Song Writing Blog Part III

Keeping up the momentum.

The songs we’d recorded were a great start, but all the bands mentioned how difficult it was to think of an idea and then turn it into lyrics. It took a long time, they said, and there was a sense that it would be difficult to continue—the time it took to complete the process weighed heavily against the time lost practicing and playing music. So if we were to keep up the momentum I had to think of a way to make the process less painful and more systematic. As I mentioned in the first part to this blog, for me, the key is in story-telling. So I devised a workshop for the groups based around storytelling. The first stage was a listening exercise. I’d pre-selected some of my favourite Latin American songs in which there was a clear story told by the singer and we started the workshops by listening to them. But the catch was that they weren’t to focus too hard on the music itself; they were to see if they could hear the story and then retell it once the song had finished. We then talked about how the melody and music worked as a lyrical accompaniment that helped with the telling of the story. Once that was done, we got to work ourselves. The next thing was to tell our own stories, we’d go round the group one by one and then they would select their favourite story to turn into a song. I couldn’t ask them to do it if I wasn’t prepared to do it myself (though the agreement was they had to choose one of their stories rather than mine). I needed to show them that these stories could be drawn from everyday life so I told them one that turned a regular occurrence in the communities there into a variation of the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ mixed with some amateurish Tolkienesque / Grimm brothers details (child-eating trolls who lived under a bridge).

‘Everyday life !?’ I hear you protest… ‘That’s not everyday life!’

Well here goes—see for yourselves:

The Flute Player of Hope

Once upon a time, there was a small village not so far from here where a group of friends lived under the branches of a great rosemary bush. As they were young, they were pretty happy, because they looked after each other—they played, tussled and told each other stories in the sunlight or, when the sun became too hot, in the shade of that huge rosemary bush. But something was lacking. They didn’t have any music in their lives.

And so time passed like that. They were mainly happy, but lacking music, until one day, the group of friends heard a melody – the melody of a flute – it was like a voice that called them – telling them to leave the great rosemary bush and travel far, crossing hills and rivers, crossing the painted bridge – because there they would meet a man who had the power of music and could teach them all types of instruments, finally filling their lives with this vital essence.

‘Let’s go!’, said one of the kids to the others.

‘Let’s go!’, another plucked up the courage to say. And the others also added their voices, filled with joy and emotion. ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ they all shouted – all but one, the quietest, most thoughtful and most cautious. And he said: ‘what about them?’

And they all fell silent. ‘How are we going to get across there?’ he said, ‘across the coloured bridge?’

The thing was that underneath this bridge lived trolls – they’re like goblins but much bigger and much more wicked, all dressed in black. And there they hunted youths who weren’t careful enough, and when they had them in their sights, they trapped them by throwing over them a heavy black shadow; they stripped them, humiliated them, and if they were particularly hungry they would grind them up to make pupusas revueltas of kids and beans [pupusas revueltas are a traditional Salvadoran food – tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans and minced-meat—no kids of course]. And no trace would be found of the poor youths who’d run into the trolls.

“And what if we go when it’s daylight?’ said one of the boys. ‘The sun will protect us from the black shadow of the trolls for sure’.

The sweet melody of the flute, tugged at their hearts and they wanted to risk it.

‘Yes… like that we’ll be safe’ said another, and little by little they gave themselves encouragement until they decided to go for it.

And so this group of friends went happily along the road thinking that at last, they’d be able to learn the power of music.

But as soon as they reached the painted bridge, the sun was hidden behind some dark clouds and suddenly the black trolls jumped out in ambush:

‘Stop there kids!’ they shouted. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’

‘To see the flute player of Hope’, they replied, ‘to learn to play music with him.’

‘You’re not going anywhere!’ ‘take off your shirts right now! We’re going to grind you up to turn you into pupusas revueltas!’

And they threw their black shadows over the boys to paralyse them.

With that shadow they were covered by a terrible fear, so terrible that these youths felt all the joy escaping their bodies. They felt such a tremendous weight pressing down on their shoulders that they were forced to their knees before the trolls who approached to seize them, strip and humiliate them before grinding them up. The lads trembled with fear under this immense black shadow, but they couldn’t do anything and they thought that they would never again see the light of day, nor would they ever play again beneath the great rosemary bush where they lived.

Just when they thought their last moments had arrived, they saw a tiny, but bright light in the darkness, like a firefly, and at the same time, they heard a melody so piercing that it cut the shadows in two. Behind the light they saw a resplendent figure playing the flute. He laughed and said: ‘Let’s go kids to learn to play, and I’ll show you the power of music!’.

The trolls were stopped in their tracks, open-mouthed from surprise. They saw that they wouldn’t have a chance against this flute player and retreated to the darkness under the bridge.

‘From now on, I’ll come to get you and will bring you back – that way you can continue to live under the branches of the rosemary bush while you learn the power and virtues of music. The shadows will no longer touch you.’

And so it was. The young friends from Romero [the rosemary bush] became apprentices of the Flute-player of Hope and the part of their life that they were lacking was filled, and they were happy – playing games, playing music, and singing beneath the great rosemary bush.


I took a bit of a risk with this story as, while I knew from my own childhood that fairy tales were always constructed out of deep contrasts between darkness and light, this one might have been too close to home for the music groups, but thankfully, they enjoyed both the ‘fantasy’ element of the story while also understanding what underlay it. When I asked them what they thought it was about, they pulled out the details they immediately recognised and quickly worked out the rest. The great rosemary bush was Ciudad Romero (romero = rosemary) the community that’s between El Zamorán and Nueva Esperanza, and the Flute-player of Hope was none other than our own Tony, the music teacher in Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) whose first instrument was the flute. Ok—I admit, Tony doesn’t normally combat ogres and trolls in what little spare time he has but the groups also recognised what was really happening in the story. The youths who lived under the rosemary bush were the members of the group Impacto Tropical who lived in Romero. The painted bridge was the bridge that crossed the river at the entrance of Nueva Esperanza. Every year the youths of the community painted it with a lively mural depicting their hopes and struggles—at least that was until 2015 it was defaced with gang graffiti by MS-13 and their threatening motto: ‘see, hear, keep silent!’ as part of their territorial claim to the area. It was too dangerous for the community youths to paint over as they could be (fatally) targeted for going against the gang and one youth told me in 2016, ‘when we asked [a gang member] if we could paint over the damage they’d done and redraw what we painted every year […] he didn’t recommend we did it. It’s like a rule that the mara have that once the MS [logo] is written, no-one can touch it […] this year we didn’t paint, because of that’. I asked what the community thought when they learned that they wouldn’t be able to paint over the logo and he talked of their disappointment.  The security forces painted over the symbol and motto with white paint but that was almost as damaging to the mural as the logo itself and it was still considered too dangerous to paint a new mural and properly erase what was essentially a visible reminder of the social blight that had been damaging to the Bajo Lempa communities. It wasn’t until 2017, when the gangs were no longer openly active there, that the situation had calmed enough for the community youth to repaint the bridge.

2017: a newly painted bridge into the community of Nueva Esperanza—New Hope in both name and reality. The words read: ‘At 26 years of memory, solidarity and faith, Nueva Esperanza is still standing: “I am glorified by being … in the midst of my people” Mons. Romero (25 Sept 1977)’

The music groups also understood who the ‘trolls’ were. A few thought they might be the mareros or gang members who hung out in the fringes of the community ready to run should they get wind of an army or police patrol. But the majority recognised the trolls for who they were meant to be: the security forces who abused their power and treated all young people (especially boys) as suspect. They would stop them in the street and force them to strip so as to demonstrate that they didn’t have any tattoos that marked them as gang members. Young participants in the music project complained to me about them or their friends being forced to kneel on the sharp stones at gun-point in the sun (having been stripped and humiliated) and if any of the patrol took a disliking to their hair cut, they’d threaten to hack it with a bayonet if they didn’t shave it off immediately. One youth, with visible disgust, told me how they would force open their mouths with dirty hands and search under their lips, although he had no idea what for. What came across really powerfully when they told me about these abuses of power was their very real sense of injustice and frustration at being treated so badly by representatives of their government who, in many cases, were not much older than themselves and who were supposed to protect them. They were powerless to object; to do so could have made the situation much worse for them and might have been very dangerous. To add insult to injury, it would have been quickly obvious to the patrols who was involved in delinquency and who wasn’t. ‘Why did they continue to do those things to you?’ I asked one teenager in 2016, ‘Well they wanted to put pressure on us, to see if we got nervous or not’ was the reply, ‘Well, everyone would get nervous under those circumstances, right?’ I countered. ‘Yes… but now they distrust everyone, they distrust everyone…’ Of course, this is not to say that all police officers and soldiers were like that, but these occurrences were frequent enough for there to be a widespread feeling among young people that they were treated like criminals when they were doing everything they could to ensure that they didn’t get sucked into that world. I asked the same youth whether he felt more in danger from the gangs or from the police. He thought about it for a moment and said, sincerely and simply, ‘These days it’s from the police’.

Understandably, when the situation deteriorated significantly between 2015-17, the parents or guardians of the youths from Romero who formed the band Impacto Tropical were extremely reluctant to allow their children (boys and girls) to make the short journey from Ciudad Romero to Nueva Esperanza for fear that they’d either be stopped by the local gang or the security forces. The solution, was for Tony Centeno to cycle to Romero wearing his Music for Hope / ASDAJCI ID card about his neck and pick up all the band members before cycling back with them to the music room in Nueva Esperanza. When the lesson and band practice was over, he’d cycle back with them to Romero and ensure that they all reached their homes safely.  That way he’d save the youths in the band the unwelcome attention of armed patrols—with his ID they were able to pass the checkpoints without trouble, even if they were stopped and questioned.

And so the story made sense to the youths participating in the workshops. The idea was to show how they could use their imaginations to tell a real-life story in a way that if not ‘fantastical’ was at least coded such that, if they wanted to, it would be safe to express their fears and troubles (that they’d recounted to me on previous occasions) in stories amongst themselves without that act of self-expression being recognised as subversive or provocative. It would be down to them to work out whether to turn such ‘everyday’ (fantasy) stories into song and make them public.

So then it was their turn.