Song Writing Blog Part IV

Protect the Animals

In actual fact, only one of the groups—Impacto Musical in Amando López, kept with the idea of using imagination and fantasy to make a social commentary. They chose a story that bore more than a passing resemblance to a tropical (local) variation of the tale of the Musicians of Bremen (another Grimm Brothers story). This is how it went:

Once upon a time, there was a donkey who was put to work carrying soil and the donkey walked and walked and met a duck, and the duck said: ‘Where are you going uncle donkey?’ ‘Ay… to fetch soil’, he replied. ‘Take me with you’ the duck asked. ‘Get on but don’t make me dirty’, the donkey replied. And so he carried on walking and walking until he met a monkey. And the monkey called out: ‘Where are you going uncle donkey?’, ‘Ay… to fetch soil’, he replied. ‘Take me with you’, the monkey said. ‘Get on but don’t strangle me’, the donkey replied. He walked on for a long time and he met a parrot. ‘Where are you going uncle donkey?’, the parrot cried. ‘Ay… to fetch soil’, he replied. ‘Take me with you’, the parrot asked. ‘Get on, but don’t make me deaf’, he replied. He walked and walked until he met a cat. ‘Where are you going uncle donkey?’ ‘Ay… to fetch soil’, he replied. ‘Take me with you’ said the cat. ‘Very well’ replied the donkey, ‘but don’t scratch me’. And then he walked on until he met a cockerel who asked ‘Where are you going uncle donkey?’ ‘Ay… to fetch soil’, the donkey replied. ‘Take me with you’, he said. ‘Yes, but only as long as you don’t sing’, the donkey replied. And then the donkey walked and walked and he met a snake. ‘Where are you going uncle donkey?’ the snake asked. ‘To fetch soil’ he replied, ‘but I can’t find a place where I can fetch the soil from’. ‘If you want, stay in this house’, the snake said, ‘it’s only ever used by some thieves who stay there sometimes. For the most part, it’s abandoned. You can look after it.’ ‘Ok’ said the donkey and the donkey went inside.

Once inside, the donkey said: ‘right, let’s get organised in case those robbers come back’.  He told the monkey to climb up to the rafters, the duck was to hide in the bed, the parrot, under the bed, and the cat in the stove so that when the robbers light their cigars it could scratch them. ‘I will stay by the door’ said the donkey. To the cockerel he said, ‘fly up to that tree and when you see a light, sing and we will be ready’. So the cockerel flew up to the topmost branches. This was just as well because not long after, he saw a light and began to sing: ‘Get ready, get ready!’, and the donkey relayed the message: ‘be ready’. And the robbers arrived.

One of them, called Juan walked straight in to light his cigar in the eyes of the little cat and the cat slashed him with ten knives. He ran to the door to escape outside but the donkey kicked him right back in again. The monkey then grabbed him by the neck and threw him to the ground. The duck with the parrot cried out: ‘send him over here! Send him over here!’ And the robber staggered out beaten and covered in bruises. ‘What happened?’ the others asked him. ‘There was a boxer inside, a herdsman, a martial arts expert and a knife thrower. He slashed me about 40 times! And they were going to kill me!’ he gasped. And with that the robbers ran, and the animals stayed in the house and the donkey never returned with his soil.

So they chose this story and we began to discuss how to turn it into a song. The method was to choose a genre so that we could work out the rhythm of the lyrics and start piecing them together. They chose the traditional cumbia rhythm that they were familiar with and which was popular in the community, and once that was done we then worked out the structure. A cumbia verse has two short stanzas of two lines each followed by a chorus which also consists of two short, four-lined stanzas. There might be three stanzas and three repeated choruses, but that’s the maximum, otherwise the song would be too long. The challenge then was to be able to tell the story in such a limited space; so how to break it down?

We talked about how to think about it logically. The story had to have a concept – one that’s introduced in the first verse, developed in the second and resolved in the third. The chorus, as it’s repeated, might be a message or a moral that they wanted the audience to take away from the story. This limitation on space meant that they might have to simplify the story a bit and so discussions started to focus on the concept itself.

Drawings were done by the group members as a way of visualising the story that they wanted to tell

The group quickly decided they want to make it more relevant and so discussion moved to telling the story of how the natural environment continues to be mistreated and how animals needed to be treated better. The very first stanza they wrote introduced their concept with brilliant precision: ‘In the forest there are animals / In danger of extinction / From men who hunt them / And cause destruction.

The robbers were no longer relevant to the message they wanted to get across and so were dropped from the tale. They also decided that the donkey should became a horse as, while there are plenty of horses, there really aren’t that many donkeys in the Bajo Lempa.

Why was the horse running away? Well, just like the donkey, he was overworked and tired. He was being worked to death and he’d had enough. The second stanza continued with this more specific concept: ‘In my village there’s a horse / That they take to work / The horse ends up tired / Of humanity’.

So then came the development of the idea. This was where the group were able to continue to mould the story into a commentary on how we (or people in their local communities) tend to treat animals and nature more generally. The horse had to meet some animals—few enough to be introduced in the remaining stanzas but representative enough to make the point that the kids wanted to make. So who were the other animals that the horse was going to meet along the way? The next one was an iguana (or garrobo)—these are native to the Bajo Lempa but have been almost hunted to extinction as they can be roasted or made into soup. It’s now prohibited to hunt them, but people still do.

The following verse tells the iguana’s story as he begged the horse to take him with him: ‘To the forest went the horse / because he wanted to escape. / There he met an iguana / That they wanted to trap. / ‘Help me little horse, / For they want to kill me! / Take me with you / Where you’re going to rest.’

In the final verse the two animals met the monkey who also begged to go with the horse as humans had slaughtered his entire family: ‘ Further into the deep forest / there was a jumping monkey / ‘where are you going Mr Horse? / Because I want to go too.’

The verse continues tragically: ‘They killed my entire family, And I had to flee./ You’re taking the iguana / So in addition take me’. There was no need for the horse to reply. The solidarity between the animals suffering at the hands of humans was already implicit.

So what about the chorus – the overarching message or moral that they wanted their listeners to take away from the song? This is where the group were able to hammer home their message as well as bring in the birds and other animals that couldn’t be specifically mentioned in the verses. The first part of the chorus is very direct and goes right to the heart of the concerns of the group: ‘Protect the animals / Don’t treat them badly. / They have the right / To live in freedom’. These are courageous words for youths who’ve grown up in a community where animal husbandry is of primary importance as a food supply and a labour resource, but it’s this very closeness with the animals that has enabled them to develop this empathy. The second part of the chorus sings: ‘You can hear in the early morning / The sound of their singing / But if we do not care for them / They’ll no longer exist’.

In 2019, I re-visited the group and the song was ready to be recorded. They’d named it simply, Protejan los animales (Protect the Animals).

The Boy Who Found Happiness

The other finished song to come out of the 2018 workshops was written by Evolución Musical. The method was the same. Just like with Impacto Musical in Amando López and the other groups in El Zamorán and la Papalota, we did the listening exercise then I began the story-telling to give them the idea. The group members then took over. One of the stories really stood out amongst all the others and that was the really powerful story told by the youngest member of the group (who was only 8 years-old) called El niño que encontró la felicidad (the boy who found happiness). He’d come prepared and had the story already written out ready to tell to his friends and fellow band members. It was immediately chosen by the rest of the group to be worked into a song:

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El Niño que encontró la felicidad: 2018

The story reads: I met a boy who was really sad and afterwards he told me. ‘Friend, I’m really sad because I can’t find happiness’, and I asked him why. ‘Because my heart is really sad, as my heart can’t feel anything if I can’t find happiness’. And I said to him, ‘you can find it everywhere’ but he replied that he did not want to find it. So I told him, ‘You are lazy!’, but he told me that he was poor, very poor and that his house was a tree. And I said to him, ‘you have blankets to cover yourself up’ and he lied to me [in response]. ‘Who are your parents?’ ‘I don’t know’. But a man and a woman arrived and the man said to the woman, we can adopt this one. And they found the boy under the tree wrapped up in some blankets. They approached and said to him, ‘Do you want to be our son?’ and he replied ‘Yes’. And when they took him with them, the boy found happiness…

After he’d had finished reading it, the other boys in the group were silent for a moment before breaking into applause – all of us were deeply moved by the story. It wasn’t just that it reflected the harsh reality of the life of the poorest in El Salvador, subject to discrimination and even victim blaming: ‘Why aren’t you happy? You’re just lazy!’; it didn’t just reflect the terrible fact that so many children in El Salvador (and many of those who are part of the Music for Hope project) are effectively orphans as one or other and sometimes both of their parents may have died or have migrated. It was because this story was profoundly personal to the boy who wrote it and conveyed his own sadness as well as projecting his desires to have a family. All of the boys present in the workshop were acutely aware that the roots of this story lay in the tragic events of October 2016 when a death squad attacked the village in the middle of the night. The story’s author (then aged 6) witnessed his mother dragged from her home and never saw her alive again. He wasn’t the only boy in the group to have experienced something similar that night. The following day, the father of his younger half-brother (aged 4) returned to Nueva Esperanza and took him away. In the space of 24 hours this young lad had lost his entire immediate family. Since then his grandmother has looked after him and done her very best to support him, but the trauma, grief and loneliness caused by those tragic events are clear in the story. They show a struggle to understand the complex, long-term effects of grief, and the lethargy that can be caused by the resultant depression. The question ‘why aren’t you happy?’ might well be a reflection of an interior frustration, but the subsequent accusation ‘you’re just lazy!’ is unlikely to be the product of the self-reflection of an eight year old struggling with depression brought on by grief and loneliness. Rather, it seems to be a repetition of words spoken by others who’ve failed to comprehend this boy’s own situation. The story also projects his desires for a new family, for parents to love him and enable him to find the happiness of having a family once again. This young lad’s connection to Evolución Musical, through Music for Hope, and the implicit trust that they share amongst each other has helped to a certain extent. In 2017, Tony told me how after the attack, the author of the story had left the community for a time, but came back and when he did, he joined Evolución Musical or, as the group was still called then, Semillitas de Esperanza (Little Seeds of Hope). He put his all into it: ‘he seemed really enthusiastic, happy; he got involved with everything and he was really disciplined, learning to play’. Unfortunately, another significant family problem linked to the social situation of the region reversed this and left him really disheartened and on the verge of withdrawing from the group, but as Tony described, ‘I think he was helped by being there, by the companionship he shared [with the rest of the group]. It’s not just about music practice, right… we take time to play. Sometimes when there’re mangos [ripe on the trees], we’d cut down mangos and eat them together. It was all about sharing. And that, in a way helped create another [type of] family’. He came through this crisis and stuck with the group. As a result, one year later, he felt confident enough to be able to share his feelings in a story that, together, they were able to turn into a song.

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Most of Evolución Musical working on the story

The story’s author is now one of the project’s most promising young musicians, making the most of a Music for Hope scholarship to travel to San Salvador each week to receive classes in classical piano.

In order to turn the story into a song, we used the same methodology as Impacto Musical in Amando López. They also chose cumbia as the genre and so could work out a basic structure. One difference, though, lay in the fact that the story (and therefore the song) amounted to a dialogue between the narrator (who was also a protagonist in the story) and the orphan boy. They decided to trim out the originally quite judgemental nature of the narrator in order to use him as a sympathetic story-teller who introduces the story concept to the audience: ‘I want to tell you a story / about sadness and being alone… / And as time passes / it ends in happiness.’ The narrator continues in the second stanza with a more specific focus: ‘There was a boy so alone / Without a family and without a home / He wrapped himself in a blanket / And began to cry’.

At that point the song switches to the chorus through which the orphan boy speaks and through which he tells the audience of his feelings: ‘I wish I had a family / with whom I could share / joy, love and affection / and so be able to smile.’ It’s both hopeful (as it tells of his hope for the future), but it also tells of his current suffering, because in wishing for these things, it’s clear that he doesn’t have them. The boy explains further: ‘Right now I feel sad / because I don’t have any place / I live in a little tree / Alone in my grief.’

At this point, the narrator becomes a protagonist, telling of how he approached the tree and spoke to the boy asking him what the matter was. The boy replied directly: ‘It’s that no-one remembers me’. The narrator then becomes a mediator, introducing the boy to a young couple who couldn’t have children and facilitating an adoption.

The chorus then flips the original lament of the orphan boy to a song of happiness: ‘I now have a family / With whom I can share / joy, love and affection / And now I can smile.

The orphan continues: ‘I now feel happy / Because I have a home / I now live in a house / Where I will always be loved’. To emphasise the point, the new (happy) chorus is repeated twice as the song comes to an end.

Ultimately, it is a song of hope that is realised through empathy and companionship. It’s the story of the young boy who told it but the song belongs to all the group. Just a few months later, Evolucion Musical had the music ready. They’d decided that given the dialogue between the narrator and the orphan boy that it would be good to sing it as a duet between the lead singer of the group, and the boy whose story it was. When I visited again in 2019, El niño que encontró la felicidad (The Boy Who Found Happiness)  was ready for recording, and I was also privileged to watch them perform it in concert. Each practice and performance was as moving as the time when this story was first told and I was deeply impressed by the author’s courage at being able to sing the part of the orphan in public.

As a final thought, I should note that Evolución Musical’s story is not unique amongst the children and young people of the Bajo Lempa, or even, more specifically, of the children and youths who are participants of Music for Hope. What’s clear after seeing these kids grow in the project over a number of years is how much they can and do benefit from the close companionship that they gain from learning and creating with each other—it boosts their confidence and self-expression, and while not all their stories will get turned into songs, it contributes in a tangible way to their ability to take ownership of their cultural production and allows them to conserve their individual and group experiences and memories and use them as sources of inspiration for further musical creation.