For any budding ethnomusicologist graduate students out there seeking an interesting dissertation topic, one could do a lot worse than contemplating the migration of the colonial Spanish waltz down the Pacific coast of South America. Of course, this was no benevolent cultural exchange tour, but the consequences of the brutally violent processes of Spanish imperialism. For the Europeans, the biggest prizes were the silver mines of Peru and Bolivia, driven by trade demand from China. And then continuing down through Chile, the western Andes are/were also rich in gold, copper, nitrates and a host of other mineral resources that collectively created colossally concentrated fortunes.  

Nonetheless, the Spanish waltz of the 1500s landed in each new colonial transportation hub and germinated within suddenly new regional populations of laborers, farmers and ranchers, evolving locally as new generations came up American. On The Panamericanist, the roots of the waltz are heard in the Chilean cueca of Chacon’s Prepárese la Novia, the vals criolla of Peru in El Plebeyo and La Flor de la Canela, and the pasillo style of Ecuador in Pasional and Flores Negras.

Antioqueñita is a canonical tune in the bambuco rhythm, which is the expression of the evolved waltz in the northern Andes of Colombia, where it first landed on the continent. The song Antioqueñita celebrates the beauty of a young gal from the Department of Antioqia, a mostly mountainous region of central Colombia that includes the capital city of Medellín. The high altitudes and tropical climate of Antioqia make it a unique and rich agricultural environment, famous for it’s flowers, coffee and coca.

The Spanish conquistadors arrived in Colombia with a 12-string melodic instrument called a vihuela, which evolved into a Colombian instrument called a tiple, and overall an antecedent for the many double-stringed instruments that would arise across Latin America over the centuries. In Colombia, waltz became bambuco as it intersected with African rhythms, further sub-dividing the beat for more detailed dancing, as well becoming a distinct medium of soulful song, articulating the hard life and romance of the local experience.

My first introduction to this style was in Los Guitarristas, the first movement of our Paisaje de Colombia was a bambuco called La Muchacha de Risa Loca:

 

For the uninitiated, a waltz is a form of music where the underlying rhythm is felt in patterns of 3 – learning to play or dance a waltz is to steadily repeat “1-2-3-1-2-3” to oneself, with an accent/emphasis on the “1” as heard in North American roots music and European folk/classical music. A foundational idea through the evolved Afro-Andean waltz styles of South America is the inverse, emphasizing the 2nd and 3rd pulses while completely laying off the 1st  - instead of “pulse-space-space-pulse-space-space” imagine it’s “space-pulse-pulse-space-pulse-pulse”. Adding complexity, each pulse is subdivided by 2, making it better conceived as a faster 6-pulse pattern. By adding accents on the 4th pulse of the 6 pattern the same segment of time can be perceived as being divided by 2 or 3 (or 4 or 6). The net effect is like counting to six over and over in your head while making sounds on the numbers 3, 4 and 5, stressing 3 and 5. Or sometimes it might be 2, 3 and 5, stressing 3 and 5. In any case it’s a tremendous palate for both multiple instruments, who can each dedicate themselves to different rhythmic elements, or for dancers to dedicate different parts of their body to each pulse.

I can report to you that contending with that open space on the 1 is not instinctual to your North American-bred guitarists. We tend to want to come in on 1 and slam it hard. There’s certainly nothing un-funky about hitting the 1, ask James Brown, but it’s also a nice safe guardrail to hold on to when things get intense. Not cultivating a feel for an empty space on 1 means your ears will likely hear the first sound they perceive as beginning a rhythmic pattern as being the 1, when it may really be the 2, or a syncopation between 1 and 2. Thus the white musician feels shame and hopeless embarrassment, not understanding why he is always coming a beat too late when trying to play with Latin musicians.

Feeling polyrhythms and empty downbeats is definitely not something that I myself had cultivated growing up. It took a long time, and I was already way way down of road musical commitment as an adult human before I even recognized what it was I wasn’t understanding.

The good news is that I can also report back that it is learnable. For the severely left-brained musician the clearest path is math – gaining an intellectual and analytical understanding of the rhythmic structures as a way in. There are many books that break this stuff down, but mostly they are for drummers. A clever guitarist can transfer that information though, substituting finger strokes for conga slaps and the thumb for a bass drum. I’d be happy to show you how, drop me a line.

Going through this process is a beautiful and fascinating exploration of the full capacity of your nervous and musculatory systems. The musicological analysis is just the first step, understanding what to do does not simply extrapolate into being able to do it – it has to be conditioned into your muscles. In this case Descarte’s maxim is incomplete, to merely think is not to be, but it can be a start. Compared with the speed of satisfactory live musical tempo in the little brains of your hand muscles, the analytic mind of your head brain is essentially molasses, slow and dull. To marry the abstract analysis to the motor skills means slowing down the hand action to unmusical tempos as a launching point and slowly building muscle speed up to listenability. The problem there is you don’t get proper hand action without a momentum of movement which requires a speed above molasses. To play fast you must first play slow to then accelerate with perfect technique. To play slow you likely must first play at a medium tempo just to have it at all and then work down. It’s hard and unfun to play at unmusical tempos. It’s a long slow process, but doable. Keep practicing.

And that is still all phase one. The real music comes in the cross currents above that, melodic phrases being sung dancing around, sometimes with, sometime against the root polyrhythm.

When you get it, it’s like discovering new wings to the mansion behind a secret door. Rooms you’ve never been in before, with fresh vistas and breezes from new angles. Learning to play in polyrhythm is like going from being able to draw two-dimensional stick figures to illustrating with three-dimensional depth. Of course, in the right context, like a great punk rock song, a stick figure drawing can have a powerful emotional impact. But life offers us so much more possibility if we only dig in.

Learning to play Antioqueñita was indeed a long process. Like Los Ejes de Mi Carreta it was one that I dragged my feet on learning because I just couldn’t get a sense of it. I could only perceive a faint connection from I was doing on guitar to the few vocal versions on YouTube at that time. Moreso than most of songs I learned from Alfonso I let go of worrying about fidelity to an ideal sense of it, and dug in for my own pleasure of playing the guitar in the way that produces what your hear when I play what I call Antioqueñita.

 There are many tricky ornamental details that I had to get in my hands around in an elemental physical way before I could ever contemplate their actual musical function within the song. The coolest part was the intro phrase which was Chacon’s design, not really a defined part of the song in terms of being a verse or chorus. I confess that as recorded is a gross simplification of how Alfonso played it, which at this point is just down the memory hole.

If there is a Colombian in the room, I love to play and see if it gets recognized (it has!), but I think overall it’s among the more obscure songs in the collection. Knowing it won’t earn me points for recognizability, I tend to play it in the third set if I’m doing a 3-hour event, as it can bring a fresh energy and it’s a perfect transition out of a slow tune, into perhaps my final run of energy for the evening.