The Last Lullaby: Río Mira and Mourning Music of the Afro-Pacific
Back in October 2018, crowds braved heavy and continuous rain to gather in a small basement nightclub on U Street in Washington, D.C., to experience the rhythms and voices of the Afro-Pacific. Río Mira, a marimba super group from Colombia and Ecuador, was on their first tour of the United States playing selections from their much-acclaimed debut album, Marimba del Pacífico.
At one point in the night, the group unveiled a rare gem for us: a song of mourning titled “Pipiquifuiqui.” Luckily our video team was there to capture this moment.
In the humid rainforest along the Pacific coast, a biological and cultural ecosystem shared by Colombia and Ecuador, songs are used to mark both festive and somber occasions. One special category of song representative of Afro-Pacific music is called a bunde or chigualo. These are songs sung for the death of a child. As opposed to alabaos, adult funereal songs which are sung without accompaniment, chigualos are accompanied by drums. These songs serve to open the pathways to the next world so that the soul of the deceased can depart. For children, the drums help to drive away bad spirits.
Singer Grecia Albán, a guest musician on the fall tour from Ecuador, recently explained to me more about her rendition of “Pipiquifuiqui.” She had heard the song performed twice, once by an Afro-Ecuadorian woman residing in Argentina as an example of a bunde, and another by renowned Afro-Ecuadorian singer Rosa Wila in the form of a lullaby. The version she performed with Río Mira was an adaptation of what she could remember, added to the group’s interpretation of the genre, so it was not strictly traditional.
“The first verse, ‘Angelito ándate al cielo’ (Little angel, go to the sky) corresponds to the original theme, and the refrain ‘Mamita mamita quien es mi papa’ (Mama, mama, who is my father?) appears in various Pacific Colombian songs, not necessarily in bundes,” Albán says.
In Albán’s rendition, we see her cradle a guasá, a shaker that is part of the traditional instrumentation of Afro-Pacific marimba music, as if it is the deceased child. The first time I witnessed a chigualo in the town of Andagoya in the Chocó department of Colombia, they used a doll to represent the child. At that time, circa 2010, a group of singers in Andagoya formed an association to help preserve these songs, which they saw as endangered. Several members of the Cantaoras de Alabaos del Pacífico—including Cruz Neyla Murillo Mosquera and Fulvia Ruíz Ibarguen—presented alabaos and chigualos at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Like in other communities and cultures around the world, music serves an important role for healing and spiritual connection in the Afro-Pacific. When groups like the Cantaoras and Río Mira decide to present bundes as fundamental to the ecosystem of Afro-Pacific music, it is an important step in preserving and celebrating the music holistically.
Río Mira returns to Washington, D.C., on Monday, July 1 at 6 p.m. on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The event, co-presented by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, is free and will be live-streamed on the Kennedy Center website.
Cristina Diaz-Carrera is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.