22 June 2010

Sabor a Papayera

Back in 2008 I visited Barranquilla, Colombia with G-D. It turned out to be one of the best trips I've ever made, not just because I left 12-inches of snow in Buffalo and landed in the warm Caribbean where G-D's family served us sancocho, took us to bull fights in Cartagena, drove us around to Gabriel García Márquez's old haunt, drank beer with us at the beach. In addition to all that, her cousin Quique, himself a masterful accordion player, introduced me to the wonderful sound of Papayera.

What is Papayera? It's a bit unjust to treat this powerfully informal music schematically, but oh well: Papayera is a folk music from the northern coast of Colombia that combines polyrhythmic percussion with horns, vocals, accordion and any other instrument on hand. Apparently the name comes from a tradition of using hollowed-out papayas for percussion. The music is often associated with the colorful public buses called Chivas. Despite all typical characteristics, however, Papayera takes many forms because it doesn't adhere to any formal guidelines of genre. Papayera bands form on the street corner, incorporate anyone playing, interpret everything from cumbias to vallenatos to god knows what else.

All that may seem like a set of familiar enough ingredients for folk music, but the first time I heard Papayera it struck me as unlike anything I'd ever heard before--something like New Orleans jazz washed ashore on the beaches of South America and broadcast back to my North American ears through a chain of Caribbean transmitters. It smacked a smile on my face before my grumpy little rust-belt heart could protest.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to make a copy of that disc Quique played for me. When I got back to wintery Buffalo, though, I started searching the internet to find some recorded trace of Papayera. I didn't find much, perhaps because not much has been committed to tape or perhaps because not much has circulated this far. I did turn up one cheesy looking release by Banda 11 de Enero and, empty-handed otherwise, placed my order. It turned out to be as exciting as whatever it was I heard in Barranquilla. If you need to get a party started this summer, or stay awake while on the road, this should do the trick.

I don't know much about the release, but there are a few copies available on ebay if you've got the money. (I'm not saying it's not worth it!) The package doesn't clear up any mysteries, though, doesn't even name the musicians. I've seen a few references to Banda 11 de Enero around; nothing really adds to the back ground. Fortunately, the music speaks for itself. Have a listen. It'll make you happier than a little girl serving Aguila in her mother's pumps.