It was another dog-day in August when we joined Diego Obregón for an interview at his Woodhaven, Queens apartment. Diego kindly agreed to meet us at his home so that he could play a few tunes from his native Colombia along with his vocalist Johanna Castenada. There in the basement, over the hum of the air conditioner, the sounds from his marimba (wood xylophone) were magical, all at once playful and effervescent, and with Johanna singing the traditional tune Mi Canoita, the sounds from Colombia’s Pacific coast spilled out onto hot pavement.
Colombia's Pacific Coast
The joyfulness of Diego’s marimba performance belies his immigrant experience in New York and the economic challenges he left behind in Colombia. Born in the town of Guapi, Colombia in 1971, Diego grew up in a large family of ten children. Guapi is located in Cauca state on the Pacific coast within Colombia’s vast rainforest region. Cauca residents are the descendants of Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved by the Spanish from the modern day countries of Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Congo (from 1580 to 1810, the Spanish imprisoned thousands of Africans, bringing them to Cartagena, which served as the primary disembarking point in South America).
Hundreds of rivers run through this area providing this Afro-Colombian community with the means to travel, fish and farm the territory between the Pacific coast and Andes mountains. Not only does water play a central role in the community’s ability to subsist, it is also of great influence in local culture. According to Diego, many of the Afro-Colombian folktales and songs from this region deal with water transit and the many gifts that rivers provide.
One of the most important pastimes in Cauca is the currulao, an event that involves playing and dancing to marimba music. While Diego grew up listening to currulao music, he is the only member of his family to pursue a professional career in traditional music. Several of his brothers play guitar and percussion recreationally, however Diego describes himself as the only sibling to pursue the arts in earnest.
As a youngster, Diego also played guitar but he describes being drawn to the marimba por casualidad, by chance. While hanging out with his buddies one day, all of them in their late teens and making plans to pick up some girls at school, he heard the sound of the marimba coming from a classroom. A workshop was being taught that day by maestro Silvino Mina and Diego was immediately drawn in. After sitting in rapt attention for the entire workshop, the instructor asked him if he was interested in joining them. Mina was the renowned marimba player in the region who was interested in passing the tradition on to the younger generation. Under Mina’s mentorship, Diego soon picked up the cununo, a wooden drum shaped like a conga but more conical and closed on the bottom. In short order, Diego mastered the other percussive instruments associated with currulao marimba music and quickly joined his mentor’s official folk group from Guapi.
Becoming a Marimba Maker
Diego’s fascination with the marimba continued for years as a member of Mina’s group. He did not however have the money to purchase an instrument of his own. Given that he had thoroughly inspected his teacher’s marimba and his father was a carpenter, Diego decided that he had the skills to try and build one himself. He was living in the town of La Tola, Nariño at the time when he began experimenting. His neighbors thought he was crazy as he chopped down and gathered the palm he needed to carve the marimba keys.
There are different species of palm and the marimba requires the thorny trunk of the chonta duro or hard palm which is also known for its exotic fruit. As an experienced guitarist, Diego transferred his knowledge of sound into creating a marimba, painstakingly shaving the wood down to an appropriate thickness to create an accurate tuning which mirrored the sound of his guitar. After twelve long hours of carving he had made only eight of the twenty-four keys he needed. To make the resonators, Diego carved the same bamboo used to make the guasá shakers, adjusting each according to the size of the key. His craftsmanship was guided by his experiences performing and listening to currulao music. Once Diego had built his first marimba he began teaching himself to play!
Diego assembles his marimba's resonators
To fully grasp Diego’s genius we need to know a little more about Colombia’s marimba tradition. The marimba of Colombia (and northwest Ecuador) has its roots in Africa but is unique to South America. Diego plays and builds diatonic marimbas which are single row keyboard instruments with each key representing the white keys on the piano, though not tuned to a Western scale. Chromatic marimbas allow for double row keyboards which provide the tones of the black as well as white piano keys. While the marimberos (marimba players) drive the melody in currulao music, they are accompanied by the drumming of the cununo which is played by beating the drum skin with a mallet and marking time on the wooden side of the drum with stick.
The cununo is typically played in pairs. A cununo macho (male cununo) plays off and over the cununo hembra (female cununo) which holds the base rhythm. Another drum pair (macho and hembra) of large bass drums called bombos mark the rhythm as well. While the percussionists and marimberos are most often men, the women are the cantadoras (singers). Typically three cantadoras harmonize as they play the guasá, a bamboo shaker filled with seeds. The guasá provides an additional counter-point to the other instruments and the women singers will either accompany the marimba or hold the melody depending on the style of music.
Setting up Shop in Cali
After a year in La Tola, Diego moved to Cali where set up shop as a marimba maker and experimented with various tuning techniques. He made marimbas to order, taking time to design unique instruments to suit the talents and expertise of the individual artist. In time, he became one of the best known marimba makers in Colombia. Many of his clients were fellow musicians who played the music of the Pacific coast, but as his reputation grew, people came from as far as Spain to buy his instruments. Depending on the size of marimba, the price could be as much as $500USD.
Reflecting on his mentorship with Silvino Mino and drawing on his growing musical expertise, Diego brought the unique regional sounds of Guapi to Cali and was one of the first marimberos to settle there. Before 1998, few people had seen or heard currulao music outside of the isolated Afro-Colombian Pacific coast communities. Diego recalled performing at the first Festival de la Marimba in Cali, in 1998 where he performed with a chromatic marimba-- something particularly unusual.
The chromatic marimba allowed him to play without switching keys, whereas with the diatonic chonta marimba one literally changes the wood keys to change the key of the instrument or brings another marimba which is tuned to another key. Diego also performed at the next festival in 1999. Since that time the Festival de la Marimba has grown into a three day event, with over twenty groups, in various age ranges and multiple categories for everything from best unpublished song to Marimba King. Diego is thrilled to have watched both the festival and the tradition of currulao music grow and thrive.
While still in Cali, Colombia, Diego performed with such groups as Raíces Negras, Los Bogas del Pacifico, and Grupo Colombai Viva which allowed Diego to travel to Holland where he lived for over a year. Though his life as a musician in Colombia was rewarding emotionally, the economic limitations of the field forced Diego to emigrate to the US in 2004. The following year he recorded the Smithsonian Folkways CD ¡Arriba Suena Marimba! with Grupo Naidy.
In 2006, Diego founded Grupo Chonta, named after the famous palm that is used to make his marimba. Diego readily admits to being a perfectionist as he is composer, arranger, marimbero and occasional vocalist to the group. None-the-less, the tradition allows him to be supported by Johanna Castaneda who provides lead vocals and backup vocals while playing the guasá. Liliana Count and Elenora Bianchini complete the cantadoras and Sergio Borrero and Camilo Rodriguez provide percussion. Diego occasionally experiments with a more orchestrated sound and brings in Juancho on vocals, Albert Leusink on trumpet, Julio Botti and Xavier Perez on saxophone, Andres Rot on bass and Franco Pinna on drums to create a fuller sound. Diego and Johanna love the richness of the larger ensemble but the group finds it harder to get gigs with a twelve person group. It is equally challenging to gather the large group together to work on their new CD. But Diego creatively worked around that issue and built a studio in his apartment and taught himself the audio computer program Pro-Tools! He often sets-up the recording board, and runs in the studio, plays his part and runs out again to check the track.
Diego’s compositions are rooted in the sound of traditional currulao music but his need to innovate and present something uniquely his own drives his work. When performing traditional tunes he often changes the lyrics to something fresh that speaks to him at the moment. He did not want to sound like other groups and notes with pride that his repertoire is rich with his original music. Drawing on the great story-telling tradition of his hometown, Diego weaves a narrative about his personal experiences or philosophy of life that draws the listener in. As the lead singer in his group, Johanna recalled hearing Diego’s tale of his real life encounter with a ghost. She and the other listeners were completely engrossed in his story. When he is not performing or working, Diego has a few occasional students here in NY. He continues making marimbas relying on friends to bring the chonta from Colombia.
With his home studio in place, Diego keeps in touch with his wife and three children through Skype. They often leave their home computer on all day and when Diego arrives home from his job at Woodhaven’s Jewish Cemetery his can connect again with his family, at least virtually. He is the only member of his family here in New York and he turns to his music to fill the loneliness and loss that he feels. Yet listening to Diego’s marimba, you can hear his optimism. You can hear Diego and Grupo Chonta play most Saturdays at the Terraza 7 Train Café in Elmhurst, Queens.
Click here to listen to a clip of Diego’s composition entitled El Tormento.
For more information on Diego Obregon go to: http://www.myspace.com/diegoobregon
Gabrielle M. Hamilton is a Folklorist and Project Director of the Center’s newest Community Cultural Initiative in the Colombian community. Naomi Sturm is a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Columbia University and an intern at CTMD. The Center welcomes Colombian artists and cultural activists, as well as interns to join this new program. For more information please contact Gabrielle Hamilton at 212-571-1555 ext. 27 or firstname.lastname@example.org