya, a village of around a thousand people located in the Humahuaca Ravine, close to Purmamarca. It rained during the whole journey and that’s when I started wondering about the sense of what I was doing: not only I knew no-one there capable of giving directions, but also I had no idea of the exact place where this village was so that I could get off the bus on time. Luckily someone was kind enough to let me know when and we “landed” right there.It was still raining, but fortunately it had lessened. However, it was a distressing scene: on one side of the route, hills; on the other, a beautiful, small and dark village. The rain and the absence of people on the streets made the spot look like a ghostly place. Of course, there were two of us and, therefore, what first seemed to be dramatic turned “adventurous”; and we moved on…

After walking in circles for a while and pretty wet, we saw a man on the street just a few meters away. Without knowing exactly what to ask, we approached him. His name was Javier Méndez and turned out to be the director of one of the Sicuris Bands of Tumbaya. There are moments in life (and this was clearly one of them) in which I am certain that I’m being guided by a sort of lucky star. In that very place, at this very time of the year –we were only one day from Santa Cecilia’s day (patron saint of music) – it was hard not to think on her as the most feasible explanation.

While we followed Javier in the darkest hour, still raining and our feet getting all muddy, we toured around the village, knocking several doors and meeting some of the directors and members of the four Sicuris bands in Tumbaya. We arranged a meeting for the following day with most of the sicuris we bumped into –by the way, “Sicuri” refers both to the instrument and the musician.

The social differences between what happens during the daily and civil life and what can be seen when the musical night life appears, are quite interesting. For what I’ve witnessed while travelling abroad and during my salsa sessions, what frequently tends to happen is a sort of carnival phenomena: a peasant, during the day, may become King at night, and otherwise managers just won’t go further than a private.

The way back was traumatic. The rain had provoked some collapses and the road looked complicated. However, people were peacefully sleeping and the driver looked calm. All this lead me to believe that this was a normal trip, something usual. Anyway, once again and without a cast of doubt –or much alternative-, I abandoned myself to Santa Cecilia.

November 22nd. After a productive workday with the students from Jujuy, I went with Gualberto to the bus station in order to check the timetable for the next bus to Tumbaya. We arrived to the village at a quarter to seven, just before the time we had agreed to meet. We took the opportunity to have an afternoon snack at the meeting point: a bar on the side of the road with only three tables that opened its doors when we walked in. I dare to guess that we were their first customers in the day. We ordered two sandwiches and two white coffees. It was amazing to see how the lady who served immediately prepared our order in collaboration with the lady of the grocery store across the street; a sort of analog delivery service that involved our waitress loudly ordering 200 grams of ham, 200 grams of cheese, milk… In short, everything was delicious, but the guys weren’t showing up.

An hour later, once we had digested the snack, we were planning to set off on the return journey to Jujuy when we saw Javier and a man we’ve met the day before, member of a Sicuri band, coming to us. We started then a long walk around the village. Javier and his friend, as they came across members of the Sicuris bands, called them to a meeting. Every time we bumped into someone we were fully scanned by the curious look of the local residents.

After having toured around the same ten blocks for almost two hours, we got together at the soccer field (a cement sport center poorly illuminated by the few lights that survived). While we waited for one of them to find the keys of I don’t know what place where they kept the instruments, Gualberto joined the Kick-about that a group of teens, also members of the bands, were carrying out. He almost died trying…to run at more than two thousand meters above the sea level is not an advisable thing to do for those who live in the Argentinean Pampas.

At almost ten o clock, three hours later than we had planned, but still in Santa Cecilia’s day, the Music began! They played generously for approximately two hours. In the meantime, they explained to us the different rhythms practiced and the circumstances in which the bands perform on a musical pilgrimage. I instantaneously imagined myself as an ethnomusicologist doing fieldwork. The illusion just fell to pieces when back home I find out that everything was uploaded in great detail on internet. Anyway, it had been a great experience.

As soon as this first meeting was over, we began our journey back to Jujuy city although we knew that by that time the last bus had already left. We waited for a loooong time on the side of the road. But, the tiny lights we saw shining once in a while just wouldn’t turn into our way out. Cars, motorcycles and buses (that came from Bolivia and that aren’t allowed to stop on their way) went by leaving us there, freezing. Finally, a “remise” pulled over, we negotiated our ransom and we were able to get back safely.

The night of the meeting on a Tumbaya´s corner, with Javier.

November 25th. To celebrate the closure of Jujuy’s percussion workshop we organized a concert at Maimará´s church. It was scheduled to begin after the mass devoted to the Music Patron saint and both the workshop’s students and the members of the infant-juvenile orchestras from Jujuy and Maimará took part in it.

Once the concert was over, two Sicuris Bands performed during the procession outside the church that toured around the main Square following the image of Santa Cecilia. Although the vehicle that would have taken us back was about to leave, Gualberto and I decided to stay at Maimará to find out how the party went on. And the party went on: after carrying the Virgin’s image around the square the procession ended up on the dirt yard of a private house, where we were invited in by the host after he’d caught us overlooking from the street. We ate (not much), drank (quite a lot) and danced (all night). There were nearly a hundred people in the celebration. Finally, after a long working day that included two rehearsals, a trip to the Ravine and the concert and while we carried the camera and the tripod with us, we began to look for a place to spend the night: there were no buses and the weather was getting really chilly.

Night Fire, Party at Maimará.

At the grocery shop, where we’ve bought our contribution to the party and that this Saturday seemed to be open throughout all the celebration to provide supplies to everyone in town during the night, we asked if there was any place where we could stay over. The stout lady who was in charge of the place was kind enough to lead us to a house that used to rent rooms on summers. Despite we were not in high season, we made a try considering that there were no further choices at those early hours of the morning. After a while, knocking the door and using our new friend as speaker, we obtained accommodation for the night. It was clear that neither the mattress nor the room have been aired since the summer.

I woke up after a short sleep (it must have been six in the morning) listening to the music from the party. I approached to see how things were going there: evidently the religious part of it had ended a while ago. At nine o’ clock Gualberto and I took a bus and travel around. We went to Purmamarca, visited the “Seven Colours Hill” and went back to Jujuy where we took the flight back to Buenos Aires.

Gualberto at Los Colorados.

Sicuris Band at Maimará honoring the Patron Saint of Music.

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Five children attended the first class of the workshop that we opened with Beto back in March; in June, it already housed twelve members. Such increase was the spark for an incipient conflict. In fact, some of the children participating in Maimará´s children orchestra wanted to emigrate and change the instrument they played in order to join the drums. Luckily, Nora Benaglia, the orchestra director, had the excellent idea of letting the children join the workshop with the only condition of not leaving aside their instrument in the orchestra. Therefore, those who wanted so, were able to keep playing their instrument and add, as a complement, a percussion instrument. Everyone in peace.

We agreed with Beto and Nora that it was a good timing for a trip to Maimará. Gisela approved the project and once more Mozarteum Argentino supported the development of the percussion workshop.
This time we slept at the Humahuaca Ravine. Of course, the percussionists from Jujuy were duly invited. The students´ parents from Maimará took care of their housing, honoring the gift of hospitality.

Most of Maimará´s percussionists were between five and eight years old, those from Jujuy were between thirteen and twenty and the two guests had twenty and twenty five respectively. We took three shifts to work separately: one for Maimará´s ensemble; another, for the percussionists from Jujuy; and the last one, gathering all together including our two guests.

September 27th. The workshop’s closure consisted of a concert held at La Candelaria Church. As it was Sunday, we were allowed to announce its beginning, by ringing the church’s bell in the tower. Probably, someone, by mistake, showed up at the concert thinking that there would be another Mass.

The concert was divided in three parts: I was in charge of the first one: a soloist set. (While I was preparing the instruments, standing in front of the altar of that beautiful, small and old Church, I wondered about the strange and marvelous stage on which I was about to perform). The second part was a performance of the workshop’s members, entirely directed by Beto. The third one was in charge of Maimará´s children orchestra led by Nora.

In this case, the stars were not only the musicians –who I must say, had a great performance- but also, a peculiar character, the church’s dog who, captivated but also disturbed by the music, wandered around the place as if we were intruders at his home, wagging his tail against the chairs, the altar and the instruments.

By the way, Maimará´s percussion ensemble has already been baptized: “Gisela’s cheerful gang” and they perform music regularly at public presentations. They are still led by Alberto “Beto” Vargas, developing and improving the very concept of a Jujuy’s percussion ensemble.

Bonus Track

September 30th I spent my last day before our departure to the Chaco Salteño at Jujuy city. I had been called to coordinate an activity jointly organized by the Jujuy’s Mozarteum and the University of Jujuy at a high school located in Minas. As a result of a survey undertaken among the students, where they were asked to choose an extracurricular artistic activity, “The percussion Workshop” was elected with an imposing fifty-two percent of the votes. In short, my presence there was due to that result and, thus, I was asked to run a one-day workshop to make an assessment of the situation.

Well, the guys had manufactured most of their instruments with industrial oil barrels cut in halves. This gave the group a peculiar sound, which is one of the most important and difficult tasks for an ensemble. Moreover, they played in a self-taught way, achieving very powerful group results. Finally, two severely confronted factions of Gimnasia y Esgrima de Jujuy’s supporters coexisted within the ensemble; this added an extra touch and a couple more of decibels to the cocktail. The project has a great potential for future development. I hope so.

comunidad wichi 1 santa victoria este, chaco salteño
Origin. During my first trip to Jujuy, I met Lupe, Guadalupe Miles. She is a photographer who had attended the concert we’d given together with Fernando Vallés and the percussion workshop’s students. For years she has been portraying from an intensively artistic angle the life, aesthetics and customs of the Wichis Communities of the Chaco Salteño. Through her work she has consolidated an almost parental relationship with Sebastián Mendoza, Tiluk, Santa Victoria’s Wichi Community cacique and shaman. Tiluk, in his double-role of sovereign and wise, holds an enormous amount of knowledge about the music, song and dance of his people

The young generations of this Community weren’t showing much interest on their cultural heritage and this was raising Tiluk’s concern. The feeling was that if he didn’t manage to pass on their traditions, they might end with him.

They asked me to go to the Community to set up some sort of workshop in order to stir the children’s interest. Meanwhile, as I would be carrying around the instruments with me –this was meant to be immediately after my concert in Maimará-, we could organize a concert at their Cultural Centre. I suggested the idea to Gisela: she accepted.

October 1st /Trip. After the concert and workshops given in Maimará I packed and set off to Salta, where I met with Guadalupe, her colleague, Nicolás Trombetta, photographer as well, and her friend Mariana, a student. Then, we head to the Chaco Salteño.

The first part of the trip was almost normal although I was carrying my instruments (ten packages that all together weighted approximately a hundred kilograms). At first sight, it seems a lot of weight, a monstrosity. However, for a percussionist, a hundred kilos weight is worth just a bit more than a handbag.

We traveled by “remise” from Jujuy to Salta and there, after having some pizzas, we get on the bus to Orán where we arrived at five ó clock in the morning. My presence at the bus station with all my instruments began to turn, if not an absurd, at least a very odd scene.

We had a white coffee on our feet; a short wait and then we transfer to our vehicle with destination to Santa Victoria: one of those buses which used to run in Buenos Aires City in the sixties, with no windows and seats in very, very poor conditions.

At seven ó clock in the morning, after an hour of journey, we made a stop in a kind of post in the middle of nowhere. The only available option to eat was chicken with French fries and rice. I didn’t take the offer, decision which I regretted shortly after, but my partners accepted and bought a beer to go with it.

The paved route, at the beginning, turned into a dirt track in one of its curves. The ground was so dry that there was a big cloud of dust all around us. It seemed to me that, luckily, the driver was able to drive without watching the road. In the meantime, the sun was strongly rising and the temperature inside the bus was getting worse. Finally, an hour and a half after I decided not to eat that chicken, the bus´ gearbox started to roar. Two minutes later a thunderous “crunck!!!” came out of the engine and everything just stopped.

I couldn’t imagine any possible solution. It was long ago since we had lost signals on the cell phones and there were no signs of a gas station near; in fact, there were no handmade constructions around. The driver opened the door and made his way directly to the engine escorted by some passengers. They, no experts on mechanics but indeed curious, approached to see how things went on. I chose to remain seated on the bus, as by then the temperature might have been around forty degrees Celsius, and the sun, a hostile partner for someone from the city like me, without a powerful sunblock.

Soon after, the driver gets on the bus, entirely covered by grease, and asked the passengers sitting on the last seats to move. He lifts the seats and, after maneuvering and struggling, removes a pipe of ten centimeters wide and a meter and half long. At this point, the circumstances looked even worse than what we’ve imagined until then. He went down with the pipe, we heard a bunch of hammer blows; this good man came back, put the pipe and the seats back in their places, he took the steering wheel and magically the engine came to life again. Thus, we moved forward going deep into the scrubland.

I got close to the driver and offered him a bottle of water that he drunk in just fifteen seconds, in one gulp. I stayed there chatting with our day’s hero. What he told me was that if he didn’t manage to fix the bus and ended somehow asking for some help, he wouldn’t receive his day’s pay. By the way, he was in charge of placing the luggage at the bus´ roof, checking the tickets and, once we arrived, he had to unload the vehicle… even more; he was not allowed to receive any kind of tip.

When we were near to Santa Victoria, in a village which name I can’t remember, we witnessed with astonishment how by our bus, a helicopter descended and landed. The passengers were governmental authorities. The cloud of dust seemed a Star Wars-like explosion and covered every corner of the bus, as its windows, at a rate of one per four, had no glasses.

At this point the temperature was incalculable. Our bodies’ sweat mixed with the dust in the air resulted in a sticky thin layer that covered us all.

During the last part of the trip to Santa Victoria, we saw some sown fields with genetic modified plantations and others where the famous “desertification” effect was evident, truly dantesque scenarios needless to describe –as we all have already seen them on TV. The live scene, I must say it softly, was really sad.

Arrivals. Twenty hours after my departure from Jujuy, and of only approximately five hundred kilometers covered, we arrived to the Wichi Community located to the east of Santa Victoria. Sebastán –Tiluk-, his wife and some of his ten children were waiting for us. They were sharing some mate under a tree’s shade. My instruments´ cases immediately caught the attention of childs, adults and a variety of animals (dogs, hens, among others), which started to prowl around them.

To be honest, after such a long trip, I wasn’t in the mood to explain much or show what I’d brought. However, sitting near Sebastián was enough, at least to notice something that even today I cannot completely get: the right speed, the times and the energy regulation required to breathe and walk around there.

Workshop. It was, undoubtedly, the most challenging teaching experience I’d ever faced. The age of the students went from five to thirteen years old. None of them had any kind of musical knowledge, there were almost no instruments and mine, due to their fragility, weren’t appropriate for this kind of workshop. In fact, the challenge was, not only from a teaching perspective, the most difficult I’d ever had.

In cases like this one, and given the workshop’s goals, the priority is the work’s continuity once my intervention is over; so, the best thing to do is to play with the instruments available in the place. Therefore, the work done can be developed in the future and doesn’t depend on the use of my instruments.

As days went by and watching the children’s everyday’s life, I began to understand some of the reasons of the difficulties they had. I noticed that there wasn’t any lunchtime; actually, there was almost no food. Without food, it is very difficult for someone to feel like playing. However these children really wanted to do so, it was just that playing wasn’t part of their lives.

On the other hand, the teenagers looked childish. They were too skinny. They appeared to be two or three years younger. The lack of food on a regular basis, I think, is the reason for these sorts of things. Another detail: none of them had shoes and, as the days went by, I realized that they had only, at best, one change of clothes. They showed up everyday wearing the same clothes, always clean.

But, I insist, they liked to play. So I left behind my usual Buenos Aires´ citizen, middle-class, intellectual bullshit and played with them. And, it goes without saying, that this one must have been the second or third time in my life that I kept a recreational link with kids for more than ten minutes. We took those of my instruments which were useful, they brought a drum and a sort of maraca (Wichi´s traditional instruments which names I didn’t know) and, as there were quite a few children, we used a couple of wooden-structure chairs with leather seats that, in this context, sounded just fine.

In order to make an initial assessment in this kind of activities, it is very important the first step: to set the performance ground in order to establish a starting point to move on. In fact, the cultural center ground was a dirt floor; the same as the musical performance of these children: a virgin field that had never received any stimulus or whatever, where no seed, in terms of music, had been planted before. The feeling that I wouldn’t be able to change this, that I just didn’t have the suitable teaching tools for the occasion made me dizzy; but I was already there: I had a bunch of children in front of me waiting for some instructions.

So, the starting point was to held hands in a circle:
- The first instruction that worked (after several failures) was to set the pulse all together hand-clapping on our legs.
- After a while, we added the movement linked to the pulse turning the circle to one direction.
- Then, we repeat the exercise but walking around the place, and this time they followed the beat of the Wichi drum (tumpaj) that I played.
- Gradually we included variations, silences, changes of direction and speed in the circle’s moves.
At the end, I became a member of the circle no longer as leader but as one more kid, and one of them took the leading drum.

When I study but also when I teach, I realize that the most important thing to start the learning process is to recognize the place on which we stand –metaphorically, the ground. In this process, it is essential to be rigorously honest and sincere, no matter how hard it is to figure this out or even to admit it. Paraphrasing: “Reality is the only truth”.

Back to the circle, its turning on the dirt floor was filling the air with dust. The kids, already comfortable with the situation, began to tap their feet happily: that was a good sign; another important piece of information: they were laughing. Then I wondered about the direction in which we should move forward.

Once our ground has been determined, the second step is to decide in which direction we should head. There is no sense in hurrying up if we don’t know where we are willing to go. Somehow the course of our work was implicit in my presence there: to awaken the children’s interest in the music and dance so that Sebastián could then pass on the Wichi tradition. Based on that original goal, the teaching path was already drawn. I already had the ground and also the direction.

Isabel, Sebastián’s wife and mother of his ten children, didn’t keep her eyes and attention off what was going on. Once the class was over, she approached me to mention that the circle we had been doing resembled the Wichis traditional dances, dances which I had never seen before in my life. Just Coincidence or Santa Cecilia. I am not precisely a mystic man, but sometimes I can’t find another explanation.

Sebastián, drinking mate a couple of meters away, was keeping a watch on the situation without showing up in the workshop. Kind of Omnipresent, I might say. That night he invited a friend of him and one of his eldest sons, Najuaj, to sing and dance along with him. I had a minidisc with me and they asked me to record them. The records or the lack of them is another of the key issues regarding the continuity of the Wichi traditions. In fact, a request from Sebastián was to record all the repertory that he keeps in his memory. I guess we will be doing it this year.

We had a great time: they sang and we dance, although I gave up my choreographic attempt just three minutes after trying it. I recorded them, and Nico and Lupe took photos. The children were very happy to see Tiluk dancing and singing. Things were taking shape, but I still needed to involve Sebastián in this process or, rather, that he, himself, would like to come to the children’s scene.

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Unlikely the previous ones, that night I heard some of the kids playing and singing in groups: a result, maybe, of watching the cacique and other adults dances; plus the workshop’s motivation.

I slept on a folding bed made of leather straps, with my ankles hanging out. Compared to the sleeping bag on the dust, on which I had slept two nights before, I felt I was resting on a sommier. While I got to sleep, I heard the recordings of that night’s party.

Probably, Tiluk/Sebastián´s music still ringing in my head insistently woke me up the following morning. Then I got my ideas straight: There’s no way for the children to learn how to sing and dance their tradition if they don’t experience it on a daily basis. Memories of rumba dances in Cuba, Escolas de Samba rehearsals that I witnessed in Rio, the Uruguayan Candombe Strings, the Sicuris Bands´ pilgrimages and the Pesebres in Jujuy came back to my mind. All of them proved that children learn by imitating what adults do, not by studying, that’s all. It wasn’t a matter of magic; a workshop cannot teach something that has not become a habit yet; this just won’t happen.

The reasons why this didn’t occurred within this Community were not my problem, but it was my responsibility to make them happen from now on.

I approached where Sebastián was having some mate and we got hooked on an extremely contended intellectual chess. The final score (a draw), as time went by, ended up confirming that we were both right. The conversation, although in a monochord tone, was tense because neither of us understood what the other one’s proposal concerning the continuity of the Workshops was. However, as so many times throughout history of human relationships, a woman put some order: Karina, Sebastian’s eldest daughter, spoke. She was knitting, as she witnessed the cockfight. So far, I had never heard her voice. She volunteered to take charge of dancing with the kids using a record they’ve already had and she could, as well, lead their games. We remained silent, looked at each other and admitted the draw.

That very afternoon Karina came with me to the workshop and little by little (actually very quickly) she took the leadership. I sat down at a side and I was able finally to relax for the first time after several days. I felt that my work was somehow coming to a successful end. However, the best part was yet to come: when we put on the recordings and the kids tried to dance as the Wichi tradition established, Sebastián, who until then had been drinking mate, keeping eyes on what was happening in the workshop, showed up. In less than a second, he joined the class, made corrections and gave instructions that were followed to the letter by the troop that paid careful attention to their cacique. It was truly a magical moment.

Departure. The following day I went back to Salta from where I took a plane to Buenos Aires. Fortunately, Martín, Lupe’s friend, was working in the area and picked us up at Santa Victoria. This made the return easier. The landscape change, in just a couple of hours, from the Chaco Salteño to Buenos Aires´ airport, was abrupt.

Today. The workshop, which started with only five or six children in October, today has more than fifteen students that get together three times a week. Sebastián and Karina are in charge of it and they receive the support of The Mozarteum Argentino that decided to keep backing this project.

The UCES also contributed –at my father’s suggestion- the money required to finance an afternoon snack for the children that attend the workshop. My music teacher from when I was eight, my beloved Judith Akoschky, donated a bunch of instruments (some of which I played when I was a child) and as a result of the generosity of the Filiberto Orchestra members, of which I am proud to be one of its percussionist, my friends and family, donations of clothes, shoes, toys and school supplies had been shipped to Santa Victoria.

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