Lauren Brant - Music in Bolivia
I´m sipping a coffee in a quiet cafe near Cochabamba´s Plaza 24 de Septiembre. The catchy melody of "¡Vive mi Patria Bolivia!" drifts through the window from a busking accordionist and under a palm tree an office worker is having his shoes polished. I´m almost at the end of a three month career break during which I have traveled in Peru and Bolivia, taught music in Cochabamba (Bolivia) and explored the enchanting sounds and rhythms of Andean music.
In my "real world" I am a recorder teacher, recorder player and BBC music researcher in the UK. Although my work in London is very rewarding, a year ago I found myself longing for a new challenge and an opportunity to broaden my musical knowledge. Thanks to sympathetic employers, I was able to start planning an exciting journey during the harsh winter of 2011.
Why choose Bolivia?
Bolivia, with its strong musical traditions, indigenous culture and stunning scenery seemed the ideal country to travel to. As a recorder player, I also felt that the timbre of traditional Bolivian music would relate to my instrument. So I decided that the most effective way of submerging myself into a musical community was to volunteer as a music teacher. The music volunteer project run by Projects Abroad seemed an ideal option. Through volunteer work I could share my skills, benefit a community, and hopefully engage with local musicians.
I therefore decided to spend two months living in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, teaching music. The volunteer work was to be sandwiched between two periods of travel in Bolivia and Peru. Cochabamba is an interesting bustling town, perfect for spending two months in. Cochabambians are very proud of their climate (and rightly so) as I enjoyed consistent warm days and cool nights. I stayed with the Maldonado family who are a warm, welcoming and artistic family. They live in a beautiful late nineteenth century house which is built around a courtyard adorned with cacti and orange trees.
My volunteer music placement
I was hoping that my volunteer work would stretch and develop my teaching skills, and I wasn’t disappointed. I was placed at a school for blind children and young people. Although I had previously taught a visually impaired student in London, this was immediately a challenging work environment due to the limitations of my Spanish, and the fact that many of my teaching techniques are visual. It was necessary to reassess my teaching techniques and methods and adapt them to this new situation. I had to do some very fast learning as it was obviously essential to build up a vocabulary of useful classroom words, as well as Spanish musical words.
However, I was fortunate that I was joining a school that has a thriving musical culture, and a strong singing tradition. The older students all play the recorder and many of them also play piano or guitar. Nicomedes Flores, the school´s head master, and Cristian Torres the music teacher, are both big sources of musical inspiration for the students. Both visually impaired, they share an infectious love of music. Profesor Cristian is a particularly skilled musician, incredibly versatile and surprisingly modest and was therefore a real pleasure to work with.
The school was established in the 1950s to provide a much needed establishment for blind children in Cochabamba and the surrounding areas. The students attend lessons during the morning which are specifically designed for the needs of visually impaired students. The children then attend a main stream school in the afternoon. The school song proclaims in its chorus that the students wish to be free of pity, free of exclusion and want to be judged on their ability rather than disability. The mantra of this song lies at the heart of the school, and promoting the skills of its students to the Bolivian public is a constant objective.
Whilst in Cochabamba I could see why this is so important. The majority of Bolivians who I spoke to are incredibly sympathetic to the plight of the blind. However, despite this strong sympathy, it is very hard for visually impaired people to gain employment in Bolivia. Sadly, a common sight in Cochabamba is that of a blind person begging on the streets in order to gather a meager income.
I soon settled into school life and the routine of the school week. I found my Bolivian colleagues very easy to work with and thrived on working with such enthusiastic students. As well as improving the technique of recorder playing in the school, I also encouraged the use of improvisation in music-making. Improvisation exists in Bolivian music culture, but surprisingly, as soon as the "i" word was mentioned, the students became tense and apprehensive. So deciding not to mention the “i” word, the students participated in a number of workshop exercises, whose purpose it is to encourage and stimulate improvisation.
Highlights from these sessions included creating a Japanese inspired piece with improvisations on a pentatonic scale, and our composition Sentimientos Bajo la Lluvia. This piece was inspired by the rich variety of bird song in Bolivia and the Bolivian climate.
Appearing on national TV!
My teaching project culminated in a concert at the Arzobispado Teatro in the center of Cochabamba. This concert took place in my last week of teaching, and this was definitely a week to remember! Profesor Nico had skillfully manipulated the Bolivian media and had secured appearances on three Bolivian national TV channels to promote our concert. The first two broadcasts were scheduled for the same time on Wednesday morning. It was therefore decided that the children would perform with Profesor Cristian on one channel and I would perform with Profesor Nico and an adult student on the other channel.
Our ensemble consisted of recorder, charango and percussion and we performed three traditional Bolivian tunes as part of a live broadcast. The following day we all performed together, live, on one of Bolivia´s biggest television channels. This was obviously a very exciting experience and also slightly surreal as I suddenly found myself talking to the presenters who I had been watching for the last two months whilst eating my breakfast! The week culminated in our final performance together at the Arzobispado Teatro. I was very proud of our concert as I felt that the children performed really well, tried different ideas out in their improvisations, produced a performance that was exciting and entertaining and was enjoyed by a large and enthusiastic audience.
When I wasn’t working
But it wasn’t all work, work, work! It was easy to make friends with the other volunteers through Projects Abroad’s social events and I found that my weekends were soon booked up with exciting excursions: from treading in dinosaur footprints at Torotoro National Park, to close encounters with spider monkeys in Villa Tunari as well as chilling on the incredible salt flats.
It didn’t take long to become acquainted with people local to my residence, and I enjoyed chats with Alberto who run the laundry, daily pleasantries with the lady who squeezed the most fantastic tasting orange juice, and a couple who ran a travel shop. During the week in my free afternoons I enjoyed exploring Cochabamba, working out at the gym, having a Spanish class or practicing the charango (a Bolivian stringed musical instrument).
Staying with a local host family
Staying with a host family also really enhanced my Bolivian experience. It was a great opportunity to try traditional food from pique a lo macho, yummy plantin and chicha – a very alcoholic beverage! I was welcomed into the family and shared birthday celebrations, big Sunday lunches, and was even a guest at a Bolivian wedding. The family was great at informing me about any concerts or festivals that were happening in Cochabamba, and Alberto, from my host family, relished opportunities to share his knowledge of Andean culture. As a result of this I was lucky enough to be taken to an amazing carnival involving over 15,000 dancers and musicians and participated in a pilgrimage walk to Quillacollo as part of the Fiesta de la Virgen de Urkupina. These were all very special occasions and definitely something I would not have experienced as a backpacker staying in hostels.
I will be sad to leave Bolivia and my friends in Cochabamba, but this has really been an amazing journey, and I look forward to returning to London, invigorated and armed with lots of new ideas and music. I’m so glad that I took the risk and took this time out, as I feel that I have benefited in so many ways: as a teacher, musician and person. To make the project a success, I obviously put in lots of effort, but I also received back a great deal including musical knowledge and the development of my teaching skills.
I would highly recommend a volunteering experience to anybody who is looking for an opportunity to work in a different environment, share their skills or perhaps meet a new challenge. As I reflect on my time here, I think there will always be a part of Bolivia with me, from a catchy syncopated melody, to the memorable sight of a condor gliding on the morning breeze, to the aspiring can do attitude of the teachers and students I worked with. I feel very privileged to have been part of this unique world and very proud of our musical journey that we took together