From culture to nature and back. A personal journey through the soundscapes of Colombia


Lamberto Coccioli



It is a sunny morning in late November 1990. Waiting to cross the road at a traffic light on the busy Avenida Caracas in Chapinero, a neighbourhood just north of Bogotá’s city centre, I soak in all that surrounds me: the voices in the pure castellano of the highlands, the noisy and colourful busetas running past, the large North American cars from the 1950s and 1960s drifting from lane to lane like lazy sharks, all this against the constant backdrop of the pristine, dark-green cerros and the dazzling blue sky, where huge, fast-moving clouds play with the sun. Suddenly, a clear, simple thought crosses my mind: this place is going to change my life forever.

I had arrived in Colombia only a few days earlier, invited by film director Mauricio Garcia Matamoros to write the music for his Colombia Nuevo Mundo (Colombia New World), a documentary on the Spanish “conquest” of the country and its legacy in contemporary Colombian society, especially from the point of view of its black and indigenous communities. The plan was to visit a number of locations together to record the music of different ethnic groups so that I could learn about traditional Colombian music before going back to Italy to write the soundtrack of the documentary. Little did I know, when we first discussed working together a few months earlier in Rome, that my journey to his country would transform my personal and professional life and provide a never-ending source of ideas and inspiration for my future work as a composer.

Even by South American standards, Colombia’s history has been more violent than most. The original sin of the European conquest and pillage of the continent, so aptly described by Eduardo Galeano (1971 and 1982), has been compounded in Colombia by the specific scourges of drug trafficking and one of the longest surviving guerrilla movements in the world. Even after the recent peace deal with the FARC – the largest of the insurgency groups – these continue to be the cause of untold suffering for ordinary people and unprotected communities in many parts of the country. Colombia still has the world’s second highest number of internally displaced people and several other unflattering records. When I first visited in 1990-1991, many areas of the country’s vast territory were controlled in turn by guerrillas, paramilitaries, narcos, or the state. Endemic corruption meant that even where government forces were in control, they were weak. Travelling around the country without local knowledge was indeed a dangerous prospect. Understandably Colombia was not a choice tourist destination, and in the most remote regions tourism was completely absent.

In face of all this, the people I met were invariably friendly, open, and generous. The routine expression of welcome – “mi casa es su casa” (“my house is your house”) – was always intended in its literal sense. I felt immensely privileged to be able to share, albeit briefly, the experiences of people whose lives were so profoundly different from my own. Very soon I came to the realization that Colombia is indeed a country of extremes. Brutal violence coexists side by side with extraordinary kindness. There is no middle ground. This radical opposition in the human sphere is replicated, perhaps not surprisingly, in the natural world. From the arid coastal deserts of the Guajira to the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, from the interminable plains of the Llanos Orientales to the lush rainforests of the Chocó and the Amazonas, the landscapes of Colombia are as beautiful as they are diverse. The only South American country to border both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Colombia is a natural geographic corridor between Central and South America. This helps explain the country’s staggering levels of biodiversity, nowhere so evident than in its variety of birds. Colombia has the highest bird diversity than any other country in the world, and Hilty and Brown’s monumental Guide to the Birds of Colombia (1986) was soon to become a constant companion in my travels.

The country possesses all the ingredients necessary to produce a unique richness and diversity of sonic environments: a mixed population – the result of the combination of indigenous, African, and European roots; a multitude of groups and communities that still maintain their identity and traditions; a fantastically diverse geographic environment; and unparalleled biodiversity. In particular, the prolonged and far-reaching mestizaje process among the different peoples of Colombia has been central to the formation of a multi-cultural national identity. The sheer number and diversity of traditional music styles all over the country bears witness to a long and complex history of cultural cross-fertilization (Bermúdez 2017). Take for example the cumbia, a well-known traditional music and dance from the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia. During the twentieth century the cumbia was considered to be a mixture of indigenous, African, and Spanish elements: the gaita (a long, vertical type of flute made from a cactus stem) was native, the drums were African, and the harmony and songs Spanish. In reality this was a fictitious – if well intentioned – reconstruction of the origins of the cumbia, well aligned to the prevailing discourses of mestizaje (Wade 2005). The musical and choreographic roots of the cumbia are still debated, but the consensus seems to converge on an indigenous origin, from the region around the actual city of Santa Cruz de Mompox (Pedrozo-Pupo 2018). Here the gaita is replaced by the caña de millo (small cane flute), regarded as the authentic indigenous instrument. I was fortunate enough to record this traditional style of cumbia in Botón de Leyva, a small village between Santa Cruz de Mompox and El Banco. Aurelio “Yeyo” Fernández, an outstanding cañamillero (player of the caña de millo), and his group perform the perillero, one of the oldest cumbia rhythms. When the music ends Yeyo’s voice can be heard.

The lure of the other

Understandably, for a 26-year-old classically-trained Italian composer, the first contact with this new world was bewildering and completely fascinating at the same time. Thanks to my involvement with the documentary, I was also given a unique opportunity – armed with a classic Nagra IV reel-to-reel recorder and a few microphones – to access parts of the country that I could never have visited on my own. My first journey to Colombia in 1990-1991 lasted four months, instead of the two that I had originally planned, and was followed by a long string of return journeys over the years and to the present day. In retrospect, I realize that I fell in love with the country at first sight. Two months after my arrival, having met someone who seemed to conjure up all the enchantment of the place in her being, I fell in love again, weaving myself into this strange and mesmerizing world more inextricably as time passed.

It would be easy to frame my first contact with the soundscapes of Colombia as yet another example of the encounter with the other, a recurrent topos in twentieth century Western art and music in their various manifestations, from superficial exoticism to transcultural composition (Locke 2009). Claude Debussy’s fascination for the sounds of the Javanese gamelan, immortalized in “Pagodes” from Estampes for solo piano (1903), exemplifies for Locke “an instance of musician-to-musician sharing that somehow transcends or happily ignores all other (non-aural) aspects of the two cultures” (2009: 232). Similarly, in Chansons madécasses for voice, flute, cello, and piano on texts by creole poet Évariste de Parny (1925), Maurice Ravel avoids any form of overt exoticism when dealing with the other, represented here by the oppressed natives in the French colony of Madagascar. All musical and textual source elements are subtly abstracted and filtered to become structural and technical compositional devices (Lazzaro 2016). In both cases the artist, seen as a “sympathetic commentator,” is confined to a musical and aesthetic appropriation of a distant culture, elegantly dodging the implicit imbalance of cultural power relations between the colonizing West and the remote other that has become the object of its gaze (Watkins 1994: 31).

In the second half of the twentieth century, composers as diverse as György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Peter Sculthorpe and Kevin Volans – to name just a few – all established a dialogue with non-Western cultures based on formal and structural aspects of the music. Although coming from entirely different aesthetic perspectives, both Boulez and Reich saw non-Western music as essential for the renewal and enrichment of contemporary music from Europe and North America. In Reich’s own words, “non-Western music is presently the single most important source of new ideas for Western composers” (Reich 2002: 69) and studying the structures of non-Western music “brings about the interesting situation of the non-Western influence being there in the thinking, but not in the sound” (2002: 71). Reich echoes Boulez’s statement that the East-inspired instrumental techniques in his work for ensemble Le Marteau sans maître (1955) were a way to “enrich the European sound vocabulary by means of non-European listening habits, some of our traditional classical sound combinations having become so charged with ‘history’ that we must open our windows wide in order to avoid being asphyxiated” (Boulez 1990: 341).

In all these examples appropriation is seen positively, as “an open-minded and empathic gesture of interest in and fascination with marginalized musics” (Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000: 8), “an essentially creative process, that is, the transformation of complexes of interacting musical and extramusical ideas” (Kartomi 1981: 232-233). However, from a postcolonial perspective it has become increasingly problematic to look at these types of intercultural exchanges without taking into account the danger "of treating non-Western cultures purely as a resource for the reinvigoration of Western culture” (Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000: 8). Postmodernist aesthetics and its celebration of hybridity compounds the issue, as noted by Corbett in the same book, by downplaying appropriation in the name of unproblematic musical crossover and pluralism: “the overarching idea of difference continues to be romanticized, essentialized, and implemented in the attempt to enliven Western musics, be they classical, experimental, creative, or improvised. Meanwhile, the political dimension of that implied difference continues to go largely unexamined” (2000: 183). The asymmetric power and culture relationships between Western composers and non-Western musical cultures often translates into forms of appropriation where “the structure of representation of the other constructs an unequal relation between aesthetic subject (the composer, and later the audience identifying with the composer) and object (the music or culture being represented)” (2000: 15). In short, the aesthetic representation of the other is never free from underlying issues of power imbalance. Crucially, in the case of indigenous cultures, the dominant Western aesthetic discourse assumes that "stories are fictions, oblivious to the social networks and/or cosmological ecologies in which many of the world’s peoples’ ‘stories’ locate their commitments and obligations” (Coleman et al 2009: 176). Likewise, the shift from a community-based, oral creation and transmission process to the individual ownership model that rules copyright law in most countries makes it difficult to recognize the rights of the original creators of the music. If anything, this is even truer now, in the age of instant gratification and unfettered online access to musical expression from any culture, no matter how remote (Kartomi 1999; Bachner 2005).

From a musical perspective, my encounter with Colombian soundscapes initially followed a similar model of appropriation and recomposition of the original sounds according to my own aesthetic vision. However, recording the music and the sounds in the field meant that they were always embedded as an integral part of the surrounding natural and human environment. I did not perceive them in isolation, as separate elements to be extracted and repurposed for a different context. Rather, by being situated, with a specific cultural role and purpose – a ritual, a social event, a dance – these sounds opened new doors towards meaning and understanding that transcended their immediate auditory effect. As a result, my authorial and compositional perspective was accompanied, and possibly tempered, by sheer curiosity for and awareness of the cultures and the people behind the sounds that I was recording. This may well have worked as an antidote towards the potential dangers of superficial exoticism or decontextualized borrowing of isolated musical elements. As it will become clear by the end of this essay, my attitude in this regard evolved significantly over time.

Colombia Nuevo Mundo

In writing the soundtrack of the documentary my approach was one of musical mimesis. Out of respect for the source material – the indigenous songs and the natural sounds – I kept my own compositional voice almost hidden. I began to score the music simply by expanding the original sounds – giving them more projection, adding a little distance – and thus blurring the passage from the diegetic plane to the composed soundtrack. For example, a dance accompanied by the marimba, performed by a group of Emberá women on the banks of the San Juan river in the Chocó department, would fade and morph smoothly into a sequence of marimba chords and melodies based on the original rhythms and songs; the noise of the rain falling on sheet-metal roofs would become a sequence of pizzicato string sounds; and so on. Unconsciously at the time, I was already trying to mute my compositional voice in order to let the sounds speak for themselves. Something about my direct experience of sharing the music of different indigenous communities on their own territory brought into play ethical considerations that, otherwise, might not have been at the forefront of my concerns.

The soundscapes of the Llanos Orientales

“Soundscape research really should be presented in the form of a musical composition.” (Feld 1994a: 328)

If I had to choose one place in Colombia that stands out in my journeys, for the spiritual and sensory wonderment I felt every time I went there, it would be an uncharacteristically hilly area east of Puerto Lopez in the Meta department, part of the Llanos Orientales, the flat grasslands that extend, seemingly forever, from the foothills of the Andes to the rainforests of the Orinoco and Amazon basins. The best analogy I can think of for the Llanos is the sea: an endless expanse, a coherent whole with minute local variations. The colours of the landscape morph from undulating light-green in the rainy season to pale yellow under the scorching sun in the dry season. The Llanos inspire awe and respect. Silence is so profound here that it can be heard. Apart from the occasional eagle, a passing flock of birds, or grazing cows, the only other sounds are the wind over the plain in the dry season and the rain falling on the grass in the wet season.

A capillary network of streams and rivers, surrounded by narrow strips of forest – the bosques de galería – criss-crosses the plain and, seen from above, traces the contours of a fractal design over the land.

Cattle roam sparsely over the grasslands, while all wildlife concentrates in the forested areas. Caimans, iguanas, anteaters, monkeys, tapirs, and plenty other animals share this habitat. The most common palm tree in the region, the moriche, lends its name to the dark green, sinuous lines in the landscape, the morichales. The silence of the plains contrasts with the sonic richness of the morichales. The soundscapes captured by the microphone are complex – multi-layered and full of detail. In a recording made at dawn from inside a morichal, many different species of birds can be heard against the background of howling monkeys.

The following recording was made in the early afternoon in the same morichal, but closer to a pond at the heart of the forest. In the dry season many rivers dry out, and only pools of clear water remain in the morichales. The sounds of birds, insects, and other animals are accompanied by drops falling in the water and the occasional splash.

The next recording documents the arrival of a sudden shower over the morichal late in the afternoon. Increasingly frantic bird calls can be heard as well as the sound of a few wings flapping fast close by.

The guacharaca (Ortalis motmot columbiana) is the bird that gives the name to the musical instrument, a type of percussion similar to the güiro that makes a scratching sound when scraped. Here a few guacharacas are heard vocalizing.

This stark and essential landscape intersected by meandering lines soon became the inspiration for a new orchestral work. The sharp contrast between the still emptiness of the grasslands and the morichales teeming with life suggested immediately the idea of a background against which distinct figures stand out:

The idea was quite abstract at first, without any clear musical content. I was excited by the musical elements suggested by this landscape and by its fractal dimension, including the potential to exploit it musically, but in reality, I was still looking for a way to somehow “traverse” my drawing, to introduce a trajectory into the landscape. In other words, I was looking for a way to add time to a still image. The answer came after a trip to an indigenous settlement near Puerto Gaitán, deeper in the Llanos. This is where we met a group of Sikuani people (Hiwi, in their own language) and managed to make a number of recordings of their music, among them a ritual invocation for the spirits of the maloca (communal house) performed by the shaman of the group. The invocation starts thirty seconds after the beginning of the recording. At the end we hear the shaman complaining of not having slept enough:

The high-pitched sound of the tsitsito, the small maraca accompanying the shaman’s voice, is very similar to the sound made by the cicadas in the morichales:

This is just an example of the subtle connections that link natural and human-produced sounds in many indigenous communities. Steven Feld writes beautifully of his experiences with the Kaluli people in Papua New Guinea, where he learned “how the ecology of natural sounds is central to a local musical ecology, and how this musical ecology maps onto the rainforest environment” (Feld 1994b: 10). Another recording I made while in Puerto Gaitán captures a soothing canción de cuna (lullaby) sung by a young Sikuani woman to her child. She is heard laughing and talking merrily with a friend before she sings. The recording was made at night, in the open air.

The unusual timbre and high register of the woman’s voice combine with the incantatory nature of the repeated phrases to give an impression of serenity and peace. This is in stark contrast with the history of the Sikuani people. The Guahibo, as they were called in the past, survived, against all odds, numerous persecutions through the centuries, initially from other tribes, then from the Spanish invaders. In the last century their lands were colonized for agricultural exploitation, and they were almost exterminated. Shamefully, there was even a verb, guahibiar (hunting the Guahibo), for the killing raids organized by the cattle ranchers. Later, they were caught up in the various episodes of the armed conflict, involving guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the Colombian army. Now the largest indigenous group in the Llanos, the survival of the Sikuani is testimony to their ability to adapt to a changing world whilst maintaining their strong identity and traditions (Friedemann and Arocha 1982).

After my encounter with the Sikuani community, my original idea for the new orchestral work – the figure-background juxtaposition inspired by the contrast between morichales and grasslands – developed into a more articulated musical narrative:

Here the human element is introduced, in guise of a metaphorical shamanic voice that sings the land and, through the singing, generates the landscape. On a symbolic plane the shaman brings forth time and space, sets them in motion, and observes their progress. In this context the sounds of wind and rain on the grasslands represent the background, whilst the natural sounds recorded in the morichales and the songs of the Sikuani represent the figures.

Over the years I kept thinking of the best approach when appropriating natural sounds and indigenous songs into my music. I felt it was important, especially with regard to the Sikuani music, to maintain the authenticity of the original recordings even as I was including them into my own sound world. The solution I found was to make explicit the appropriation process in the piece itself. In order to realise this, the music goes from an “objective” representation of the unedited recorded soundscapes to a progressively more recognizable compositional voice, where my own harmonic structures and melodic contours emerge from the original recordings. The piece thus follows an ideal parallel journey from “nature as it is” to “nature interpreted,” enacting the transition from the natural and human soundscapes of the Llanos to their artificial “European” recomposition. Discussing soundscape composition John Levak Drever advocates a parallel ethnographic approach, where “compositional processes and audio manipulations that previously lay transparent could be exposed and discussed within the work,” thus better reflecting the complexities of different cultures (Drever 2002: 24-25).

However – and this creates another layer of complexity – the recordings are never heard as they are. The piece is scored for symphonic orchestra, so even the raw natural sounds and voices are in reality the result of a highly artificial recomposition process. The result is the musical equivalent of a blurred image or, perhaps more accurately, a hand-drawn reproduction of a photograph. I developed a software-based workflow to analyse the frequency spectrum of the recordings, extract and filter the harmonic partials of the sounds, and generate transitional scores containing time, pitch, amplitude and phase information for all the filtered partials. These scores in turn provide the basis for the final orchestration. The workflow used four music software applications: IRCAM’s Audiosculpt and the Repmus library for OpenMusic, MOTU’s Digital Performer and Coda’s Finale. This mixed approach presented several technical problems. Without going into too much detail, it is worth considering that the process of extracting harmonic partials from field recordings is not scientific or objective, and certainly not neutral. On the contrary, it is in itself an act of composition: decisions need to be taken at every step of the process, and each greatly influences the final outcome. Although they were developed in isolation, these techniques show interesting similarities to the principles of eco-structuralism, “a method for composing with the situated sound samples in a manner that is designed to reveal and retain the qualities of those sounds and contexts” (Opie and Brown 2006: 10).

Why would I go to such lengths to recreate through a symphonic orchestra the soundscapes of the Llanos? I already mentioned my intention to reveal gradually in the music the process of appropriation of the original field recordings. I also wanted to explore the relationship between acoustic ecology and music composition, between a passive listening mode and the intentionality of the creative process. David Monacchi rightly asks if “it is possible to learn from a primary ecosystem and to compose within the same laws that have shaped these ancient acoustic environments” in order to achieve what he calls “the possible artistic rendering of ecological processes” (Monacchi 2013: 24). “Rewriting” field recordings for orchestra meant that I was relinquishing all decisions regarding timbre, harmony, rhythm, or melodic contour, leaving to the original soundscapes the role of determining the musical parameters for the piece. I found that this approach provided a satisfying balance. The unedited soundscapes of the Llanos define the musical structure and content of the piece, but my own compositional voice is still present through the process of choosing, juxtaposing, analysing, orchestrating, and ultimately transforming these soundscapes as the piece progresses.

The Wayúu

One of my first field trips took me to the Guajira peninsula, the arid and windswept land that lies in the northernmost part of Colombia, facing the Caribbean Sea and bordering with Venezuela. The Guajira is the ancestral land of Colombia’s largest indigenous ethnic group, the Wayúu. Although the Wayúu have embraced many aspects of contemporary Colombian society, they still preserve their language, traditional dress, and a unique normative system based on the figure of the Pütchipü’üi (Messenger of the word), recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. During my stay I had the privilege to witness an extraordinary ritual that is central to the Wayúu’s religious beliefs, the anajanaa (literally meaning “to put in order,” “to arrange”) (Nájera and Lozano 2009). Three years after the death of a member of the community, a second wake and a second burial ceremony take place, to signify the passage of the soul of the deceased from a liminal state, still in connection with the world of the living, to its final and permanent resting place. The remains are disinterred, the skull and bones cleaned and taken to a hammock, where they remain for the duration of the anajanaa before being buried in the cemetery of the clan to which the deceased belonged. The ceremony I witnessed took place in a makeshift camp near Ranchería Santa Clara, a few kilometres south of Riohacha, the capital of the Guajira department. In a slightly surreal way for an alijuna (the Wayúu word for stranger) like me, disparate things happen at the same time: people come and go in their 4x4 vehicles across the dusty landscape, guests eat and talk, children play, and bleating goats, soon to be slaughtered, wander freely around the camp. All the while, gathered around the hammock with the remains, women and men with their heads covered take part in a ritual wailing that will not stop until the end of the ceremony, often lasting days.

Listening to this soundscape is fascinating, and possibly unsettling, due to the simultaneous occurrence of events on different emotional planes. The coexistence of ordinary activities at the camp with the ritual wailing around the bones of a deceased person may look disrespectful, but it is in reality a sign of the Wayúu’s deep familiarity with the physicality of death. The world view of the Wayúu encompasses this world and the next in a unitary vision that stresses the continuity between us and those that came before us. Likewise, the Wayúu see no inherent contradiction in carrying on with everyday life whilst performing their centuries-old rituals.

The essence of ritual

My opera Magma, or the see-through wilderness (1998) has no apparent direct connection with Colombian soundscapes. However, its conception and realization would have been unthinkable without my experience of rituals like the second wake and burial of the Wayúu, described above. Magma, with a libretto by the Germano-Irish poet and writer Sebastian Schloessingk, is the story of a woman undergoing a rite of passage and a consequent radical transformation. On a symbolic level, the rite of passage takes her from culture back to nature, from the organized structures of contemporary “Western” society to an intimate awareness of and connection with nature. However, as in a Werner Herzog movie, “the chaotic diversity of the rain forest exposes the systematic inappropriateness of Western routines of cognition and ordering,” frustrating “all hermeneutic efforts from the outset” (Koepnick 1993: 135). In Magma nature is not seen as a benign and idyllic haven, but rather as a wild and impenetrable otherness – an indifferent and chaotic magma that ultimately drowns the protagonist.

Magma puts on stage a ritual process similar to the rites of passage performed in most indigenous societies in Colombia. Rites of passage generally involve a three-stage process whereby a young member of the group becomes acquainted with social and cultural norms and taboos, usually in a secluded environment. It is a process of socialization and acculturation, going from the indistinct state of childhood to a specific role in the group (van Gennep 1960). In Magma this ritual process is inverted, and the journey is taken in the opposite direction, from culture back to nature. In the absence of traditional rites of passage in our society, Magma gives a glimpse of what a meaningful rite of passage – one that resonates profoundly with the current challenges of our environmental crisis – could look like today. In a sort of inverted ethnology, I used in Magma the cultural criteria of Colombian indigenous groups to analyse and unmask our own behaviour. The inspiration for this approach came from Tristes tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss, perhaps the greatest ethnographic narrative of the twentieth century. At the heart of Levi-Strauss’s structuralism is the idea that Western civilisation possesses no inherent primacy, and that its culture is only one among many expressions of human culture, all sharing the same fundamental conceptual and mythological structures. Levi-Strauss’s investigations of native Amerindian societies "always implicitly or explicitly contain a critical message, one that prompts us to reexamine our habitual, naturalized, and seemingly necessary forms of social order (Kurasawa 2004: 114).

At the heart of Magma, a short scene – “Spaesamento” (Disorientation) – represents the moment when the woman protagonist crosses the metaphorical threshold to enter a ritual space, where her passage from culture to nature will be enacted. Dépaisement – the French word for disorientation – is how Lévi-Strauss called the practice of uprooting and distancing himself from Western society in order to radically question and interpret it from a different cultural perspective (Kurasawa 2004: 115).

My experience of distant and unfamiliar cultures in Colombia enabled me to investigate Western society through the medium of opera and reframe its cultural norms and behaviours as a set of myths, beliefs, and rituals. In the conception of Magma, I also recognize the fundamental role played by the person I had met during my first visit to Colombia and who became my wife a few years later. Growing up in a small, isolated town among the mountains of the central Andes cordillera, she instinctively retained a deep connection with the natural world surrounding her. The sky, the mountains, the rivers, the trees – they all spoke to her in a direct and, to my eyes, quite special way. Her home town of Salamina lies in the northern part of the Caldas department, where the landscape is characterized by steep, high mountains covered in luscious tropical vegetation and family-run coffee plantations. Small fincas painted in bright colours dot the landscape. At night, seen from a distance, their solitary lights in the vast darkness of the mountains mirror the starry sky above. Walking down a slope on a path towards a water trough and then to a nearby stream captures the sounds of the night in a finca near Pácora.

From soundscape to world view: Aluna

When in 2005 Rivka Golani, the renowned viola virtuoso, asked me to write a concerto for viola and ensemble, I saw an opportunity to further develop the integration of sounds and concepts from Colombia’s indigenous people into my own compositions, something that I had already attempted in Llanos. The inspiration for this new work came from the Kogi, a remarkable indigenous group who live high up on the remote slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia. The Kogi are the direct descendants of the Tayrona people who lived in the same region before the Spanish invasion. They attracted international attention when they declared themselves wardens of the Earth:

Nuestras costumbres, nuestras creencias son como una antorcha, como una luz que alumbra el mundo. Si esta luz se apaga, el mundo se oscurece y se muere. Los civilizados no lo saben, pero si no fuera por nosotros, el mundo ya se hubiera acabado.[1] (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1991)

This has even more relevance today, when human-induced climate change is affecting the very mountains the Kogi call home. With its snowy peaks reaching 5800 metres, the Sierra Nevada is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. However, in the last thirty years the glaciers on top of the mountains have halved in size, and there is a distinct possibility that in the near future they will disappear altogether. Geographic isolation has helped the Kogi preserve their cultural identity and traditional way of life, but the main reason for the Kogi’s resilience is the profound and interconnected set of beliefs and rituals that guide every aspect of their existence.

The creation myth of the Kogi is centered on the figure of the Great Mother. Originally she was aluna, pure thought. The word has multiple meanings in the Kogi language: memory, spirit, imagination, and so on (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1987). The role of the Great Mother, and how she spins the world into existence from the dark primeval waters, determines the form of the piece and the interaction between the viola soloist and the instrumental ensemble. The nine worlds of the Kogi cosmogony become successive movements of the piece, interspersed by nine short interludes, where the music mimics the act of weaving, the most powerful concept at the heart of the Kogi’s world view. In the piece the solo viola takes the role of aluna and leads the ensemble – the Kogi people – through the process of world creation. Accordingly, the music of the ensemble is always derived from the solo viola part. This is reinforced and made explicit through the use of live electronics: the sound of the viola is spatialized, following the patterns of spinning and weaving central to the Kogi’s creation myth, and at the same time the viola is used as a controller, allowing the soloist to transform the sound of the ensemble through her own musical gestures in real time. At the beginning of the piece the viola is alone, reflecting the uroboric, all-encompassing state of aluna before she embarks on her journey of world creation:

Aluna marks a new stage in my journey through the soundscapes of Colombia. I set out to recreate a musical equivalent of the astonishingly rich and profound creation myth of the Kogi without using any of their music or sounds. Instead, I tried to translate into music the powerful mental images and thought structures that underpin their unique world view. In the process I learned from the Kogi a new and radically different way of thinking about our relationship with nature. By taking this approach I avoided all the inherent problems of music appropriation, but, in engaging with the wider culture and belief system of the Kogi, did I not open up a whole new set of ethical issues? Did I not take something sacred and precious from a different culture and used it in an inappropriate way? Is it possible to draw a line between artistic freedom and the protection of different cultural and religious values? These are all questions with no simple answers. I used to hold the view that composers should be able to take what they need from other cultures, as long as the result made sense from an artistic perspective. I am not so sure that this is a defensible position anymore. When the appropriation is from a marginalized or endangered culture it becomes even less tenable. There are huge power, knowledge, and access asymmetries between Western composers and indigenous societies. We should recognize this and find imaginative ways to compensate for the imbalance, otherwise we will only perpetuate a narrow “colonial” attitude towards these communities (Young and Brunck 2009).


“Music can make us receptive and responsive to the voices of others and to the voice of otherness.” (Cobussen and Nielsen 2012: 155)

Two main trajectories emerge from this chronological exposition of my musical responses to Colombian soundscapes. The first, a growing desire to learn from the other, possibly naïvely and intuitively at the beginning, then more and more as part of a reflective, intentional approach. The second, a progressive journey towards the essence of the other, starting from the imitation and recomposition of indigenous music and sounds to arrive at an abstract musical representation of indigenous myths and beliefs. The question to ask at the end of this journey is: what role did I play in the process of representation of South American marginalized indigenous groups? Like other Western composers before me, I recorded, analysed, and transformed the original music that I encountered so that I could integrate it into my own compositional practice and aesthetics. I intended “not only to evoke that other music, but to create a distance from it and transcend it” (Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000: 15). The difference in my case – and from an ethical perspective, my justification – is that I did not set out simply to incorporate indigenous music into my own. I also wished to embrace the other in all its manifestations. In short, I wanted to become the other. The same inverted ethnology that was being reenacted on the stage of my opera Magma was in fact working its power on my own psychic life.

As time passed, the significance of my original aestheticizing attitude started to fade, whilst the quest to establish a profound connection on equal terms with a so-called “primitive” other, even beyond music, took centre stage. In an encounter limited to the aesthetic dimension, there are no ethical constraints: “the attention for the other lasts as long as the desire to be entertained is still present, whereas a real ethical stance entails keeping attention in place as long as the other may need it” (Cobussen and Nielsen 2012: 68). My claim to an ethically-principled encounter with Colombian indigenous cultures is rooted in a deliberate aim to distance myself from my own culture in order to embrace a remote other. Far from being functional within a premeditated artistic realisation, my initial field recordings of natural and human soundscapes were undertaken almost as ethnographic projects. As lived and embodied experiences of otherness, they enabled me to become aware of vastly different ways of being in the world and to embark on a long path of progressive knowledge, understanding, and interrelatedness.

This essay began by describing my early epiphany on a street in Bogotá. I did not mention any further interactions with the urban soundscapes of Colombia, as they could have easily been the subject of another essay. Colombian cities and towns still suffer from auditory overload. I remember well the fantastically elaborate noises produced by trucks and buses slowly chugging along prohibitively steep roads as well as the ubiquitous TVs and sound systems with the volume set well past the distortion threshold. I spent many nights on long-distance buses where videotapes of ghastly horror movies were played at full blast, one after the other, in a rather clever attempt to distract the passengers from the more immediate dangers of the journey. The truth is that the contrast between urban and rural soundscapes in Colombia could not be greater. It is hard to believe, in the middle of the noises, traffic and pollution of Bogotá, Medellín, or any other major city, that only a few kilometres away vast swathes of rural lands and wilderness lie completely undisturbed. These were the places that from the beginning attracted me, the ones I kept returning to and where I found the sounds and ideas that moved and inspired me deeply. I don’t know yet where the next composition project will take me, but I have no doubts that the soundscapes and worldviews of Colombia’s indigenous groups will continue to accompany my journey.

Short Glossary

bosque de galería: gallery forest, growing on the banks of rivers

buseta: small urban bus

castellano: Latin American term for the Spanish language

cerro: isolated hill or mountain

finca: small family farm

llanos: plains, grasslands

mestizaje: mixing of people of different racial types; more generally the mixture of different races and cultures.

moriche, morichal: Mauritia flexuosa, a palm tree and the ecosystem it supports

nevado: glacier, snow-capped mountain


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  1. Our customs, our beliefs are like a torch, like a light that illuminates the world. If this light went out, the world would darken and die. Civilized people don’t know that if it were not for us the world would have ended already. [my translation] ↩︎