Those fortunate enough to be at the Colón Theatre last month got to hear one of Colombia’s greatest musicians sing one of the nation’s most iconic songs. Magin Díaz, a 93-year-old singer and songwriter whose voice helped define the course of music in Colombia, flew from a tiny coastal town just to walk on the stage that night.
As he has his entire life, however, he took that step in obscurity. Most people in attendance probably didn’t even know who this unsung hero was, but a dedicated and powerful group that includes the Grammy winner Carlos Vives is now fighting to ensure that his contributions to the culture will eventually be recognized.
Magín was born on Dec 30th, 1922, in a small village in the Bolívar department several kilometres from Palenque, which became the first “Free Town” of the Americas after being settled in the mid-17th century by escaped slaves from Cartagena. In this remote Afro-Colombian hamlet of Gamero little has changed since the dawn of the last century, when children worked the land, planting rice, beans and yucca to feed the family. Magín never went to school and never learned to read nor write. Yet, at age 15, he authored the lyrics to “Rosa, que linda eres,” one of the most poignant Colombian love songs and a hymn to injustice and racial exclusion. The Rosa of lore is very real, “the most beautiful woman I ever saw,” recounted Magín with a fragile and fleeting mind.
At 93, most memories now elude the composer of bullerengue, a percussion-based musical style with roots in West Africa and the age of the slave trade. But he remembers his Rosa and the moment he first laid eyes on her while working as a sugarcane cutter on a white man’s plantation. The estate encompassed much of Gamero, and Rosa was the owner’s daughter. It was love at first sight. But Magín was “black as the burned,” he said, and Rosa was a white plantation owner’s daughter. Their budding romance was taboo, an impossibility of the time. Frustrated by Rosa’s rejection and the deeply embedded social mores of the costa, Magín sang a song for Rosa.
It was a “revenge” song to be played at the paranda, the informal street parties typical of the coast, under flowering ceiba trees in the streets of Cartagena. It was never written down. It was never recorded in a studio. “Rosa” was pure melody sung by a humble farmer who, because of the colour of his skin, would live almost a century of social exclusion and abandonment.
Before Rosa, another woman shaped his life. Magín came to music through his mother, who sang in small villages along with the tambores of local troubadores. Blessed with the foundation laid by his mother, a finely tuned ear, a passion for storytelling in rhyme and an agile step for cumbia, Magín devoted himself to song and dance whenever he wasn’t working as a hired labourer, subsistence farmer or construction worker.
As decades passed, “Rosa, que linda eres” became part of an obligatory musical repertoire of the coast and was picked up by other musicians. But as the song became immortalized, knowledge of its authorship faded into oblivion. Magín, while going about his chores and enjoying the paranda, didn’t envision the purpose, nor have the economic means, to register his song for copyright protection.
In the 1970s, Magín headed to Caracas, Venezuela, to work on a construction site, and Irene Martínez, a relative of the Díaz Garcia family and member of Gamero community, traveled to Medellín to meet with a lawyer and establish legal protection for the song. Magín couldn’t be found, so she put her name to a song that was later recorded by the likes Carlos Vives, on his Grammy-winning album La Tierra del Olvido (The Forgotten Land), and Toto La Momposina, a Colombian luminary who is celebrating 50 years in music this year.
Misfortune followed Magín, and more than a dozen of his songs followed the same path into obscurity. The official credit for “Rosa” that has been given by the numerous artists across the hemisphere who have interpreted it: Irene Martinez. Magín, with his distinctive voice and sly way with words, was doomed to become a musical footnote in Colombia, living in the same town where he was born and with a monthly stipend of $300,000 pesos.
Though nothing can rewrite the past, bullerengue musicians of the coast, feeling that a grave injustice had been committed against one of their own, have rallied around Magín. They have banded together to petition the powers that be, including the Ministry of Culture, to recognise the authorship of “Rosa, que linda eres.” Upon hearing of the plight of an artist who has performed with the tropical band Billos Caracas Boys, well-known musicians from across the hemisphere have taken up the “copyright” cause. Vives and Totó la Momposina have put their famous names behind the cause alongside the Pacific’s chanteuse Petrona Martínez, Anita Tijoux and Celso Piña.
The perseverance of a recent philosophy graduate from La Javeriana University, Daniel Bustos Echeverry, has also helped to lift Magín out of obscurity. Bustos, video producer Diego Carranza and still photographer Viviana Gaviria turned their documentary film company No Name Productions into the platform to raise awareness of the “cultural debt” owed to Magín by his fellow citizens.
Such campaigns, and the power of social media, have thrust this little-known songwriter back into the limelight. But everyone involved remains all too aware of the legal obstacles their protagonist faces. It may be impossible to turn back the clocks more than forty years to put his name to his song — where it belongs. “I know that which was taken from me,” said Magín.
The NoName Production team have just returned to Bogotá after a trip to Gamero. They brought back the artist, who struggles with every step and must deal with the effects of the high altitude of the capital. Their altruism has been matched by the Colón Theatre, which invited Magín and the members of the Gamero-based “Sexto Tabalá” sextet to headline its Monday evening music series, “Colombia Raíz,” last week.
A day before the Colón show, Magín headed with NoName to the Javeriana University’s recording studio to lay down several tracks of his most recognised songs, including “Rosa” and accompanied by local musicians. The album, which is being financed by these intrepid visual artists and social campaigners, will also feature guest appearances by Toto La Momposina and Carlos Vives.
According to Luis Soto, one of Tabalá’s percussionist, the objective to have Magín’s name restored to its rightful place in musical history is not financialy-motivated, “but dignity and recognising the undeniable talent of a man who gave so much to this country.” Even though the protagonist lives on half the legal minimum wage, Magín seems remiss about the prospect of receiving royalties in the future. Instead, he flashes a modest smile, when recalling the many parandas, which marked his youth and the fact that his ‘Rosa’ lives as an obligatory song with contemporary musicians. Magín has outlived Rosa, and even though she knew, that every time the classic was played on the radio, it was directed at her, from a voice from her past, the cane cutter never stayed in contact with the plantation owner’s daughter.
Magin Díaz represents a generation of artists who could never break out of poverty, nor the racial stigmas of costeño society, which kept too many, excluded from making a dignified and honest living from their talents.
When asked if he holds at Irene Martínez for having supplanted his name with copyrights, Magín chuckles. “I can hardly scribble my name,” he says. And his philosophy on life hasn’t changed either in almost a century: “We must sing and dance.”
Magín’s music transcends the broad spectrum of the traditional genre to become anthems of the human condition. His songs are a celebration of life, the generosity of his peoples and the universal drama of misplaced love. It’s music without resentment. It’s a Colombian “Rose” but without the thorns.