Culture jamming

By Published On: July 13, 2005Categories: Culture0 Comments on Culture jamming

The rosy-cheeked woman beamed, her plaits bouncing beneath her bowler hat, her basket-shaped skirt still spinning.

She turned to kiss her two sullen competitors who stood either side of her while a rowdy group of women yelled out "Camacho, Camacho" (which is a market in which I presume she works).

Sonia Quispe had just won the "Cholita del Oro" competition for the central district of La Paz. I half expected her to make a speech thanking her mum and saying how much she likes animals, but she merely swirled her skirts and her long-tasselled shawl in time to the chants of the the enthusiastic crowd.

Two days later, I sat in the sun listening to a near-perfect rendition of Stormy Weather. On stage was another woman, this time dressed in jeans, a trendy T-shirt and shades that I last saw in a magazine photo of Beckham wife "Posh."

Behind her a group of young musicians, all shielded in dark sunglasses blasted out "big band" style jazz. As her voice swooped to the end of the piece, the crowd on Bolivia’s main high street whooped and cheered, calling out for an encore.

La Paz is a city that seems to thrive on culture. Almost every night, I can hear live music filtering up through my flat windows, the local guides are crammed full of events taking place in bars and squares across town, and every Sunday the main high street (the Prado) fills with music.

It reminds me in some ways of Edinburgh where I studied in the early 90s. I used to love heading out in the evenings to enjoy a pint of "80" with some live Scottish folk music.

The comparison was brought home to me on Saturday night, when I went out to one of the bars that Cecilia my flatmate had recommended for good music.

It was tucked away in a side street down some little stairs through a very unassuming door. Inside it was candlelit, small and atmospheric, but somehow at about 11pm a band of about 8 people managed to squeeze into the middle below a small archway to perform an electric set of very funky Andean music. As they finished, others picked up guitars and started a good "jamming" session which was still going strong as I head home at 1am.

What I like about what I have seen of events in La Paz is the fact that there seems a genuine affection for indigenous music combined with an openness to music and culture from different countries.

It was epitomised by me by a concert that directly followed the "cholita del oro" competition. A group of mainly women peformed a gig that brought together "otoctono" music (dissonant, percussive pipe music of the Andes) accompanied by jazz rhythms of the States. During the concert, a blessing was made to Pachamama, the mother God of the Earth.

The elderly man next to me was strangely both tapping his feet in time to the music, but also shaking his head as if something was wrong. He told me that the music was good, but it wasn’t right that the otoctono group were all women.

"This is religious music," he said. "It should be played by men."  I replied that I thought it was good to see women playing. He said "But people like you (I guess he meant gringos) will think that this is how it is. We need to keep our culture, and not let it change."

I guess perhaps there is a danger in a globalised world, that traditions and culture can be undermined. In the man’s statement I saw the fear of losing a world that has sustained a vibrant civilisation here.

But for me, culture is not a static thing. It is something that has developed for centuries and is often enriched as it interacts and engages with other cultures. What I have seen in La Paz so far has confirmed that. In fact probably some of the fascination for me of this place is the fact that it is situated high up in the Andes still closely linked to a rural Andean culture with all its richness, whilst being a modern capital city linked like all capitals today to an increasingly interconnected globalised world.


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