Wanders and Wonders
It’s marching season here in Cochabamba. Each evening I’m at my yoga class the harmonizing of body and spirit is challenged somewhat by the intrusion of a hundred college brass band members practicing ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’ around the corner. All through the day yesterday a constant stream of uniformed peers from universities, the army and various other institutions passed uproariously under the office balcony, batons twinkling in the hot sun and the bass drums reverberating through the windows. My flatmate warns me that this continues through the coming month. The big day is today though: September 14th, the Day of Cochabamba. It’s a public holiday, though like most holidays here they seem to have stretched the official time off to allow for more days of flag-waving: the majority of Cochabamba appeared to be out on the pavement yesterday. Thus far today it’s quiet, but given that the school next door has often commenced its rehearsals at 7am, I predict that it won’t be much longer (it’s just gone 9am) until the uplifting sound of trombones comes drifting up to the apartment.
Day of Cochabamba is not quite independence day, as one might have thought. Speaking to my Bolivian colleague, he explained that 14th September is Cochabamba’s ‘Grito Libertario’ (‘shout for freedom’), and marks the moment in 1810 when the city joined in Bolivia’s War of Independence – preceded by Sucre in 1809 and then joined by La Paz. As such there were a number of bicentennial celebrations marking Bolivia’s founding in the last couple of years, rather than just one, as in other Latin American countries. Bolivia finally won its independence in 1825, the last country on the continent to do so.
Now I grant that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of militarism and patriotism, but given that the discourse of neocolonialism and anti-imperialism is so strong here, I do find rather odd this pomp and circumstance in European-style military dress (partly Nazi uniform-inspired, I’m told), playing songs from the American Civil War. As my colleague explains, and as is well known, those who fought and won nineteenth-century independence tended to come from the immigrant colonial society and were seeking a certain brand of economic and political freedom that maintained privileged links to the metropolis for the whites while denying liberty to the indigenous population which fought for genuine independence. Since their identity was framed by their European heritage, hence the ongoing tradition of silly hats and epaulets and fucking brass bands.
Of course, the history of the independence movement in Latin America is bound up, also, with the Bolivarian dream. Simón Bolivar was himself from a wealthy white family, but his vision of a united, free Latin America nonetheless continues ostensibly to inspire not only the Bolivarian Alliance of Evo, Chavez and others (though the twenty-first century version is arguably driven more by geopolitics than ideology and, as celebrations like today’s illustrate, it sits uncomfortably alongside an assertive kind of nationalism), but among the people themselves you can also find a sense of pan-Latin solidarity whose rejection of neocolonialism is both more modern and more historically rooted in a pre-Colombian era. I had a much more pleasant musical experience on Saturday night listening to Mangüé. This Latin jazz and folk band came through from Chile to play a ‘homage to Cochabamba’, but their professed message of “cultural integration, of repect for the environment, of integrated development” suggests a rather different interpretation to the military parades I’ve been witnessing of what a continental identity might represent.
‘Latin’ music, like practically every musical expression, is of course a fusion of rhythms that have travelled from far and wide and blended via the diverse communities originating in or arriving on these shores. The audience on Saturday was loving the mix of salsa, jazz, cumbia and traditional folk songs that the band offered. I’m not sure that some of the residents of eastern Cochabamba were loving quite so much the 6am renditions of Chilean folk songs that the band later regaled us with in our friend’s garden. But my San Franciscan mate and I were both honoured and felt slightly bereft by the fact that out here, the immersion in those musical roots is such that these singalongs are an everyday part of culture, and an occasion for celebratory participation. Rather than intimidation, as they might be at home, where not only do we not share a common repertoire of national or regional songs, but people often feel too shy to pick up an instrument or sing, even among a group of friends. I, of course, have little personal investment in Bolivian independence, but it is this boundary-crossing spirit of shared and shareable cultural heritage which makes me celebrate being in Latin America. And you can leave the marching bands out of it.