Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto have preserved one of the most distinctly American forms of music in the Western Hemisphere. Originating from a unique blend of European, African and indigenous native influences, the term gaitero refers to one who plays the gaita, an ancient wooden flute associated with the Kuna, Kogui and Zenú Indian cultures of Colombia. The haunting melodies of the gaita are played over a foundation of hypnotic Afro-Colombian rhythms.
“This music was born from a marriage between the Indians of the Sierra Nevada and those who came here from the land of Africa,” says Juan “Chuchita” Fernández.
Chuchita is the current leader of Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, a group co-founded by his uncle Antonio “Toño” Fernández in the early 1940s. I spoke with the legendary singer after a recent performance at The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. Chuchita has been performing with Los Gaiteros since the 1970s. At 82 years old, the singer has been a firsthand witness to many important changes in Colombian music —— particularly the development of cumbia. Over the course of our conversation, Chuchita shared many valuable insights and memories from his historic career.
“I started out playing the tambora drum. I was thrown into doing vocals because the other musicians saw I had charisma,” says Chuchita when I ask about his early involvement with music.
Chuchita remembers the term cumbia was originally applied to the parties where the gaiteros played.
“Back in the day, people would say 'Let’s go to the cumbia.’ The women would bake cakes and cookies. The gaiteros would be drinking and there was dancing all night. It was very festive,” he says.
Chuchita described a memorable scene from a typical cumbia party.
“The women would stand holding candles to light the plaza. The dancers would gather and dance around the women as the gaiteros played. When one of the gaiteros would get tired, another would come in to replace them. We would party so long that the next day, there was so much wax from the candles on the ground that the donkeys would slip and fall as they entered the plaza.”
Chuchita’s experience playing at these informal cumbias led to an offer to join the band of Andres Landero, an accordion player known as the King of Cumbia. Chuchita spent several years playing the guacharaca in Landero’s band. During his tenure with Landero, Chuchita honed his compositional skills contributing lyrics to Landero’s “La Pava Congona,” one of the most popular cumbias ever written. Chuchita vividly recalled composing the song with Landero.
“We were going to visit some girls who lived in the mountains. We put Andres’ accordion in a bag, strapped it to a donkey and drank aguardiente [an anise-flavoured Colombian liquer] as we walked. We were listening to the songs of the birds and Andres would ask me the names of the birds. I would tell him and he put the verses together as we walked along.” He begins reciting lyrics, “One day in the mountains I heard the corcobao singing and I saw a spider spinning a web of gold.”
Chuchita would go on to write hundreds of other songs, often drawing on his love for nature.
“I used to work in the fields. When I write my lyrics, I speak about nature and the experiences I had working outdoors,” he says, before quoting a poetic example. “The life of the field worker is a beautiful life, but in the afternoon when praying begins and the ground doves do not sing, this saddens my heart.”
Advanced age isn’t slowing Chuchita down. After a 90-minute performance of full-throttle singing and dancing, my friends and I sheepishly asked Chuchita for an interview. We expected the 82-year-old to be too fatigued to cooperate. But to our surprise, the singer had plenty of energy left. He talked with us well into the night and probably would have kept going if the museum staff hadn’t kindly asked us to leave so they could lock up.
As we said goodbye, his parting words to us indicated that his career is far from over.
“I’m still composing songs. We’re touring Europe and the U.S. I’ve worked with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Bogota. I’m working on a play. Music has given me the status to accomplish all this.” ν
Thanks to Isaias Guerrero and Gerardo Ruiz Tovar for their invaluable assistance in this interview.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features a ninety minute mix of contemporary and classic Colombian music.
1. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto - Campo Allegre
2. María Mulata - La Candela de Vapo
3. Pedro Ramaya Beltran - El Moncada
4. Ondatropica - Linda Mañana
5. Tóto La Momposina - Curura
6. Petrona Martinez - Sepiterna
7. Ondatropica - Curro Fuentes
8. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto - La Cumbia De Arnulfa Helena
9. Andres Landero - La Pava Congona
10. Grupo Naidy - La Zotea
11. Ondatropica - Donde Suena el Bombo
12. Son De Cali - Vos Me Debes
13. ChocQuibTown - Oro
14. Systema Solar - Ya Veras
15. Bomba Estéreo - La Boquilla
16. Meridian Brothers - Guaracha U.F.O
17. Las Malas Amistades - Mala Suerte
18. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto - Rogelio
19. Ondatropica - Tiene Sabor, Tiene Sazón
20. Son Palenque - Palenque, Palenque
21. Wganda Kenya - Fiebre De Lepra
22. Ondatropica - Punkero Sonidero
23. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto - El Pondito