Song Writing Blog, Part I

In the summer of 2017, I was privileged to accompany some of the Music for Hope groups to the national Juventour festival which was held in Usulután. In forty degree heat, bands from La Papalota (Híbrido and Fuerza Tropical), Nueva Esperanza (Evolución Musical) and Romero (Impacto Tropical)  performed on the main stage and livened up the audience with covers of tropical cumbias (Nota de amor [Love Letter] and Sabrosa Cumbia, Andean cumbias (Es para tí [It’s For You], and rock ballads (En el muelle de San Blas [On the San Blas Pier] and Rayando el sol [Scratching the Sun]

Other examples from the line-up include:

My role was to record the performances and upload the songs to help spread the word about the fantastic work Music for Hope’s teachers are doing in the Bajo Lempa and the talent of the youths who participate in the project, all with the help of our volunteer teams in the UK and Catalunya. The idea was also to show our donors some of the results of the long process of musical training and discipline that they so generously support–we couldn’t do it without them [ ].

Less than a day after I’d uploaded the videos, I noticed that some of them had been monetarised, but not by us (Music for Hope), rather by the record labels that had produced the original songs that our kids were covering. Until I saw this, I didn’t actually know that this could be done as I’m no whizz on social media and I was a bit shocked if I’m to tell the truth about how quickly it’d been done by these massive companies. Of course, it wasn’t my place to complain–these were songs originally written and performed by other artists and they had and have every right to earn a living from their creative work. I hoped the record companies paid them fairly. But it really did bring home to me that, while the Music for Hope youths had come a long way in terms of ability and talent and were able performers, they still had further to go. Unless they wrote their own songs to perform as they used to when Music for Hope was first founded over 20 years ago, they wouldn’t have anything tangible to call their own–they would always be performing other people’s songs and benefitting other already established artists rather than themselves or the Music for Hope groups that followed them through. Of course, they’d always have the musical skills that they’d learned and the friendships that they’d made as well as the discipline and leadership that they’d practiced over the years of musical formation: those are the primary goals of the project. That said, there were still other steps that these youth bands could take. They could start to write and perform their own songs and, as well as the satisfaction they’d get from knowing that they’d entertained audiences with songs that were entirely their own, perhaps, with the fruits of their own creativity, they might also move closer towards helping to contribute to the self-sustainability of their music or that of future groups within the project. So, we began to think about how we might help the groups write their own songs.

Impacto Musical with Eneyda, July 2017

I chatted with our teachers Tony, Eneyda, Pedro and Wil in the four music centres about the problems of song-writing. It’s something all of them had tried before but only Eneyda with her group Impacto Musical from Amando López and La Canoa had ever really built up a momentum.

One of their songs, Pasado, Presente y Futuro (Past, Present and Future), which sings of the history and way of life of the communities of the Bajo Lempa, can be listened to here:

As the name suggests Pasado, Presente y Futuro is a song that taps into the roots of the project shortly after it was founded. The lyrics are based on remembering the subsistence way of life of the returned refugees who founded the communities in the early 1990s towards the end of the twelve-year civil war (1980-92) and created a life for themselves farming land they cleared themselves and fishing in the River Lempa from which the region gets its name. To a certain extent, for many in the communities, this way of life continues through to the present. The lyrics also speak of recurring environmental disasters suffered by the communities caused by drought and floods and the anxiety of the Bajo Lempa youth about environmental degradation and climate change caused by uncritical exploitation of their natural resources. The chorus, written by the youngsters of Impacto Musical, reflects the current concerns of global youth at least three years before Greta Thunburg created her movement and the subsequent of Extinction Rebellion, and urges: With respect to mother earth / we have to conclude / we simply could not exist / without her / Think for just one moment / about your own existence / of a certain future / without nature.

It’s a powerful message that shows how song-writing in the Bajo Lempa can be used to give young people their own voice on issues that affect all generations, but especially the youth and those who will come after them–the song has since been performed on various occasions at community events and the message is something that the audience members interiorise and take away with them the more they hear it. The song also demonstrates how the music project participants can lead the way in the recovery and preservation of the historical memory of their communities. They’ve all heard stories of their origins and the way the populations began with nothing after years of hardship and resistance to oppression. This lived experience was recorded in the oral tradition of the communities and performed musically as part of the trova tradition in which songs carried social memory and a social message. Naturally, though, times are changing very quickly and as the older generation passes away, and after successive waves of emigration north to the United States, the older stories are told less and less, and new cultural and musical influences (particularly from the US) have become more popular with young people than the older trova tradition. There’s now a danger that the oral tradition might be lost.

In coming up with a possible solution, Impacto Musical led the way. If the groups could write their own songs, they’d be able to create something tangible that they themselves would own and they’d get all the satisfaction of having achieved this. At the same time, their songs could provide both a vehicle for their increased agency providing them a way to express their concerns (and conversations with youths in the Bajo Lempa over the years I’ve been visiting have revealed that this is something that they often lack) and get across messages that are personal to them, whilst also (potentially) participating in the recovery and conservation of the historical memory of the communities and simultaneously building up their cultural heritage. All of these elements are key goals of Music for Hope.

The biggest obstacle to achieving these goals was the methodology – how to do it? I chatted with some of the youngsters in the bands about the idea of writing their own songs. As I was staying in Nueva Esperanza, I spent most time with the kids of the band then called Semillitas de Esperanza (Little Seeds of Hope)–a name linked to the village and traditionally taken on by the youngest music group of the community before they decide on their own musical identityThat year, after lots of discussion, they changed their name to the inspired Evolución Musical.

Semillitas de Esperanza discussing their change of identity with Tony and deciding on their new name ‘Evolución Musical’, July 2017

They and the youths in the other bands talked about how hard it was for them to think of ideas that they all thought inspirational enough to turn into something they could sing about, all the while keeping the ideas flowing while building a coherent narrative structure with the rhythm that song lyrics need. The musical composition was an additional challenge and the entire process took a great deal of time. In a way, time was the main problem. The teachers explained that in the few hours a week they got to spend with each group, it was a real challenge to balance the time needed for the young musicians to write the lyrics and compose the music, with that needed to practice the songs they already knew, as well as expand their repertoire whilst also  keeping their hand in with performances. Too much time spent on song-writing (which, let’s face it, isn’t easy) and the groups could lose momentum and interest (in the performative side of things as well). So, the challenge was to develop a methodology to allow the kids to write the lyrics of songs in a short time to allow them to crack on with the musical composition, practice and performance before they became disheartened.

As a social historian with an interest in oral histories and everyday life I thought that the groups might be able to draw on their own life experiences for the material they needed for song lyrics. The response from the kids was a bit sceptical: ‘Who would want to listen to songs about our lives?’ they asked. ‘We don’t do anything interesting? Everybody knows us and what we do. How can we think of enough to write a whole song about?’ Hmmm… I was going to have to put my money where my mouth was and show them it could be done. What to write about? How to write it? I’m certainly no accomplished song-writer, but that, I guess, was my point to the young musicians of Evolución Musical. So, I had to think of a topic that could provide a story suitable to turn into a song, but one from everyday life, one from the community so the kids could relate to it.

Those of us not from cities often have the idea that the countryside is a place of peace and tranquillity. Heh… how wrong could we be? Hens laying, cows mooing, cicadas chirruping, and I don’t mean a sweet little chirrup, chirrup, I mean a CHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. All day, all night… Other night-time sleep deprivers are dogs barking and coyotes howling. And, noisiest of all… the cockerels. I guess I hadn’t thought about them too much coming from a city in the urban industrial north of the UK (with a notable absence of cockerels) but it turns out they’re highly territorial and they guard their small patches of land and their hen harems jealously, chasing out any would-be challengers and crowing loudly to claim: ‘This is mine! This is all mine!’ The thing is, when one crows, their rivals in the neighbouring territories crow setting up a chain reaction. And anyone who thinks this stops at night and that cockerels only crow to welcome the rising sun are sadly mistaken. A cockerel might crow at 1am, 2.30am … any time they think they need to assert themselves, all through the night!… Although there’s a quieter period between 11pm-1am but that’s when the cicadas are at their noisiest. And if one crows in La Canoa, don’t think that it’s only going to wake up people there. His next-door neighbour will crow, and then his and his and so-on… all the way to Nueva Esperanza in a chain reaction that, who knows… might even spread right across Central America (I did wonder about this, late in the sleepless nights whilst imagining ways to cook cockerel–how far does the chain reaction actually go?). My nemesis, during my stays in Nueva Esperanza was a curly-feathered grandad cockerel who took great delight (I’m sure) in roosting in the orange tree just outside the bedroom where I was sleeping (or at least trying to), on the branch closest to the window.

El Gallo Colocho (soon to be tamal), July 2017

I reckon he even leaned towards the window (it was always open as it was far too hot to close) to project his horrific sonic shriek straight at me in a weaponised form of sleep deprivation worthy of any state secret service involved in black ops. During the day he and his harem would follow me around to keep crowing and clucking just close enough to make it impossible to properly record the interviews I was trying to do but far enough away so I couldn’t catch them to wring their noisy necks.

So why the digression about noisy poultry?

One sleepless night not long before I had to come back to the UK (and the peace and tranquillity of my urban surroundings) I realised (while thinking about the song-writing problem) I had my story… funny what sleep deprivation and irrational rage does for one’s creativity. With a rhythm close to that of an ordinary limerick (which actually fits quite closely to a merengue and cumbia rhythm believe it or not) I penned the story of a vindictive, curly-feathered cockerel who had great fun persecuting a ‘chele’ (pale-skinned) writer and drove him mad until he hunted him down and made soup out of him (apologies to all vegetarians and vegans reading this–along with tortillas, rice and beans, chicken soup is fairly standard fare in the Bajo Lempa). The next day I took it to the lads from Evolución Musical to show them how it was possible to write something off the cuff that reflected everyday life, but which still had a story and which didn’t need too much thought. It wasn’t any way profound, but it was mildly amusing, and (and this was an added bonus) once set to a merengue backing could be pretty entertaining. And this was the challenge I left them. They did themselves (and me) proud. Not long after, they’d set El Gallo Colocho to music and had it to performance standard:

With the success of El Gallo Colocho, I set a challenge to all of the more experienced groups, to have written a song and got it ready for recording by the time I came back the following year. It was a challenge that all the groups readily accepted.

If you’re wondering what happened to the actual ‘gallo colocho’, we did try to catch him (with soup in mind) while I was there, but he always got away. A few months later, I received the happy news that he’d finally been caught and become tamales that the family’d shared amongst themselves and their neighbours. But as the song says, the Gallo Colocho had the last laugh. He called on his many sons to avenge him and crowed: ‘they’ll sing through his window / without fear through the night’. The chorus continues: ‘And they’ll sing and they’ll sing / they’ll shout and they’ll wake up all / That lazy chele / they’ll never let sleep again / They’ll sing and they’ll sing / They’ll shout and they’ll wake up all / Even though soup exists / Cockerels will always win.’

And so they did…