Women rewriting history in Colombia: the “cantadoras of Membrillal”

In a small village in Colombia, near Cartagena de Indias, The “cantadoras of Membrillal" rehearse every week to dance and sing off their pain. 

The Woman Post | Luisa Fernanda Báez Toro*

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(This small chronicle was written during a trip to the city of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. The objective was to collect stories of female victims of the armed conflict who have found in art a way to overcome their pain).

Thirty minutes from the city of Cartagena is Membrillal, a small path where several but few live. Being one of the most vulnerable areas of the department, it is not very convenient for those who go to the Caribbean looking for their summer vacations, but among those unpaved streets and colorful houses there are several voices waiting to be heard.

It's two o'clock in the afternoon and we've been waiting for one hour for Cleiner Almanza, a member of the “Corporación Mujer Sigue mis Pasos” (Women Follow my Steps Coorporation), and her bodyguard, who promised to take us to the sidewalk because "lately things have been dangerous". The infernal heat makes me get up from my chair to take pictures of some parrots that have no paradox of speaking since I reached the meeting point.

An hour later, a truck arrives and it takes us to the rehearsal place of the "cantadoras of Membrillal"; the patio of the house of one of them. There, I meet Itilsio Salgado Reyes, director of the group and empirical drummer.

"My story is to get here, from Palenque, to arrange instruments, to win that talk … and I found some girls with a good voice … I am a voice hunter, of music, because music is an incentive in life, very noble, very happy. Personally when I feel sad, I either write music or play the drum …” says the teacher.

Itilsio says that when he arrived he met a group of women with a good idea but completely disintegrated. He was in charge of organizing them, giving them an instrument and providing them with a security they lacked.

“My ideal was always to create a group of only women, because men are already complete in football, so we can't take men because they are into other things”, he tells me while smiling.

All of them get ready in the room of one of his companions. They put on their traditional costumes, collect their hair and put lipstick in their mouths; they take their instruments, a chair and organize themselves in the courtyard, which is so big and full of trees that it gives me the feeling of being in the jungle.

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The show begins: they all look at each other and decide, in silence, with which song to start. The drums sound and for about fifteen minutes I marvel at the most powerful voices I've heard in my life. The instruments, the singing and the movements of all trace me back to something that I definitely am not but that accompanies my story.

A singer throws a verse, the others answer in chorus beating palms. The cheerful drum marks mysterious keys and continuously breaks the rhythm. There is a perfect, almost magical communication between the instruments and the main singer.

The “cantadoras” (women who sing when they pray or women who adore when they sing) are women who, through their songs, tell stories about their surroundings or their life. These women come from the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, some of the most affected by violence in the country, and with their traditional music they intend to approach peace.

The songs are a happy lament that shakes the suffering. In fact, many of the lyrics speak about death, suffering, offenses received or embarrassing situations that are sung to redeem and release the being.

Music is integration, music is feeling, and nothing stops these women and their director. Although it has not been easy and they have all faced scolding by their husbands, whether it rains or it is sunny, the “cantadoras of Membrillal” gather to create.

“We have been working on this for four years now and thank God it has helped us a lot… although many of us have been strong because the beginning was not easy, because our husbands began to say 'you are going to spend time playing drum and who's going to make my food?' We don't pay attention to that because we were born with this gift… in this way we get distracted. Although when we are at home we have thousands of problems, when we are here we forget everything”, says Arianna Martinez, one of the members of the group, after three attempts to record her experience.

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There are many ways to empower oneself and, although many violent practices are normalized in our culture, such as being forced by their partners to have sex against their will or desire, for these women, art has been fundamental in creating a new lifestyle. Today, they have found a balance between their life as housewives and their passion for music.

“This is something that has helped us to relieve our hearts, to be different people, we no longer think as before. We already have the courage to tell our husbands 'I love you, but I also love what I do and I will not stop doing it'. God put that gift on me, to be part of that network, and that all the women who are oppressed in their homes see me and also do the same thing that I am doing”, concludes Arianna.

We last about two hours talking about the importance of this type of spaces, the rescue of our tradition, the participation of women and how violence has always been present in their lives, at home and abroad.

It begins to get dark and we decide to return to Cartagena; we accompany Cleiner to her mother's house, she shows us the humble conditions in which most people of Membrillal live and, after making a long reflection on the state abandonment, we get into the van. They leave me at the hotel, I go up to my room and return to my privilege, always present but somewhat uncomfortable after the day I had.

*This text was written in September 2019, as part of Luisa Báez's undergraduate thesis.

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