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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

¡Cimarrón! Joropo Music from the Plains of Colombia

By Daniel E. Sheehy, with Carlos Rojas Hernández

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“The cimarrón is the bull that knows no rope, corral, nor iron, the steer that has not been lassoed nor branded and ranges free on the savannas and surrounding forests. That concept always struck me; nothing can be closer to the creative spirit that constitutes the essence of plains music, than that feeling of freedom.”— Carlos Rojas Hernández, leader of group Cimarrón

Colombia boasts many regional musical traditions that remain firmly rooted among newer generations. One of these is música llanera, music of the expansive eastern fluvial plains that water the mighty Orinoco River and continue into western Venezuela. Ranchlands stretch across the region, and more than a century and a half of cattle herding has left a mark on the lifeways of its people. In the late 1900s, petroleum extraction began to compete for economic primacy. On one hand, the region’s musical heritage evokes centuries of sounds and sentiments of its Spanish colonial past and the postindependence period of the 19th century. Harps, guitars of different varieties (bandola, bandolina, bandolón, six-stringed guitar), violin, maracas, friction drums (zambomba or furruco), and rasps (chácharo and carraca) point to Spanish and perhaps indigenous sources. The rhythmic drive and cyclicality of the music may reflect the style and sensibilities of enslaved African people and their descendants in the Americas.

At the same time, the contemporary sound of música llanera is very much a product of its successes in the commercial music industry of Venezuela from the late 1940s to the 1970s, when recordings of music from the Venezuelan portion of the Orinoco River plain, along with radio, and,later, television and film, catapulted favored groups and musicians to the front row of public life. Some of the more notable were harpist-composers Ignacio Figueredo (“El Indio Figueredo,” 1899– 1995) and Juan Vicente Torrealba (born 1917), singer Ángel Custodio Loyola (“El Renco Loyola,” 1926–1985), and bandola player Anselmo López. The fast-paced, triple-meter joropo music they espoused, accompanied by footwork-intense couples-dancing, became an icon of regional and national identity, and several of the “next-generation” plains singers, such as Reynaldo Armas, continue to attract national and international audiences.

The greatest impact of the commercial success of música llanera was felt in the plains region on both sides of the Orinoco. Radio airplay intensified the “feedback loop” of music recorded by local musicians to all parts of the plains area, in Colombia and in Venezuela. In Venezuela, the plains-style joropo became by far the best-known of the many regional varieties of Venezuelan traditional music. In both countries, the variety of homegrown musical instruments used to interpret the joropo were superseded by a more uniform, “standard” sound, consisting of harp or bandola llanera, cuatro, maracas, and later, acoustic or electric bass. The plains harp has a unique structure, sound, and playing technique, all of which distinguish it from the many other types of Latin American folk harp found in Venezuela, Mexico, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, and elsewhere. As with other harps, one hand (usually the left) focuses more on the lower-pitched strings to play bass and chords, while the other hand plays melody on the higher-pitched strings. The regional bandola, not to be confused with other Latin American guitars with the same name, is a four-stringed guitar, plucked with a small pick in a fast-moving technique developed largely by Anselmo López. The principal instrumental melody is played by either the harp or the bandola, though seldom by both at the same time. The cuatro is a small four-stringed guitar, whose loosely tensed strings allow the player to create a multitude of rhythmic-percussive effects, giving an essential character to the joropo sound. The popularity of the cuatro has spread far beyond the plains region among Latin American folk-music performers throughout the Americas. The deceptively simple-looking pair of maraca rattles is the source of a great variety of subtle sonorities and complex rhythmic accompaniment. Most are fashioned from the totumo gourd, with a stick handle and small seeds or pebbles inside. Accomplished maraca players (maraqueros) may carry two or more pairs with them to a performance to allow a choice of sonority (e.g., pitched higher or lower, crisper or softer). The addition of the bass both freed the harpist to devote more attention to the melody and conformed with the international popular music trend favoring a strong bass presence in the mix.

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Members of Cimarrón discuss Llanero (Plains) Music

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Cimarrón Performs "El Guate" (The Foreigner)

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Cimarroneando