Song Writing Blog Part II

I went back to the Bajo Lempa in the summer of 2018 to catch up with the teachers and the groups and to see how they’d got on with the challenge I’d left them with the previous year. They’d done themselves proud. All the groups had at least one song ready to record, and some more than one.

Fuerza Tropical from La Papalota told me they’d grappled with the dual goal of writing a song that they could identify with but which would also entertain their audiences. So it needed to tell a story that they were happy with but which also had enough rhythm to keep things lively. They also wanted to express their gratitude to Music for Hope and the people who’ve supported the project through the years out of a sense of solidarity and who’ve made such a difference to their lives by giving them the opportunity to learn and perform music together. To create something that met all those criteria is no easy task, but this is precisely what they did.

Their song, Gracias a Música para la Esperanza (Thanks to Music for Hope)  combines the rhythm and music of a tropical cumbia with lyrics that set out what Music for Hope has meant for them over the years. The first verse even has the lead singer trying to visualize the efforts of those who in solidarity continue to help make music possible in the Bajo Lempa: ‘Day to day I see so much effort / put in by all those people / who believe in this process / without wanting anything back’.

The song continues: ‘Thanks to this project / I can play my guitar like this / playing songs to the wind / expressing our feelings / Thanks to this project / I can play the piano like this / playing melodies that say / ‘I love you my mother earth’ / that’s how I feel night and day’.

The chorus brings about a kind of musical and lyrical climax: ‘And so we want to say words of thanks: / Thank you, many thanks / We’re grateful for your lovely gesture / Thank you, many thanks / We thank you Music for Hope / Thank you, many thanks / I’m really happy – that’s how I feel!’.

I’m afraid the impact has somehow been lost in translation (translation of lyrics and poetry is most definitely not my forte) but you can get the general idea. The idea is simple – it’s one of heartfelt joy and gratitude, but precisely because of its sincerity, it takes courage to write and sing such a song.

The same joy that was channelled in the song itself can be seen in a series of drawings that the lads did to accompany the song. Here are just a few examples:

Pedro’s groups in El Zamorán had a couple of songs ready to record. One was one he’d written himself called ¿Dónde está la libertad? (Where is Freedom?): []. He told me he’d written it thinking of his father who sadly died a few months after recording, but the words reflect the struggle of so many of the communities of the Bajo Lempa, during the 1970s-90s and into the 2000s. It talks of the emptiness of being left behind and the painful memories of those who are no longer there, either because they have died or have gone into exile: ‘I remember those that died / I miss those who have left / Where are they? Where are they?’ These words might be applicable to any situation of grief, especially as the years pass, but as the song progresses it becomes much more situated in the Salvadoran historical context and combines sadness and grief with a hard-hitting commentary on social injustice: ‘The people are maltreated / The people who search for liberty / Are mutilated / Many are those who died / Many are those who left / And others were disappeared’.

Pedro performing Where is Freedom? with two of the members of the group Bryan y Sus Amigos

The chorus combines the two themes—memory for lost friends and a lament for what was fought for but never achieved: ‘Where is the peace that I wish for? / Where is the peace I desire? / Where is freedom? / I remember them walking / I remember them playing / I remember them laughing / And today, they’re no longer here’. It is only short, but it’s a powerful and poignant telling of a story common to many community members in the Bajo Lempa and one that crosses generations down to the youths performing alongside Pedro, who’ve also suffered the loss of friends as they’ve gone into exile (or worse) and the frustrations of not being able to break the cycle of social injustice and its effects.

The second song we recorded was quite a bit happier but still reflective of a social reality of the young people who participate in Music for Hope. It was written by a 10-year-old from the group Bryan y Sus Amigos (Bryan and Friends) and is a song of his first love: Chiquitita (Little One)   It sang of how he pined for her and what he wouldn’t do for her, even to the extent that he got into trouble for his love-sick daydreams in school: ‘My teacher in the school / Tells me off because of you’. In all honesty to me he seemed a bit young to be worrying about such things, but in rural El Salvador, kids grow up very fast and in a way the song was charming in its naivety. There’s plenty of time yet even if his feelings weren’t reciprocated due to his youth.

Bryan y sus amigos performing: Chiquitita (Little One)

In Amando López, one of the band members of Impacto Músical had written a heartfelt song on the theme of loss: Nunca te olvidaré (I Will Never Forget You). What made it even more moving is that she wrote it for her friend who was also a member of the group and whose father had tragically died very suddenly that year.

The words were set to a traditional rural cumbia, popular with the community of Amando López and are simple but profound; they sing of the sorrow of parting, the hope of renewed encounter and the importance of remembering shared friendship: ‘Goodbye. You’re going now / You’ve already left my side / I know that later on / We will meet with you again’. The chorus continues: ‘We lived a deep friendship / in our lives filled with love / I will never forget you / Because I will always remember you / In the past you were much more / My friend more than my brother’. Recording the song was a moving experience and emotionally difficult for the group, as the song had such personal connections, but they wanted to do record it and persevered until they felt it was ready. The results speak for themselves.

The last group to have a song to record was Evolución Musical from Nueva Esperanza. Talking about it with Tony and the band members, they said that they and the community had been so deeply affected by the events of 2016 when a death squad killed 5 members of the community (including the mother of one of the band members and the stepfather of another) and causing more than 25 young people to flee into exile, that they wanted to write a song that was uplifting, one with spirit and energy, to show themselves and the rest of the community how, together, they can not just overcome times of adversity, but also look forward to something better. Canta conmigo does just that.

It’s not just about partying, however. A particular nuance of the song draws on the experience of all the young project participants (and all of us who’ve ever had to stand up in front of an audience and perform or speak)—and that’s the need to overcome the gut-wrenching fear of embarrassing ourselves that can be a real barrier to artistic expression. As well as providing a lively, fun-filled end-goal to the listener, the song also provides sage advice based on experience: ‘Come and sing with us / Don’t be ashamed / And feel the emotion / Because if you feel ashamed / You’ll never taste the feeling’. Another verse picks up the thread: ‘Get up, come and enjoy! / This fiesta’s hotting up / If we’re always positive / Things will turn out better / Cos if you’re not positive / You’ll never give your best’. These are wise words from these young people. Of course, what they advise is easier said than done, and we all know it—the band members included—but as far as these kids are concerned, the proof’s in the pudding. They’ve been there, done it and know what they’re talking about.