Bilingual Hip-hop (Aymara and Spanish)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 26 13:19:38 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes, May 26, 2005

Young Bolivians Adopt Urban U.S. Pose, Hip-Hop and All

 EL ALTO, Bolivia, May 24 - This sprawling city on Bolivia's windswept
high plains, home to nearly 800,000 Indians, is a tradition-bound place
where the language is Aymara, the women wear derby hats and layer-cake
skirts and families relax to centuries-old Andean music, which is heavy on
pipes but devoid of lyrics. In other words, not exactly the place you
would expect to find a thriving, politically charged rap culture.

But El Alto - a flash point for protest and the capital of indigenous
Bolivia - is seething, and a growing number of young Aymara are expressing
their anger in a hard-driving rap, complete with rapid-fire lyrics
excoriating Bolivia's leaders and venting about the dire social conditions
of the country's Indian majority. Adopting the trappings of American
hip-hop, young Aymara wear baggy pants and baseball caps and strike the
pose of urban America, hand signs, cocky talk and all.

Their inspiration, though, comes straight from Bolivia's recent tumultuous
history: the fall of President Gonzalo Snchez de Lozada in October 2003
after protests in which 60 Indian demonstrators were killed, the bitter
struggle over development of Bolivia's huge natural gas reserves, the
indignation over the Washington-financed eradication of coca and the
desperate poverty. "We have lyrics about Black October," said Abraham
Bojrquez, 22, the natural leader of a group of about 20 rappers. "We sing
about coca, about poverty. Our singing is revolutionary. We protest
without marches or strikes. We do it through music, to reach as many
people as possible."

In the song "Jichaw" - Aymara for "Now" - the chorus, also in Aymara,
captures the fervor of Bolivia's emboldened Indians: "Now we are speaking.
Now they will know us. Now we will rise up." Switching to Spanish, the
rappers then sing of how "the revolution has started, against the system
and the state." The rappers, belonging to groups with names that translate
as, for example, Insane Race, the Lyrical Urban Movement and the
Clandestines, often mix Aymara with their Spanish. Their songs combine a
strong love of their country with a deep resentment toward those who have
oppressed and exploited it, whether insiders or outsiders.

"Proud to be born in my Bolivia," goes one song by Lyrical Urban Movement,
"though a land wounded by oppressors who call themselves defenders of my
land." In "The People Do Not Fall," written by Mr. Bojrquez and performed
by his two-man rap group, Ukamau y Ke, whose nearly untranslatable name
means, literally, "like it is and what," the lyrics seek to capture the
violence to which indigenous protesters have been subjected. It heaps
scorn on the former president, Mr. Snchez de Lozada, widely known by his
nickname, Goni, and condemns the state for selling Bolivia's natural gas.

"Goni, inept, the people ask for gas; the people ask for peace," the
lyrics go. "Goni, understand, the gas is not for sale, because the people
depend on democracy - they demand their rights." Another song, "Blessed
People," by the Clandestines, captures the fighting spirit of a
downtrodden Indian community. "Blessed people wounded; how many times have
you fallen?" the Clandestines wrote. "But I never leave; I live where I
love. I survive. I say what I think, what I am. It's cold;  the streets
are with me."

With little money and virtually no experience with commercial music, the
rappers in El Alto get their rap out through a cutting-edge radio station,
Wayna Tambo, which also serves as a youth center. On their radio show,
"Rincn Callejero," or "The Street Corner," the rappers play their music,
interview players in El Alto's budding hip-hop culture, talk politics and
ham it up. The one CD the rappers recorded, called "Wayna Rap," sells
robustly on the streets of El Alto, pirated by the hundreds - just as the
rappers like. "I do not live off hip-hop, and I did not plan to," said
Grover Canaviri, 23, who sings for the Clandestines. "I do not care if my
music is pirated. The money is not important. What we want is to send out
our lyrics so they can influence."

Still, the rappers hope to record professionally, something Abraham
Bojrquez is on his way to doing with one of Bolivia's foremost musicians,
lvaro Montenegro. "The music is very left, almost from the 70's, an
institutional left, but at the same time it sounds fresh, like original
Bolivian music," said Mr.  Montenegro, who first met the rappers while
teaching music to young people at Wayna Tambo.

Mr. Montenegro says the rappers need to shed some of the North American
flavor in their rap and incorporate Bolivian touches, like using highland
wind instruments as background music. The rappers say they are open to
suggestions, but they explain that it was easy to find inspiration, and
style, for their music from black urban America. "We're also discriminated
against for being dark, for not having money,"  said Rodolfo Quisbert, 19.
"That's why we like hip-hop."

Life in El Alto is hard. People live in drab adobe or cinder-block homes.
There is no heat to ward off the frigid winds that whip off snow-capped
mountains. Most people work in Bolivia's informal economy, selling what
they can on the streets. Crime and infant mortality are common. "We grew
up with nothing to eat, a breakfast with just chuo," a type of
freeze-dried potato, Mr. Canaviri said. "We didn't even know what lunch

A life filled with hardship, though, yields a rich harvest of material. "I
say what I see, what I feel, what I think, the thinking of the people
here," Mr. Canaviri said. "I put all of that in my lyrics."

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