For many (particularly in Europe or the U.S), street performance can conjure up exciting, alternative and even hip associations. It can serve as a stepping stone to greater artistic success, a brief youthful adventure on the road or even a publicity stunt by world famous musicians (U2 recently went undercover busking on the NYC subway). In Bogotá, however, it frequently embodies a far less glamourous set of motives, lying at the frontier between destitution and survival. For some, it represents not only physical survival but cultural survival. Many of the most gifted and striking musical acts along the Avenida Séptima, the Bogota street perhaps most known for its buskers, showcase traditional music forms that are slowly becoming extinct, performed by artists who have fled an intolerable climate of armed conflict.
Such is the case with Wilson Durán who, along with his family, was forced to flee overnight his hometown of Sahagún in the coastal region of Córdoba. Escaping the possibility of death, from one day to the next, he and his family found themselves on the streets of a sprawling metropolis with no belongings, and the only available refuge a motorway bridge. “Before we had everything, food, livestock, a house..we had a good life”, says Wilson’s wife. Thanks to a rare act of kindness by a passing stranger they were given a roof over their head and some clothing, which was enough to keep a set for each member of the family and make some money from selling the rest. With this small earning they were able to buy the material needed to carve out a traditional flute and put together a family performance of their native and endangered music genre: Vallenato Sabanero. With the money, they could invest in more and better instruments, and a toy accordion was shortly followed by the real thing. Since that day music has become the family’s primary source of income.
Wilson’s story is but one of many that the project El Trueque (www.vimeo. com/eltrueque) skilfully brings to life in the form of mini-documentary. Street musicians from the Séptima, many with similar stories of displacement, collaborate with emerging artists per- forming a different musical genre (non- busking), their efforts culminating in a live concert on the Séptima. In the case of Wilson, the exchange took place with the group La Riolina, who play a traditional form of folk music called Carranga from the Boyacá region. The result is a captivating amalgamation of musical styles, and a beautiful visual narration which reveals who the street musicians are, and the process behind the musical collaborations.
Juana Rincon (30), the brainchild of the project, had long recognized the richness of musical diversity on display along the Séptima, as well as the potential for musical exchange, “It was like a tour of Colombia in six blocks.. from the marimba of Chocó to the Llanero harp and I began to imagine how these musicians would sound together”. A number of years passed before the seed of the idea actually came
to fruition, with the help of city fund- ing, and entering into collaboration with the producer and musician Pablo Gaviria (www.soundcloud.com/pulenta), in 2013, the project El Trueque was born. Now with two series completed, other El Trueque videos include a collaboration between a salsa veteran, and singing salsa street diva; as well as a Ghana born RnB singer and a street marimba musician.
An important driver of the project was a desire to generate an awareness of and respect for the many talented musicians, such as Wilson and his family, who have arrived to their situation not only as victims of armed conflict but as unintentional ambassadors for endangered breeds of Colombian music.
The initiative recognizes the value of these musicians’ stories as well as their music, and provides an opportunity for the people, who may or may not cross their path on a daily basis, to hear both. The participants also had the chance to develop musically and encounter experiences hitherto unheard of. In the words of Pablo Gaviria, “many of these musicians had never listened to themselves recorded or performed on stage… it was a creatively expansive experience for them”.
In a conference held by UN Habitat (The Future of Places), The Busking Project, an initiative devoted to promoting the societal value of busking, posited the idea that street performers worldwide need greater protection, more government support and wider recognition for their cultural contribution to the vitality of urban spaces. In Bogotá, perhaps we can take our plea a step further and ask that our Séptima street performers be congratulated not only for injecting some colour into this chaotic urban avenue, but also for stubbornly defending Colombia’s incredible musical diversity.