Homemade instruments, inequality and new worlds

Siloé is a neighborhood in Cali, Colombia with a long history and a lot of culture. It is also considered “Cali’s most dangerous barrio“.

Through the friend of a friend, yesterday, I heard about Colombian musician and composer Moíses Zamora Mesu, who is working in a project called Los tambores de Siloé. Today, Moíses invited me to come and visit.

Every Tuesday and Friday, Moíses teaches music to a group of young kids in Siloé, playing on homemade instruments. With a lot of patience and innate teaching skills, he teaches the children to play his own compositions inspired by Colombian folklore, reggaeton and rap music.

I was lucky to be allowed by the parents to film the class, and share it, so please take a moment to enjoy these young musicians:

Notice the homemade instruments. So we have the “marimbotella”. This is a small marimba, where the bars are made from chonta wood – which is traditionally used in the marimbas of the Pacific Coast of Colombia – and the resonance tubes are made from … plastic bottles. A combination of garbage and traditional local materials. And we have the Bernáfono”, an instrument made from PVC tubes. The inventor of the instrument is Héctor Tascón. He is also the one who initiated the project, some years back. His wife is called Berna, by the way (guess where the name of the Bernáfono comes from 😉 ). As opposed to the marimbotella, the Bernáfono doesn’t correspond to any existing instrument. It is rather – as Moíses explained to me, After the class, over a glass of ice coffee – a kind of bass marimba, using the principles of a pan flute. Moíses and I talked about the use of recycled materials, and the perception of value. He told me that an aunt of one the girls in the group had asked her – in a condescending tone – what kind of trash this weird collection of tubes was supposed to be. The girl had explained to the sceptical aunt, that she considered herself proud to be a “bernafonista”, that it was not at all trash, and that it made her able to create beautiful music.

Listen to Moíses playing his own composition in the Bernáfono, here:

Note how, at some point, he covers the end of one of the tubes, thus halving its pitch…

As an educational anthropologist, what particularly interests me when observing this open air music class, is the intersection between acquiring skills, producing, and community building. I noticed that in Moíses’ pedagogy there is on the one hand an aspect of guided learning, as when he instructs the group in a specific composition:

On the other hand there are aspects of peer learning:

These are aspects about the surface level, you might say, of the project. At a deeper level, Los Tambores de Siloé have an impact on the neighborhood, that reaches beyond the mere producting of music. As one of the mothers who where watching the class told me: this is “a better alternative to bullets and drugs”. Schooling in Siloé is “free”. However, – the mothers told me – the obligatory school uniform costs 200 USD per year, the transport to and from school – by “motorratón”, which means at the backseat on a motorcycle – costs 6.000 COP, approximately 2 USD per day. And then comes school materials, lunchbox, etc. For this reason, there are families who simply can’t afford sending their kids to school… And then what? According to the mothers, too many kids end up hanging out in the streets, doing nothing, – or worse, I suppose by this they meant things involving bullets and drugs. (See also Clara Rübner Jørgensen’s article “FORKLÆDTE PENGE: En diskussion af brugerbetaling i en gratis nicaraguansk folkeskole”.)
Moíses told me about a boy, who since a young age had participated in the project. Now, at 15, he’s an accomplished marimbero, and Moíses hires him to play with him at gigs at weddings and the like. It’s kind of a cliché that a career as a professional musician can be “a way out of the ghetto” for young people. Nonetheless, as i experience it, the project Tambores de Siloé seems to be successful in opening up other alternatives, other worlds, for young people in a neighborhood characterized by huge inequality.

Bonus materials

This text is about sharing my thoughts from what we might call an improvised one-day ethnographic trip. My intension is also to share the footage for others to dig into. So here are some more videos for you:

The instruments

The Silicobombo

The Silicocaja

The interviews

More peer learning

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