Sonidos del Sur: Spotlight on San Pelayo by Richard Demy
The town with a euphonium in its crest
This June, thousands of people gathered in the small town of San Pelayo, Colombia for the 37th annual Festival of Porro Pelayero. This festival celebrates the traditional music of the districts of Sucre and Cordoba and the Sinu River that flows through them. This land is harsh; the majority of its inhabitants are farmers and fishermen near the bottom of the economic system even though the town of San Pelayo is just 20 miles from the busy port of Cordoba. The euphonium has played a central role to the traditional music of this area for over 100 years.
The festival is a tradition that was created at the bicentennial of the municipality of San Pelayo in 1977. The town leaders wanted to create a festival that celebrated the local culture, which was slowly being forgotten and replaced by other national traditions. The festival celebrates the musical styles of the porro and the dances associated with them. The word porro is derived from porrazo, which in this context means to hit or whack. This name came from the ostinato given to the bass drum. The porro has its origins from the music created from the mixing of African drumming and rhythms that came from slaves with flute melodies from the indigenous populations. These musical styles are similar to dance music from other parts of the country, but the unique element of the porro is the inclusion of military band instruments. The euphonium, or bombardino, is such an iconic instrument of this style that it was placed on the town crest.
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There are different stories claiming the origin of the musical style of porro. What they all have in common is a mixing of European, Native, and African cultures. European music was popular in Cordoba in the 19th century. The aristocracy wanted European dance music performed at parties, so musicians were given European instruments and were taught how to play waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, danzons, contradances, marches, and other dance styles popular at the time. Local musicians were led by a trained and educated bandmaster and were able to perform the music but were not able to rise to the social status of the ones who danced to their music. It is reputed that in the 1850s two brothers, Adolpho and Agustin Mier, had learned trumpet and euphonium from a local bricklayer who ran a band in their hometown of Mompox. Later they moved to El Carmen de Bolivar to get jobs at a booming tobacco plantation. Many rich local merchants and foreign businessmen were moving there, which meant that new bands were forming. These classically trained brothers joined a band that performed European music for large parties, but they also started playing local styles for the people who became well off due to the tobacco boom. The music was not named, and the name porro for this musical style was not used until much later in the 19th century, but this was reportedly its origin.
William Fredrich Diaz, who has been researching the history of porro for years, claims that the modern porro was created in San Pelayo at the turn of the last century. Owners of cattle haciendas (ranches) would have bands come and play for the fiestas de corraleja which involved bullfighting and running of the bulls through crowds. Instead of playing European music, the musicians took the opportunity to be creative. Each neighborhood or village would form their own band that reflected their politics and social class by incorporating other musical styles from their communities. Musical styles of these town bands started to settle into a uniform instrumentation near the turn of the 20th century. In 1913 a merchant named Diogenes Galvan Paternina was charged to go to the USA to purchase new instruments for the band at San Pelayo, and after two years returned with new clarinets, trumpets, trombones, and three-valve bell-front euphoniums. This trip to the USA solidified the traditional instrumentation for the porro and created a place for the euphonium in the ensemble for the next 100 years.
The porro has a simple traditional form to help organize the improvisation in the music. The introduction starts with a solo instrument performing the main melody. This is usually 8 measures long. The second section is a contrapuntal dialogue between the trumpets and the euphoniums in call and response format. The third section adds a melodic link where the clarinets join in, and the fourth section is a clarinet solo, with an improvised euphonium accompaniment that is a harmonized version of the original theme. These euphonium countermelodies range from simple repeated melodies to incredible virtuosic solos. The euphonium is the instrument picked to solo with the clarinet because it contrasts the range, and is the only instrument that can match the clarinet’s technique. The piece repeats back to section two, and repeats until the melody is called again to finish the tune. The structure exists for the dancers as well as the improvisation. Improvisation is important in this style because most of the music is not written down, and many musicians cannot read music. The piece is recomposed every time it is played, and the music changes depending on the mood and tastes of the musicians. Historically only the bandmaster will be able to read music, and they will train the other musicians by rote. Today many older players still do not read, but there has been a push to educate the younger musicians to be classically trained as well.
Unfortunately, the word porro has a drug-related colloquial meaning that has no association whatsoever to the music. The musical style of porro has nothing to do with smoking, and that slang term is not even used in this part of the country. The parties and dances that play porro are a celebration of tradition, family, and their ancestors. In this region of Colombia, porro is only known as a musical style.
The 37th annual National Porro Festival began at sunrise on June 28th, 2013 when 34 bands and 5,000 people awoke to play and dance to the porro “Maria Varilla,” written by Alejandro Ramirez. It is considered the anthem of the festival, and was written for a woman of that name who was a fandango dancer in San Pelayo at the turn of the last century. On the third day of the festival, all of the bands parade into the cemetery and lay wreaths at the graves of musicians who have passed. The festival focuses on the culture and the participation of the audience in dances and the music. There are ballroom dance contests, competitive dance groups, and band contests, but these are secondary to the festival’s main role of rejuvenating the traditional folk culture of the region.
The porro band contests are divided into three age groups: children, teens, and adults. There is also a composition contest for the best unpublished work in these four categories: porro pelayero, porro tapao (which is a style of porro that is based on a rhythm where the bass drum taps on the rim of his drum), porro vocalizado (a porro with a singer), and fandango, which is a very fast dance with its roots in Spain. The band that won the adult category this year was the 13 de Enero de Canalete. This may seem like a strange name for a band, but it comes from a very old tradition. The name of the band is the feast day of the patron saint of the community, and the name of the town. It translates to “January 13th of Canalete.”
The festival has resonated with the general population as well as the artists involved because it is geared for spectators. In the 1970’s many people thought that live music in this region was in decline. The musicians themselves were treated as outcasts, and many parents did not want people to know that their children were musicians. When the festival was started in 1977, the average participant was 50 or 60 years old. Today, communities are proud of their young bands, and participation is highest among the youth.
The euphonium started out as an instrument for popular music, and it can still be found today in pockets all over the world that were established when bands were the popular music of the day. The porro of San Pelayo is a great example, making the euphonium such a central part that the town uses a picture of a euphonium to symbolize music itself.
Special thanks for research and translation aid from two native Colombians: David Lopez (Tubist, MM University of North Texas, DMA candidate Texas Tech) & William Fredrich Diaz (Journalist, Musicologist, and author of Con Bombos y Platillos)
Richard Demy is currently completing his DMA in Euphonium Performance at the University of North Texas under the tutelage of Dr. Brian Bowman. He has given 60 recitals and master classes in churches and schools across 17 US states. He has competed in many international competitions, most notably winning the 2012 Leonard Falcone Euphonium Artist Competition.