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Monday, September 19, 2011

On the Saya

I started teaching my course “Introduction non-western music” again. In nine lessons I skim the world map on music. I work form left to right, as long as you use a Europe-centered map at least – but just for fun I use an Australian-centered upside-down world map in my lessons, to make clear that Europe-centeredness is just a bias. So the next nine weeks or so I will in this blog follow the outline of my lessons and will write a little personal story about the musics I teach about that week. Today: Bolivia.
I went to Bolivia something like 15 years ago for about five weeks. Friends of mine were living there, so that gave me the opportunity and the pretext to go. I asked them how safe it was, their answer was “Safer than Oegstgeest on Sunday morning” (I don’t know the Dinglish equivalent of Oegstgeest – but think of Midsummer without the Murders).  
So I decided to start and finish at their place but for most of the time to travel around on my own. Which I did, and which was one of the best holidays I ever had – playing with some of my fellow-tourists a football match against a local village at 5500 meters altitude, visiting the salt plains of Uyuni and the mines of Potosi, seeing in small catholic churches centuries-old derelict organs which would probably drive organists completely out of their wits, eating llama steak, meeting American cocaine junks, as well as a German girl who started a conversation in Russian with a Bolivian on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere; God, I want to go back.
But my fondest memory is the Saya.  It all started when I was just in the country. My friends took me to a farewell-party of a Dutch/Bolivian couple, with a lot of drinking and a lot of music and dancing. I was not really an avid dancer at the time, but somehow I found myself at some point trying to learn a funny dance at a funny rhythm with probably the most beautiful girl of Bolivia ever – at least that is how I will remember her for the rest of my life.
Anyway, the day after I asked my friends the name – no, not of the girl (I may have done that but am ashamed to admit I forgot her name) but of the dance. They said I probably meant the cueca, so off I went to the record store to buy me some cuecas. But after listening to a couple of cassettes I was quite sure I was not after the cueca. Yes, we did dance the cueca, complete with swirling handkerchiefs, but I meant something else. But the record guy could not help me out, nor could my friends.
Some time after that I was in another city, on my own, high on a church tower overlooking part of the old town. Suddenly I heard “my” dance. Music was playing in what turned out to be a school yard, and when I looked down I saw that schoolgirls and –boys were practicing the dance I never had seen before. I suddenly realized which movements my dance partner had tried to learn me; I realized that the dance (in three) heavily emphasized the first beat of each measure whereas the music emphasized the second up to a point where you actually started hearing it as the first. And I got to know the name of the dance – the church tour guide said it was a Saya.
So I started to buy Sayas. The most popular one at that time was simply “La Saya”, by a group called Tupay. And I bought loads of others – cassettes, cd’s, I simply loved it, in all flavors – the Andean standard line up, synthetic, brass band (how I love them!), you name it. And videos; Bolivian video makers at the time loved all the possibilities of home video editing and had a special love for the legs of the female dancers so you had to get used to a mess of images shot from a very low camera standpoint tumbling over the screen. But it was all worth it.
In the course of all that I also learned that the original of Kaoma’s Lambada (which I remember hearing for the first time in a French supermarket – “Now that’s going to be a hit”,  I said to my then girlfriend, and it was) actually was a Bolivian Saya by a group called K’Jarkas (I like the original better - and just for fun check out what JLo did to all that…). And of course, as a true ethnomusicologist, I learned that all that is called Saya but actually is Caporales (a 1963 Saya–based invention) and that the real “Afro-Bolivian Saya” is probably something rather remote, and that quite some politics of ethnicity and identity will be part of the discourse – but I stop there.
I stop there because eventually I am too fond of my memories of an evening of dance with my Bolivian beauty and the small journey into something she will have called Saya. You can’t be an ethnomusicologist all of the time – sometimes you just have to enjoy music & life.

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