Afro-Bolivians - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Like most Bolivians, Afro-Bolivians are Christians. Most rural Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas, however, attend the regional Catholic church in the town of Coroico only for baptisms and other life-cycle ceremonies. A priest from Coroico occasionally visits outlying agricultural communities such as Tocaña and Mururata to say Mass. Like most rural Bolivian villages, each Afro-Bolivian village has a patron saint, and communites celebrate their patron saints with fiestas lasting up to several days. According to local mythology, during Bolivia's independence struggle (1809-1825), the Virgen de la Candelaria saved the people of Coroico from an army of Royalists sent by the Spanish Crown. Surrounded, the unarmed vecinos (local non-indigenous Spanish speakers) abandoned their homes and went to church to pray. Afro-Bolivians, along with all the people of the region, celebrate 20 October as the day the Virgen de la Candelaria descended from the sky on a cloud, and, with her army of patriotos (patriots), defeated the Royalist forces. The largest regional patron-saint fiesta is in the town of Coroico. Afro-Bolivians contribute to the celebrations of the Virgen de la Candelaria by singing a song dedicated to her. This song is part of their saya music tradition (see "Arts").

Ceremonies. The Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas have a ceremonial monarchy, which is part of a long lineage of kings. Earlier in the twentieth century, King Bonifacio Pinedo, who lived in the village of Mururata, was recognized as the Afro-Bolivian king. He wore a cape and crown for major celebrations, especially Easter. When King Bonifacio died in the 1960s, no immediate heir to his throne was crowned until his grandson Julio Pinedo became king in 1982.

Arts. Among both Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas and Afro-Bolivian migrants in La Paz, music, dance, and poetry are the most important forms of artistic expression. In 1982 Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas revitalized much of their traditional music. Before this, they participated in the brass-band tradition that became so important to Bolivians during the mid-to late twentieth century. Among the revitalized traditions are saya, a song genre that serves Afro-Bolivians as a means of maintaining and transmitting their oral history; mauchi (funeral music); baile de tierra (traditional wedding music); and zemba, a lively combination of drumming and dance that was formerly associated with the Afro-Bolivian monarchy (Pizarroso Cuenca 1977, 73).

Singing is the most prominent aspect of Afro-Bolivian music. All of the genres except mauchi include accompaniment by several different drums, and saya adds bells and scrapers.

The manufacture of musical instruments is considered an art, and community instrument makers are recognized for their talents. Especially important are saya drums, long bamboo scrapers called cuanchas, and colorful drum mallets called haucañas (an Aymara term). Saya drums are of three different sizes, and each plays a unique rhythm that interlocks with the other two. The largest drums are the asentadores, and, as the name suggests, they "set" the beat. Second in size are cambiadores, which interlock a triplet pattern with the basic duple established by the asentadores. The smallest drum is the gangengo, which interlocks an upbeat pattern with the asentador. In the saya tradition, both men and women dance, but they form two separate dancing groups. The captain of the dancers wears sets of bells around his legs. The bells worn around his left leg are pitched higher, and they lead the women dancers. On his right leg, the captain wears a lower-pitched set of bells that lead the men. Afro-Bolivians point out that the bells also symbolize the chains and shackles worn by their enslaved ancestors.

Both the writing and reciting of poetry are highly valued forms of artistic expression. In Tocaña and La Paz, community poets recite during brief interludes at public musical performances. Their poetry often addresses Afro-Bolivians' struggles against racism and discrimination.

Death and Afterlife. Afro-Bolivians consider their mauchi tradition to be a vestige of a lost Afro-Bolivian religious practice. Mauchi is sung by men after a burial as friends and relatives walk back to their village from the cemetery, and it is sung on Todos los Santos (2 November). In mauchi, men join their hands together and form a large, closed circle. One community elder leads the unaccompanied singing, and the other men respond.

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