How Afro-Colombian Artist Magín Díaz Went From Anonymity to Latin Grammy-Nominated at 95 Years Old

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A report by Marjua Estevez for Billboard.

Magín Díaz has the heart of a lion despite his seemingly frail stature. At 95, the oldest living performer of bullerengue, a folk genre led mainly by elderly women through oral tradition, isn’t done forging his musical legacy.

Last week the Afrolatin@ Project and Chaco World Music hosted an album listening for the Afro-Colombian’s first solo album El Orisha de la Rosa in Brooklyn, helping introduce Magín’s brilliance to the New York community. The event was in support of relief and recovery efforts for Loíza, Puerto Rico.

The 18-track opus features appearances by Carlos Vives, Totó la Momposina, Petrona Martinez, Bomba Estereo, Monsieur Periné and Systema Solar, among many more of Colombia’s top musicians who paid homage to Magín.

“The album blurs the boundaries between musical and cultural styles, which are at once distant and familiar,” explains producer Manuel Garcia-Orozco to Billboard. “From Afro-Colombian traditions we have bullerengue, chalupa, cumbia, champeta criolla and aguabajo; from the Colombian-Venezuelan plains, we have joropo llanero; from international sounds, we have Argentinean Chamamé; Cuban sexteto, French-infused swing with bolero, Congolese soukous, Mexican-infused cumbia and global sounds like electronica and hip-hop.”

Due to his advanced age, Magín was not able to attend the album listening (or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter), but expect him in Las Vegas this year as he’s been nominated for two Latin Grammys in the categories of best folk album and best recording package, an unprecedented feat for an artist of his age in a genre largely elusive to contemporary/mainstream America.

In the absence of Magín, Billboard spoke at length with Garcia-Orozco, one of two of the album’s producers, the other being Chris Castagno. Get better acquainted with Magín’s work and the beautiful, historical significance of bullerengue music.

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Is the new album El Orisha de la Rosa comprised of all new material, or are these songs previously recorded?

El Orisha de la Rosa is a musical journey, inspired by the oral tradition, voice, songs, and memory of Magín Diaz. It consists of what Magin, at 95, remembers and performs. There are some unreleased songs that we are preserving and recording for the very first time, while others had been recorded before but we decided to create intercultural dialogues with other artists and musical traditions.

What went behind the curating of this album, how did you go about selecting feature artists?

We invited 25 musical artists because they meant something to the story we wanted to tell. Myths and legends surround Magin’s story, and he lived in such anonymity that even his day of birth is unclear. So, for instance, Rosa is a piece deeply embedded in Colombian identity, popularized over the radio and recording industries by Carlos Vives, and propagated in the world music market by Toto la Momposina. However, Magin is the preserver of this piece within the Colombian Caribbean. He didn’t write it, but he picked it up from Cuban migrants as a child and continued to perform and disseminate it through Afro-Colombian communities to this day. Featuring these three voices together is historical and helps us telling Magin’s story to the world.

In creating these intercultural dialogues, we have three type of guest artists: from Colombian traditions, like Petrona Martinez, Sexteto Tabala and Grupo Cimarron; from the Colombian commercial scene, like Carlos Vives, Li Saumet from Bomba Estereo and Monsieur Perine; and from other world traditions, like Celso Pina from Mexico, Dizzy Mandejeku from the Republic of Congo and Chango Spasiuk from Argentina, to name a few.

What themes does the album tackle? What sounds and rhythms can we expect to hear?

The album blurs the boundaries between musical and cultural styles, which are at once distant and familiar. From Afro-Colombian traditions we have bullerengue, chalupa, cumbia, champeta criolla and aguabajo; from the Colombian-Venezuelan plains, we have joropo llanero; from international sounds, we have Argentinean Chamamé; Cuban sexteto, French-infused swing with bolero, Congolese soukous, Mexican-infused cumbia and global sounds like electronica and hip-hop. Also, the album features a mixture of languages such as Spanish, Taino, English and Palenquero, and art techniques such as illustration, collage, graffiti, canvas painting and contemporary art.

Regarding themes, the bullerengue repertoire tends to sing about the Caribbean daily life; love-songs are unusual. The matriarchal nature of bullerengue is a standard feature throughout the album, and many songs empower women. Magin sings to his grandma on Mamaguela (Literally Mamá abuela or grandmother). Then, on Mujeres Malas, a group of Latin women led by Bomba Estereo’s Li Saumet reply to Magin empowering women: La Yegros from Argentina,  Kombilesa Mi in the Palenquero language, La Bermudez in English, Nani Castle in classic New York MC style and the Afro-Peruvian activist Monica Carrillo in words inherited from Africa in the Andean Mountains.

Could you talk a little bit more about the cultural history and significance of bullerengue?

Bullerengue is a genre led mainly by elderly women, instrumented exclusively with artisan drums, and preserved through oral tradition. It lacks a written history, and its discography has very limited circulation, yet it is widely spread throughout Afro-descendant communities in the Colombian and Panamanian Caribbean. The genre has transitioned through four historical periods. First, the period of invisibility, when maroon communities are excluded from the wealth, political and cultural centers of Colombia and manage to preserve this legacy in anonymity since colonial times. Second, comes a period of marginalization when Los Soneros de Gamero break into the regional recording industry in the 1980s. Magin was part of this pioneer group. For the commercial appeal, they simplified their sound to a formula that never aimed to honor the Maroon heritage. However, this music was still decried in the press and inner cities.

Third, comes a period of internationalization. Petrona Martinez is the first bullerengue singer to break into the world music market in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Her Latin Grammy nominations and international success made the country aware of such a valuable cultural treasure. This brings the fourth and current period, of cultural recognition within national and international agendas.

To this day, Petrona and Magin are the only bullerengue artists to receive Latin Grammy nominations. Also, the Colombian Ministry of Culture awarded them the Lifetime Achievement Award. This is the highest artistic recognition from the Colombian government, and it is based on the artists’ contributions to the enrichment of the artistic and cultural values of the country.

What’s your greatest takeaway from working with Magín Diaz?

The primary objective of the project was to transform the living conditions of Magin Diaz, and we achieved it! It’s been a long and winding road from the extreme anonymity to the current recognition [after] two Latin Grammy nominations. We had a great team behind all these efforts! The fact that Magin is coming to Las Vegas for the ceremony is mind-blowing. It evidences the vast value of the African heritage in the Colombian Caribbean and that it is never too late to chase and achieve dreams. It took Magin almost a hundred years to receive recognition, yet he never gave up and continues to sing, compose and dance.

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