ERNESTO “TETO” OCAMPO
For about ten years Teto has been playing indigenous music from Colombia. He leads a number of bands integrating indigenous music, including Side Steppers, Mucho Indio and Hombre de Barro, which regularly perform in Bogotá.
INTERVIEW – april 2016
How did you get involved in the music you do?
At one point I began getting interested in this culture, which is an original culture of Colombia. I discovered it was spiritual. And I ended up discovering that I was bored of Western music. Indigenous music gave me a new impulse to continue my musical path. What was missing in Western music was spirituality. And that’s what I wanted above all: learning what was spiritual music. Knowing if medicinal music, or music therapy, was effective. Therefore I started learning antique music forms from various parts of the world, from China, Mongolia, Africa… Here, people tend to get interested in yoga, but they don’t see that here there is also something interesting; here there are also these traditions! So I started working with people from the mountain areas, in the Cauca region, and I learned the music. But I also learned many other things. I became involved in the villages’ life, fights, and politics.
As part of this process the band Mucho Indio was created, which defends spiritual politics. “Mucho indio” is an expression of the Colombian racism. People refer to indigenous people as “mucho indio”, with condescendence. And instead, we discovered that “Indian” is richness. The Indian culture is a great culture that we have in Colombia, that we are starting to appreciate, and about which we realize we don’t know anything – me neither I didn’t know anything about it.
So, I have this group called Mucho Indio, in which I write new music using very antique music. I call this “paleofuturism”: finding the music of the future using very old music. I know melodies that come from antique spirits, from thousands of years ago, and that serve our purpose. I try to treat them in a way that dignifies them.
I am also looking for music that isn’t either traditional music, but new urban music. Most of people do rock music; even if they sing in Spanish, it sounds like they’ve learned the music from Europe. What happened in Colombia, and in almost all Latin America, was a biological mixing. We all have dark skin. So there was a biological mixing, but no cultural mixing – actually there has been a little, but it remains unknown. Since the beginning, the type of governance and the system in which we live were adopted from Europe. Everything is European: school, language, religion… And during a very long time, one never knew what was the way of the Indians. But in 1992, the Indians were recognized in the new constitution. And so Indians started integrating the society: they started attending university, etc. This process started, and what we are only doing now is mixing. A new mixing made with respect, and including the indigenous, ancestral element.
Was it a challenge to go and learn from a different culture?
I wasn’t able to learn indigenous music like you would learn Western music. In the West, you pay for a piece of knowledge and that’s it. Or you look on the Internet, you find, and supposedly you get the piece of knowledge you wanted. But here it’s not like that. You have to work hard to find knowledge. Melodies can seem very simple to learn, they can also be written and recorded. You can work like this. But really understanding how to use these melodies isn’t that easy. First, with the Indians, you have to sit and talk many, many times. Once you have talked many times with someone, you end up being friends. That’s why some of my best friends are Indians who taught me, and who are still teaching me. And you also need a cultural translator, an interlocutor. Someone who is in this world and at the same time who works with or for them. We need their vision of politics, of the community, of ecology, spirituality, medicine… Many things that are there, that are also part of ourselves, but that we have forgotten for a long time, for 500 years, or for centuries even. These things are forgotten but now we have this opportunity to find them again.
I went to an Indian and I asked him to play a song. And he replied, “No, why should I sing a song? Which song?” I asked for the chantaduro song. The chantaduro is a small fruit of the palm tree. And so there is a song about going to get the chantaduro, there is a song about pealing the chantaduro, there is another song about cooking the chantaduro… And the song in Bogotá, without any chantaduro, doesn’t make sense. I learned the song about going to get the chantaduro, but then it didn’t make any sense because there was no chantaduro and no forest around.
Therefore, there is a different way to learn. Investigating is not about studying in an intellectual way. It is about talking with the Indian and sharing what we can. Much of this investigation, I’ve done it here at home, because they have come here. My home has become a center for Indians to come for a while. At any time can appear an Indian! Ah, look, here comes one!
One of the Indians who helped me a lot is living here at the moment. He is a shaman and a musician from the Cauca area, from the Nasa village. He didn’t have a place to live, so he came to stay here! And so every time he comes we play music. And I have only learned what he has wanted to show me.
There are also various musicians from the mountain who have come a few times and who have taught me a lot. One grandma has adopted me as her urban son, in a way. And she comes one or two times a year, she stays here two or three months, she shares everything with my mum… And always we have to sing! She always wants to sing or to teach me other things. And there is a lot to learn from her.
There are also the mamos who play accordion. And anytime one Indian from a community comes here, the other Indians from that community but who live in Bogotá come to visit him or her. I have an accordion here, and we spend the whole night playing one after the other. And that’s how you end up learning!
A very few times it has been really a session to talk about or to learn music. With Julio for example, a Heruacan Indian, I had a proper class of Heruacan music. It lasted maybe twelve hours and I recorded it all; he told me so much and he taught me so many songs!
Therefore, there isn’t one way to learn. There is a Western way, which we call musicology. It is about recording, taking notes, writing who recorded, when, where, etc., and putting it on a shelf in the library. But I disagree with this anthropological way, which is a vision from the outside. The anthropologist arrives at a place and declares that Indians are like that: “THEY are like this and I am like that”. Instead, I like to live their life. I like to learn how to live their life. I like to eat the same food, to share medicine and the plants, the music… This is an exchange. The music is very nice because I sing and you enjoy. Music is sharing: a musician plays and the other says “oh this is so nice, it is a pleasure”! Music breaks all borders, all language barriers, all political barriers, etc. That’s why there’s no need to come to this intellectual way of thinking; most of the time music is for party, and that’s it! Why should we start philosophizing, we play and that’s it!
What are the messages you want to share through this music?
There are many things that we are communicating. The first one is that we are all Indians. And also we all are white and we all are black, and racism comes to an end. That is the main message, because this is basis to be able to talk and to enjoy music, arts, or a conversation.
Once racism ended, what we have left is sitting together, talking, and receiving knowledge. There is European knowledge, there is African knowledge, there is knowledge from Mongolia, from China… And there is knowledge from here. There are leaders in the indigenous communities, who in other places would be called shamans, but here they are called mamos. Therefore, more than my message, it is about transmitting the message of these knowledgeable people. In a way I am an interlocutor. Sometimes it is difficult to understand and to translate this wisdom. Many of these mamos don’t speak good Spanish, so it can be difficult understanding us. But in general, we can say they are like the Tibetan lamas, who are gurus, who detain keys of spiritual life, which can serve us a lot.
This is also about politics. Because we should change a few things in the system. About education, for example. About every aspect of the system, actually; but one thing I am especially sensitive about is education, because I have been a teacher for a long time. I want to work for education. People can be educated in the European system, and they don’t get educated in the indigenous way. So people who received education at a European school know about mathematics, philosophy, science, biology… They know a few things that come from the books. But they don’t know how to build a house, how to hunt, how to make their clothes, etc. These are the things we need to be able to survive in the world. Philosophy is of no help to survive: you have to buy your clothes. In contrary in the communities, children learn how to make their clothes, how to build their house… They learn it because they participate in the building of their neighbor’s and relatives’ houses. When they have just married, they start building their house. And you don’t have to build your home alone, the rest of the community comes to help you.
In the West, surviving in the world implies working in one thing to earn money to be able to buy all these things. While the Indian makes all the things he needs. If you want to play music, you have to make your instrument. Over there, there is no shop to buy any. So you have to go and select the wright plant – because instruments are plants – and the rest follows. It is difficult to explain all the process. But in general, there is a spiritual reason for playing music. And I am working to get this back.
How is it playing music in order to deliver this message?
There is one thing that I feel is important: phrasing. It is cultural, and much of the phrasing comes from our environment. But there is another part that comes from inside of us, from our DNA, from our blood… It’s genetic. So I have been discovering my phrasing. And unlike most Indians, I write music, I have been using counterpoint and other European technics, and I have been using electronic items and technology… I make this new mixing, in which there is indigenous and modern music.
I also have another band called Hombre de Barro, in which we basically do the same but it is all improvised. We are jazzmen, we are part of the Colombian jazz scene. It is very underground but very big. There are many people playing incredible music. I haven’t seen that in any other places, neither in France, neither in Germany, where there is so much jazz music; neither in Argentina, which is culturally very evolved; neither in Brazil, which hosts so many music forms; neither in Mexico… Here there is a scene of Colombian, folkloric free jazz.
How do you envision the future of traditional music?
Many things can happen. In many places, culture is at risk – including music but not only. In many places, we can already see it is disappearing. These are places where the youth don’t learn the music; they want to learn the music they hear on the radio. And, there are people, like me, who are working to prevent this from happening. We will see how far we can succeed.
I have an educational project in the forest of the Sierra Nevada area. The idea is to make culture and languages stronger. In the West we tend to think about things as separate, but actually it is all the same. For example again about the chantaduro song: it is music, but it is also about the forest, about magic, about medicine… it is everything.
I have a project to promote education in Puerto Nariño, in the forest. The project is nice because the Indians themselves lead it, to connect the youth with their culture again, because they get totally disconnected. Over there especially, you can see how much young people are lost. They don’t know anything about the forest and they don’t know the language. There are other places where people haven’t let that happen. In the Sierra Nevada, people have worked lately to make this education stronger. They have been encouraging the children to play the instruments.
There is also the case of urban people who are learning indigenous customs and traditions. This helps preserving and diffusing knowledge about these cultures. There are other musicians like me working on this field, and this has had a good result.
How do audiences receive your music?
In general, in indigenous communities, there is a part of the village that thinks they should come to the city to learn from it and go back to teach some things, and they think this is a useful experience. While there are some people who think the contrary; that they should stay there.
And here in Bogotá it is the same. There are many people who receive this music wonderfully. It changes their lives even, because they receive an epiphany, spiritual knowledge. And, there are people who don’t understand it. There are many people who don’t understand any music, anyway! There are many people who make terrible music! The lyrics are horrible, the music isn’t interesting, there is nothing ethnic.
If you travel by bus you will listen to terrible music! But everyone in the bus will enjoy it still. Sometimes I wonder, am I the only one on this planet who dislikes it? What I enjoy is listening to an Indian playing accordion in the forest, I get completely happy! But it is the same if I listen to jazz, or Bach, or African music… So I think people who are open to receive nice music will receive it, wherever it comes from and whether it is antique or modern, European or from here. If the music is nice, we receive it. And, there are other people who don’t receive the music, who don’t know about music; they are alienated! They don’t like indigenous music neither jazz, etc.
Here we have done for a few years a very nice practice that is called the circle of the word. It is a very old tradition, from before the Indians. People gather around a fire and speak about spiritual matters. It is a very nice community practice. You can say whatever you want, and the others listen to you. So you can come with whatever political ideas, from whatever country, it doesn’t matter.
Do you have a message for the world?
Racism came to an end. We know better about different cultures, and the world is benefiting from it. Our vision of the world needs spirituality, ecology, community thinking; it needs healthy food, pure air; it needs knowledge about how to respect water, how to come back to what’s essential. Here in the Americas, we have the chance to live along with these communities, where this knowledge was kept alive – which is really incredible. It is wonderful that these people haven’t westernized their culture, that they haven’t changed their way of life to the comfort of the car and all the rest.
So I invite all the world to learn about these people and about themselves. Today, there are Indians and Westerners; but no matter the color of your skin, no matter the place where you live. You can be in Tibet or you can be in the center of Paris or New York, the earth is here. Here in Bogotá, this is Muisca territory for example, and it is here below the cement. You can put as much cement as you want, the earth will remain here. The spirit of the earth is here; let’s speak with it.
You can become every day more westernized, and you can forget all the important things. In the West religion doesn’t exist, spirituality doesn’t exist, everything is material, there is no community, everyone goes alone. But, you can also un-westernize. I encourage you to do so!
PORTFOLIO – AT ERNESTO’S