Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I Miss the Music of Salsa Romántica

Wilmer Cartagena of Perú sings Un Amor Como el Tuyo 
(A Love Like Yours)
For about 15 or 20 years, salsa music went through an age of mellow, sensual, and romantic style for broader commercial appeal to a Latin music audience. This took away emphasis from the hard-hitting orchestrations of Salsa, to which I was accustomed. It's called Salsa Romántica or Salsa Sensual because it heightened, sensual feelings. The big megastars in those days were Luis Enrique, Eddie Santiago, and Lalo Rodriguez, among many, many others. I have to admit that at first, I was totally turned off and disgusted as I was used to Salsa Dura (hardcore Salsa music); like that of Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and Willie Colón. However, as I continued to go to the clubs, I fell equally in love with Salsa Romántica or Sensual, as it's sometimes called.

I found Salsa Dura to be nice to listen to long before I learned how to dance to Salsa music, but I found Salsa Romóntica to be nicer to dance to after I learned how to dance. Salsa Sensual made me feel more connected with the woman with whom I was dancing. It had a nice, steady beat where you can get all of your slick dance moves and patterns in without rushing and running out of breath, and at the same time, romance my female dance partner. My favorite Salsa Romántica artists were Gilberto Santa Rosa, Hector Tricoche, and Rey Ruiz. A close friend of mine, Ricardo, a fellow salsero (salsa dancer) and I earned some extra money making and selling Salsa Romántica t-shirts illustrate dwith a sketch of a dancing couple.

Today, salsa clubs, bands, and DJs have gone back to the traditional Salsa Dura, per demand of an overwhelming number of Salsa purist, which I once was. These purists gave Salsa Romántica all kinds of bad names, like bubblegum, lollypop, pussy-whipped ballads accompanied by Afro-Cuban rhythms —leaving no room for classic salsa's brilliant musical improvisation, or for classic salsa lyrics that tell stories of daily life or provide social and political commentary. Although I still love and appreciate Salsa Dura, I do miss Salsa Romántica.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

So Upset I Forgot My Spanish (Almost)

The Plaza de Armas 
(Main Square) 
Barranco District of Lima, Perú

One of my blog subscribers chided me because some of my posts deal with occurrences in the past. Bloggers have varying reasons for posting their thoughts and feelings. I, for one, like to post thoughts and feelings that may happen today, yesterday, or about something anticipated in the future. It all depends on how I feel. For example, this particular incident happened in Lima, Perú in , and it's about how I almost forgot my Spanish.

Every year, I make it a point to travel to a Spanish-speaking country, mostly Perú, because of my family-like connections. October 2005, was my first time in that country. My purpose was to be totally immersed in the Spanish language as I've been teaching myself out of books for a good number of years. In fact, I'm still teaching myself out of books and CDs.

I was staying in the Barranco District of Lima, which is considered to be the city's most romantic and bohemian. It's the home and working place of many of Peru's leading artists, musicians, designers and photographers. One day, I went into a restaurant serving criollo food, which is food with an Afro-Peruvian influence. I felt slighted by the waitress so I demanded to speak with the manager. My true language challenge arose when the manager came to my table. I was so upset, I almost forgot every Spanish word I learned. I managed to eek out a question, asking if he speaks English. I was so disappointed when he said no because I had to register my complaint in Spanish. Although, I struggled though it, I made my point, and the service made a complete turnaround for the better.

The moral of my personal story is that total immersion is the way to go if you really want to learn to speak another language. This frustrating restaurant experience was really a growth opportunity in disguise.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Underground Black Bolivian Kingdom

In a patch of rainforest in the Andes Mountains, three-hours from the nation's capital of La Paz, there is a hidden kingdom of Afro-Bolivians called Los Yungas. Julio Bonifaz Pinedo was two years ago crowned as the first Afro-Bolivian king, a move intended to further Afro-Bolivian cause of gaining recognition in Bolivia's new constitution. King Pinedo, owner of a humble grocery store,  is a direct descendant of Bonifaz, a tribal king from central Africa. The original Bonifaz was brought to Bolivia as a slave in the 16th Century to work in the silver mines.. Like most slaves who survived the mines, Bonifaz was later traded to estate owners in the plantations of Los Yungas, where the climate is more like that of sub-Saharan Africa. King Julio Bonifaz Pinedo is one of the 35, 000 poverty-stricken Afro-Bolivians who continue to feel overlooked even though Bolivia recently approved its first multi-ethnic and multi-cultural constitution.

The Andean Foothills of Los Yungas

Afro-Bolivians traditionally grow citrus, coffee, and banana trees, but have recently adopted the growing of coca, cocaine's raw material legally in limited amounts. Bolivians have been growing coca since the time of the Inca empire. The Afro-Bolivian, who have always been discriminated against, have no other choice for survival.

But today, for the first time since slavery in Bolivia, racist attitudes seem to be slowly changing.being that Black Bolivia is mentioned in the new constitution as one of the 36 Bolivian nationalities, and that radio talk-show host Jorge Medina is the first Afro-Bolivian to win election for national political office. He is the Black deputy in Bolivia's parliament giving voice to a people who historically having no voice. There are people in Bolivia who have no idea that there are Blacks in their country, and there are others who do not want to know. Afro-Bolivians already started to develop links with other black communities South America to get international recognition. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Watching My Own Prejudice!

When non-African Americans approach me speaking Ebonics, knowing that is not their normal mode of communication, I immediately respond with standard American English to bust the stereotype; the pre-judgment, because that's what prejudice is, pre-judging. When I, as a non-Latino, approach an olive-skinned person who fits the stereotypical profile of a Latino, and speak to him/her in Spanish, that is also prejudice because I'm pre-judging that person as a Spanish-speaker, perhaps one with limited English skills. Why aren't I making the same assumption of Whites, Blacks, and Asians who speak Spanish as a first language? It's prejudice, of course. Someone, a long time ago, warned me that assuming someone is a Spanish-speaker simply because of appearance is a form of racism.

Here is a comment one of my blog readers posted: I have to say not every Hispanic or Latino speak Spanish. Some people never learned it because they were trying to assimilate more into an English speaking society. They went to school and English is what they spoke. They may have been born to people who have been living in the United States longer than 3 generations and started to lose their Spanish dialect.

Over the years, I've learned the hard way that many Latinos in the US don't speak Spanish. I once got into work-related argument with a supervisor who happened to be an English-only Latino. I took my work-related frustration out on him by speaking to him in Spanish just to irritate him, and that did irritate him.

Because of my exuberance in speaking a second language, in this case Spanish, I find it hard to resist the temptation to initiate a conversation in Spanish if I happen to prejudge someone as being Latino. Truly, I need the practice, which is why I travel to Spanish-speaking countries every chance I get, or at least do my shopping in areas where Spanish is heavily spoken. I'm making an effort to avoid prejudging people and at least get familiar with people first and not assume.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Chilly Reception in Ecuador's Black Community

Valle de Chota, Ecuador, more commonly known as “Chota.”

Why Communication is So Important!

Valle de Chota, or Chota, as it's commonly called in Ecuador had been on my list of places to visit since Team Ecuador's soccer team made it's impressive showing in the 2006 World Cub games. Over half the players from this highly touted team were from Chota, Ecuador's Black community up in the Andes Mountains with a population of about 2000 residents. It was not until three years later when I arrived in this community by bus, and encountered a rather chilly reception.

The fact that I was a total stranger entering a town cold; a town where everyone knew each other, and the fact that I was speaking Spanish with a funny accent made a lot people nervous. One shop owner went to get the police. I wished I could have taken her picture of the way she wagged her finger and shook her head as if to say, “don’t be bringing your touristy ass up in here!” Instead, I ended up taking pictures of the police officers at the police station as I explained to them that I'm from the US and that I'm a hearty fan of Ecuador's international soccer team. The officers must have felt my positive energy because they became cheerful and flattered. As a peace offering, I gave them each one of my Barack Obama post cards and an Oakland post card. I found this gesture to be very much appreciated by people I connected with throughout my Latin American travels.

As I walked around, I could see people eyeballing me and cutting their eyes at me wondering who I was and what the hell I wanted in this town. There is nothing for tourist here, and that is exactly why I came. I'm a cultural explorer, not a tourist. The only touristy thing I've done in my visits to nine Latin American countries was visit the equator, which by the way, is how Ecuador got it's name; it's Spanish for equator, and the equator runs right through Ecuador. I got my picture taken with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the southern. That's it!

I did manage to meet a couple of friendly families, answering their questions and explaining that I wanted to see the very soccer field that produced so many Afro-Ecuadorian stars, such as Augustín Delgado, who before his retirement was revered in Ecuador the way Shaquille O'Neitl was revered in the US before his retirement. As I continued to walk around and take pictures, I came across a group of youth, future soccer stars, honing their soccer skills in the middle of the street the way New Yorkers play stickball, a makeshift version of baseball, in the middle of the street.

 R1- 9A
Future world class soccer stars in a pick-up game.

Finally, I stopped at a local shop to buy a beer. The woman behind the counter seemed frightened and intimidated the minute she heard my foreign accent. However, there were three young men hanging around the shop who engaged me in conversation. They explained to me that since the World Cup games, there have been other tourist passing through. That gave me the impression that this quiet, peaceful little town did not care for strangers from strange lands dropping in. They simply were not used to it, nor were they prepared for it. These young men felt better about my presence as we continued our chat. They asked me questions about the US and the African-American community. They answered my questions on their community and their soccer stars. Even the woman who nervously served me the beer was not so spooked after all; she too became relaxed and welcoming.

When I left Chota, I felt so exhilarated to have to met and chatted with friendly men, women, and children as they expounded on  information that had been intriguing me for the last three years. They invited me to hang out with them that evening when people would begin partying, and that way, I can get a better feel for their culture. This is a solid example of how communication with an open mind can go a long way in breaking down barriers among people who are different. It makes no difference who we are or where we are. Toastmasters International tells us that communication skills are not negotiable. Let me take it a step further; communication, period,  is not negotiable.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Traveling While Ill

In the hospital, I got plenty of practice on my 
Spanish because no one spoke any English

It was only within a week when I arrived in Lima, Perú from Mexico City where I went into a restaurant called in the ritzy, touristy section of Lima, the nations capital. There was something strange about the beverage I drank that put me in the hospital. Fortunately, I had travel insurance to cover all medical bills. Even if I had to be evacuated and carried back to the US, my travel insurance would have covered the expense. It was good that didn't happen, however, I remained hospitalized for six days where I got plenty of practice on my Spanish because no one spoke any English. Zilch! It was also good that I had family-like friends in Lima, whom I met on prior trips, came to visit me almost every day. They didn't speak English either. Finally, on my sixth day, I finagled with the doctor to release me. Against doctor's orders, I chose to continue my vacation, which was to last another 24 days in Perú, Colombia, Ecuador, and Panamá. 

Upon release from the hospital, I took the bus for a three-hour ride to Chincha, Perú, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, where my extended family nursed me back to about 70% of my health.  After celebrating the birthday of the mother in the family home, I went back to Lima to catch my flight to Cartegena, Colombia where I got to 80% of my full strength. Even in Cartagena, I slept a lot, didn't party at all, just made my way about town for a few days before heading towards an African village about two hours south of Cartagena. This village called Palenque (or San Basilio de Palenque) won their freedom from slavery and Spanish rule over 200 years before the rest of Colombia and other South American countries won their freedom.  By this time, I must have been at 90% of my full strength as I was given a walking tour for about an hour around the village. I was bone tired by the time I returned to my hotel and crash until morning.

On that day, I flew to Quito, Ecuador where I stayed for a couple of days and hung out with Gloria whom I met on my first trip to Quito. My strength was about 95% before finally flying to Panamá City where I hung out for about six hours. By the time I made it back to the San Francisco airport and headed back to Oakland where I live, I was fully recovered... I think!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Nope, I Am “Not” Latino!

One Friday evening, while vacationing in Quito, Ecuador, I jumped into a cab for a 30 minute ride back to my hotel on the other side of town. The cab driver asked me if I was from a Spanish-speaking country in the Caribbean. I simply said no, I'm from the United States of America. He never suspected as such listening to my Spanish, which he felt has a Caribbean accent.

While most people look at me and simply assume that I'm African-American (and I am), I often get questioned about my ethnicity. Co-workers thought I was Cuban just because I interpreted for a couple of Spanish speakers, and went to Cuba (legally) on vacation. One day, at a bus stop in the Spanish-speaking Fruitvale District of Oakland, I casually struck up a Spanish-speaking conversation with a woman also waiting for a bus. Her immediate response was, ¡ayyy Cubano (oh, you're Cuban)! Many Latin-American people, who hear me speak Spanish, ask me if I'm from Puerto Rico or Cuba (two Caribbean countries).

It never seems to occur to anyone that I'm taking the time and the energy to learn to learn to speak the language. People feel that I must be a native speaker. The truth of the matter is that my Spanish is far from perfect; I'm still learning, which is one of the reasons I travel to countries where I'm forced to speak Spanish only and can't fall back on my English, even if I wanted to. Like the evening I was in a restaurant, and was so upset at the service that I almost forgot my Spanish as I demanded to speak with the manager. I was disappointed when the manager told me that he didn't speak English. I had no other choice but to calm down and register my complaint in Spanish, and the service immediately got better.

One of my former supervisors at work stated on my performance evaluation that I'm bi-cultural because of the way I interact with Spanish-speaking immigrants, travel to Latin-American countries, and listen to various genres of Latin-American music. In sports, I was a sentimental fan of Ecuador's predominately Black 2006 Word Cup soccer team, and a fan of the historically Black “Alianza Lima” soccer team in Lima, Perú.

One day in Lima, I was walking down the street wearing a t-shirt representing Chincha, a province in Southern Perú with a large Black population. A Black security officer came over to me excited, shaking my hand, smiling, and telling me that he too is from Chincha. I didn't get past two words before he burst out laughing, shook his head, and told me, dude, you're not from Chincha, you're from another country! My foreign accent gave me away. However, he was so surprised when I told him that I'm African-American. A lot of Peruvians I met thought that I was either from Brazil or Panamá, two nearby countries, or from Puerto Rico or Cuba, two Caribbean countries.

When I was in Cuba, almost everyone assumed that I too am Cuban until I opened my mouth. Again, my foreign accent was a dead giveaway. As much as I wanted to fake a Cuban accent to try to fit in, that was way over my head. One day, I was walking through a housing project in Havana, and as I passed by a guy, I greeted him with, Qué Bolá, Asere, a Cuban equivalent of what's up, bro. His eyes got big, indicating that he knew I was not from around there. Many Latinos I talk to here in the US tell me that my Spanish sounds Puerto Rican. A woman directly from the island of Puerto Rico told me that I sound more like a Nuyorican, ie., a New York Puerto Rican. Now, that makes sense because I grew up very close to Spanish Harlem in New York City, which was predominately Puerto Rican.  I'm now a transplanted New Yorker living in Oakland, CA..

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chile's Black Pride Organization

"We stand up and tell the whole world that those of us who descend from slavery have looked for a gathering concept called Oro Negro, which allows us to live our way, making a song out of each letter, a joy out of pain, a dance out of each noise, a friendship out of each smile, and transforming our hands in lots of hands willing to help".
 Sonia Salgado
 President of Oro Negro-Chilean Foundation

"Oro Negro” (Black gold) is the first Afrodescendants Foundation in Chile. Its operational center is located in the city of Arica, basically because this city has the largest concentration of African descendanst in the country. “Oro Negro”carries out cultural courses and workshops (music, dances, arts, sports, etc...) and counts on a team of professionals in charge who work to solve social problems of Chile's African descendants.

Sonia Salgado, the foundation's president, says that Oro Negros objectives include the political and social recognition of Afro-Chileans, and the rescue and promotion of their cultural roots, as well as helping them participate in society's diverse areas. According to Sonia, Chile's African descendants have learned how to face racial discrimination with wisdom.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Salsa Music on the African Continent

Our mission is to bring salsa music back to its African roots.
---Grupo Africando, Senegal--West Africa
I was first introduced to Grupo Africando salsa band by an Afro-Colombian DJ at Kimballs Carnival night club in Emeryville, CA. As I was looking over their CD's liner notes, I saw their mission statement: our mission is to bring salsa music back to its African roots. I thought that statement was on point, considering how the roots of salsa music began with African slaves of the Spanish on the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. I became a fan of Africando ever since. On the other hand, I'm also a fan of African pop music such as soukous in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and have always marveled at some of the similarities between popular African music and salsa.

Cuban music has been popular in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1940s as Afro-Cuban groups began performing in the Congo area as a result of a renown radio station based in Kinshasa, then known as Léopoldville, the capital. As time passed, Congolese bands started creating their own original Cuban-like compositions with lyrics sung in French or Lingala, a tribal language of the western Congo region. The Congolese called this new music rumba.. African musicians in various parts of the continent used electric guitars to improvise and gave Cuban music its own regional flavor, gradually spreading out from the Congo resulting in the establishment of several different distinct regional genres, such as soukous. The re-working of Afro-Cuban rhythmic patterns by Africans brings the rhythms full circle, i.e, back to its African roots.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Joys and Frustrations of Travel Networking

What I call travel networking is when you are getting advice and referrals from people you come in contact with, either in person or on line, regarding a place you are going to visit. This contact could be from someone who is from that country or has visited that country. For example, before my first trip to Ecuador, I went to an Afro-Ecuadorian site on Facebook, explaining why I wanted to visit a certain black community there. Alexandra, an Afro-Ecuadorian woman living in Germany responded to my post and befriended me. She then introduced me to her mother Gloria who lives in Ecuador's capital--Quito. This turned out to be a very warm contact, which made a big difference in my trip. Gloria not only showed me around and give me advice, but introduced me to her family. To this day, Gloria and Alexandra are still my friends, and to this day, I express my gratitude in more ways than one.

Besides Facebook, I belong to three travel networks. They are, Facebook's Nomadness Travel Tribe, and of course my blog. Every so often, people read my blog about the places I've traveled or have established warm contacts with local citizens. They contact me for advice about the country of interest. After referring them to my contacts in those respective countries, some express their gratitude through friendship, and others move on seeming to forget that I was of any help to them, and I never hear from them again. The latter is just plain self-centered and selfish.

I love it when people get back to me and tell me how things went. I often follow-up with the local citizen of the country to get their input on the individual I referred. This is not only because my reputation is on the line, but because I do care about the people I connect and strongly believe that anyone who is involved in any travel network should have the common decency to at least say “thank you” and share their experience.