In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series with a concert and oral history with Grupo Rebolú.
Grupo Rebolú is an Afro-Colombian musical ensemble that includes some of the finest Colombian musicians in the United States. The group was created by Ronald Polo (a vocalist, composer, and player of the native Colombian flute known as a gaita), Morris Cañate (a master traditional drummer), and Johanna Castañeda (a vocalist and percussionist) to promote the rich musical traditions of their heritage: the African descendants of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. They believe these folkloric traditions should continually evolve over time and incorporate the musical ideas and creativity of new generations of musicians. The original compositions of Ronald Polo for Grupo Rebolú forge new paths for Colombian music, while respectfully remaining faithful to traditional Afro-Colombian rhythms such as gaita, tambora, chalupa, and bullerengue.
While the group has worked with musicians from various musical traditions, the lead members of the group share common ties to the Caribbean region of Colombia. Roland Polo and Morris Cañate were both born in Barranquilla, a town famous for its carnival that provided them with opportunities for a rich education in the music and dance traditions of the region, as they explain in the oral history. Johanna Castañeda was born in Bogotá, and began her musical career as a singer of Colombian and Venezuelan songs. She sang in many different bands, learning different genres, before coming to Grupo Rebolú. Roland and Johanna are husband and wife.
The other members of the band are Erica “Kika” Parra (Tambora), Rudyck Vidal Espinoza (Bass), Alejandro Florez (Guitar/Tiple), Eric Kurimski (Guitar), Juan Pablo Calvo (Drums), Juan Pablo Uribe (Sax), Josh Deutsh (Trumpet), and Jackie Coleman (Trumpet).
As you listen to the music you will recognize the rhythms as common to many types of music of the Caribbean islands and coasts. But there are also instruments and musical styles unique to Colombia represented here. Now enjoy the concert!
In the oral history interview, Daniel Sheehy, consultant emeritus with Smithsonian Folkways, talked with the lead members of Grupo Rebolú, Johanna Castañeda, Roland Polo, and Morris Cañate about their path to music, their vision for the group, and their hopes for the future. This interview is in English and Spanish. You will hear the speakers switch back and forth between languages frequently. This provides us with an especially rich interview because it allowed the speakers to use the language they were most comfortable with to talk about such things as Colombian traditions and musical genres as well as their experiences growing up in the Caribbean coastal region. An English transcript of the video is available below with time codes to help you to find you place in the interview. The American Folklife center is grateful for the help of Catalina Gomez of the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress, who did the translation of the Spanish portions of this oral history for us.
English Transcript of the Oral History
> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] I’m Daniel Sheehy. I’m a curator emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. And I am pleased to be here with the founding members of Grupo Rebolú, who are based in New York City and just performed a wonderful concert at the Library of Congress where we are right now. And so I’d just like to welcome the founding members.
> Ronald Polo: Thank you.
> Morris Cañate: Thank you.
> Johanna Castañeda: Thank you. Thank you, muchas gracias.
> Daniel Sheehy: We have Morris Cañate. We have Ronald Polo. And we have Johanna Castañeda right here with us so. Maybe we could start – [in Spanish) So let’s start. We can be bilingual; you can speak in any language, just as long as I can keep up! (Haha).
Should we start with Johanna?
Johanna: [in Spanish] Of course, of course…
>> Daniel Sheehy: Johanna.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [in Spanish] Sure. [In English] Sure. Of course.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Yeah, go ahead.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Well.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Tell us about yourself. Maybe — can you — when you introduce yourself reach deep inside and kind of explain who you really are and what brought you to this, this group and music.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [in English] Of course. Of course. Well I mean as, as you mentioned I am Johanna. I was born in Bogotá, Colombia. I have been in the States for the last 27 years. And came with my brother here, you know, with a dream of, of continuing what we were already doing in Colombia, back in Colombia. Music. So it’s been 27 years, as of, you know, studying, going to school, learning a lot about not only our own Colombian music but also other musics that we’ve done here so far. So I’ve been in a lot of bands. I’ve been singing, playing every kinds of and types of music you know from Mexican music to Peruvian music to Salsa, Puertorriqueño, to everything and always trying to maintain my Colombian music also. When I arrived to the States I, I, I was a singer of musica llanera you know Afro-Colo — I’m sorry. Venezuelan and Colombian music. And that’s all I knew how to sing. And.
>> Daniel Sheehy: That’s from the plains the Orinoco plains —
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yeah.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Plains that, that overlaps both the —
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yep.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Venezuela.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Exactly.
>> Daniel Sheehy: And Colombia
>> Johanna Castañeda: It’s a region that we share with Venezuela and the music that I, I concentrated most of my life was from the, from this region you know. Although I’m from Bogotá I learn how to dance joropo since I was very young. And I learned how to play some cuatro. And I learned how to sing some musica llanera. So I did that for, for a long time until I arrived to the States. And then with such a diversity of all this cultures and all this mixture of everything, I fell in love with a lot of things but also wanted to learn more about my own country. Believe it or not, it is when you depart your country is when you realize that you know that maybe you should have paid more attention to your own music and styles and regions and all that. So that’s when I met these guys maybe another 18 years ago we met through a band. And we were doing some Colombian music and you know they taught me this music from the region that they are because I’m from, from Bogotá. They’re from the Caribbean, the north coast. So I’ve learned with these guys all this music and I fell in love and I loved it as you know. And since then we’ve been, you know, part — basically they’ve already had that idea of Rebolú. And they show me really what to do and, and I’ve been with them for the last 10 years now.
>> Daniel Sheehy: And Ronald, quien eres? who are you Ronald?
>> Roland Polo: Okay.
>> Roland Polo: [in Spanish] I am from Colombia, from Barranquilla, I was born in a city where there is great musical diversity, and one that revolves around the carnival (Carnaval de Barranquilla). In my city, carnival is extremely important, so the traditional music that involves the gaita and the drums is part of the culture. And that’s where I was born, in that environment, with the carnival. And I learned since I was very young (6 years old, to be precise) to play our music and became part of a group called La Escuela de Musica y Danza de Barranquilla, which taught us about our folklore of the northern coastal area of our country. And there I was able to represent my country internationally – we traveled to many countries including China, Japan, and many European countries when I was around 15 years old. And when I was 19, I decided to come to the United States, to New York City because that city is the center of the world, where music in all its vibrancy and diversity lives. I know my friend Morris since I am 10, and since that age, we have been in this adventure together of playing music and representing Colombia’s folklore.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English] if I remember correctly that festival in Barranquilla, la UNESCO – UNESCO declared it to be a treasure, a cultural treasure of humanity.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Uh-huh.
>> Roland Polo: [in English] A treasure.
>> Daniel Sheehy: A cultural treasure
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yeah.
>> Daniel Sheehy: of the Humanities.
>> Roland Polo: They did.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yes they did. A few years back, yeah.
>> Roland Polo: That was like a – recently.
>> Johanna Castañeda: That was about 10 years ago, yeah.
>> Daniel Sheehy: It’s a beautiful thing.
>> Roland Polo: Yeah.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Congratulations.
>> Roland Polo: Thank you.
>> Daniel Sheehy: And you’re part of that.
>> Roland Polo: [In English] Of course, yeah. I remember that. I remember — [In Spanish] When I was a kid, I would go out and play in the carnivals, and the parades were huge. We had to walk many kilometers under the scorching sun… but we had to do it because we had so much love for our culture. Also because there is no monetary incentives to do this kind of thing – they don’t pay you to do it. Everyone does it out of pure love for our culture.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Uh-huh. Yes. Gracias. Morris Cañate, bienvenido! It’s great to have you here with us. [In Spanish] Tell us, who are you?
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] Well… I was also born in Barranquilla, Colombia. I come from an artistic family. Dance and music, mainly. Music-wise, I come from the Palenque tradition, my family is a “Palenquera” family, and I was born in the city. Dance-wise, I was part of my family’s dance group, which was called, Grupo Afro-descendiente Bambazú (Bamabazú Afro-Colombian Dance Group) where we expressed everything that was part of our dance tradition and our Afro-Colombian music. So I have been educated for this since very young, I have always been immersed in the culture, thank God, because it’s such a rich world, that of the Colombian Caribbean region, which encompasses the departments of Bolivar, Atlántico, Sucre, Córdoba… everything converges in the city of Barranquilla and this feeds and greatly enriches the carnival. I am culture, I am music, I am Colombia, this is what I bring to the table, and this is what represents me: my drum, Africa, Afro-Colombian culture. I met Ronald when I was between 7 and 10 years old, and we started a musical and artistic adventure in order to grow and to share our culture with the world and to inspire national and international audiences.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In Spanish and English] I have a question– Let me see if I can remember — I think the Palenque community was recognized by Unesco again as a treasure of humanity.
>> Morris Cañate: [in Spanish] Palenque San Basilio was the first free place in all the Americas.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English] Right, right, the first Afro-descendant community in all the Americas.
>> Morris Cañate: [in Spanish] And it is a community that developed their own language because it was a place where many different tribes converged and they didn’t speak the same dialects. So through Spanish, a new language was born, the Palenquero language.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] Can you say a phrase in that language?
>> Morris Cañate: [in Spanish] Not now, because as I was born in the city I have forgotten a lot, but “monacito” which means “person” or “he,” [next Palenquero word] which means “come see what’s happening over here.” I want carne asada … things like that that I sometimes forget because I am from the city. Fortunately, there are schools in the Palenque San Basilio region where they preserve, teach, and write this language.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish and English] Is that recent?
>> Roland Polo: [in Spanish] Yes, it is recent.
>> Morris Cañate: [in Spanish] These schools have been doing this work in the last 10 years.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] Did the Colombian Ministry of Culture have anything to do with that? The Pablo Moreno…
>> Morris Cañate: [in Spanish] Pablo Moreno? No, that developed locally, and thanks to the Ministry of Culture it has been maintained and strengthened. It’s been an effort to promote and preserve the language so that it doesn’t die.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English] So the truth is, we are here with cultural royalty that have been recognized in a world-level here, in terms of the cultures represented, right here, on these three chairs. It’s an honor to be with you.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Thank you! Oh, my gosh, it’s an honor to be here.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English] So let’s get into your music a little bit. How does this background, how what you bring to this – your family background, your Barranquilla background, your Colombian background and your eagerness to learn about all kinds of traditions. How does that come out in the music of group Rebolú?
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In English] Well, from my part, I’m going to say that it just really represents our roots. This music that we do definitely represents a lot of what Colombia is. If you see Grupo Rebolú, we have different regions basically in the same group, you know. Not only that we also do share this stage with also now that we’re in the States we share the stage with people from other countries too like from Mexico. We have some people from here the States play Colombian music. So it’s, it’s you know, for us it’s a privilege to be able to have other cultures involved within our culture and that they’re willing to also learn and, and, and take that step of, of learning our culture, our rhythms and play the music with us. So, you know, we express definitely everything that we brought from Colombia. Again I mentioned before that once you’re away from your country is when you’re really want to learn more and start doing the research on everything that Colombia has to offer because we want to be the ones taking this message to the world of saying this is what we have. This is the music that we have. This is our instruments. This is the Afro-descendants you know all this regions that we want to share with you so. You know that would be from my, my side.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] So I notice both times that you said when you leave your country you realize how much you didn’t learn that you want to learn and you go for — both times you said that Ronald was nodding his head.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yeah!
>> Roland Polo: [In English] I remember when I first came to the United States, I saw so many cultures together. Puerto Rican, Cuban, every other culture… Mexican, but I didn’t see anything Colombian. Like, I couldn’t say that this group is Colombian traditional music. I didn’t see that. So that was more my, how do you say? Effort? To say, “I got to do a band that has Colombian flavor and that represents Colombia.” And because I know the rhythms, you know, we played for a long time in Colombia. I said, it’s the time! It’s the time to make the new music, it’s the time to make new compositions for Colombian folklore too. And bring to the United States and play with other people, not only Colombians. It doesn’t mean anything if they’re not Colombian, we bring everybody. So that’s, that was my inspiration.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] So then for you, what was important was to make something Colombian? Or to learn something new about Colombian music? Or to teach others?
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] For me it was more about bringing the tradition here and to teach and show other people what Colombian music is. Because I already had it in me! When you are there, in your own country, sometimes you don’t appreciate this so much. It’s sad, but true. Sometimes one forgets the value of simple things, for example, the smell of the guayaba [guava]. [In Spanish and English] In Colombia the guayaba smell is amazing! Right when you get to Colombia, you’re going to smell that. You’re going to smell flowers, and you’re going to say “wow…” It’s true, it’s so different.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In English] You’re going to say “why didn’t I smell that before?”
>> Roland Polo: [In English] Why don’t I pay attention to that? So now, we try to teach everybody about Colombian music, we show the traditions, and everything.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English] That rings a bell, those guayaba flowers…
>> Roland Polo: [In English] Sure! The guayaba tree.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] So Morris, what do you bring to your music in the group?
>> Morris Cañate: [in Spanish] Well, Ronald already mentioned this. What’s beautiful about Rebolú is that the base is our traditional rhythms, and the diverse cultural background of all of the band participants complement and enriches the group. They bring a sound that not even we can replicate. New York City is a place where people from all over co-exist. There are really no words to describe that sensation that this phenomenon brings, all of these cultures celebrating a culture that is not even theirs. That brings us immense joy and makes us cognizant of the fact that we are making Colombian music with people that are not from Colombia, but that appreciate our art. Art is what’s most important… art that unites cultures and nations. If everyone in this planet made art, there would be world peace. You don’t need to speak the same language to live art with others. Music attracts everyone and unites everyone – that is what’s beautiful about music and art.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] I know that some of your lyrics speak about peace and happiness. Was that intentional?
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] Yes. Many of our songs… for example, Johanna sang a song titled “Candela pura” [Pure Fire], which is a song that talks about being positive, about love, and unity. And we always try to convey, just as we did during our show, that it’s generally really hard for us to play our music and not dance, or truly feel it and savor it because it’s a music filled with joy and has a very contagious energy.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] I wanted to ask you, and I’m not sure if this is entirely relevant. But I know that Colombia’s war and violence has affected all of you. Do you guys think about this when making your music? Some say that culture has the power to heal…
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] Yes, culture cures. Well, Colombia has always been a country at war. Things today are much, much better, and a peace process is in place. Rebolú is currently producing its third album and this album is titled “Tiempos buenos” [Good times]. It has a song that is dedicated to Colombia’s peace because we believe that Colombia will be a peaceful country. And… yes, when we were young we saw the effects of war and we knew what was happening, but as I’ve grown older, I have learned that these are things that cannot end from one day to the next because they are part of a pretty complex problem, many factors are involved, so for all of it to stop, it’s requires time and very hard work.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] I’d love to know, Morris, what do you and your backgrounds, especially the Afro-descendant cultures, as well as New York City culture bring to this art and the spirit of your music?
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] Well, New York is the dynamic present, the day-to-day. It’s the place where someone from Mexico comes to you and says, “I have these sentiments and have my own experiences,” or the place that unites you with a person that was born here too. New York has that energy that ends up becoming part of Rebolú, our band. And the result of this is pretty beautiful and brings positive energy to daily lives. We are living in hard times, and it’s important to stay together. And this is something that Rebolú offers. Anyone that wants to make music, liberate themselves, to share, and to release their stress through music, [in English] we welcome them to Group Rebolú.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In Spanish] But we also do maintain the traditional flavor of the music. Despite there being some fusion and all that happens by being here in this country, we definitely maintain our rhythms, fully respect the rhythms of the cumbia, of the mapalé, as well as the traditional instruments…
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] And also Bullerengue…
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] And something else that needs to be said about Rebolú is that it’s trying to bring awareness to the wide variety of rhythms that the afro cultures in Colombia have produced, that even within Colombia, most people don’t know about. We have Bullerengue, Mapalé, Porro, Cumbia, Fandango, Chandé, Tambora, Baile Negro, Seresese, and many, many more. Our group always makes sure that in each album that we release represents five or more of these rhythms, and that’s a minimum, a minimum. So in New York the name Rebolú is very influencial. What is a Rebolú? It’s a mixture of many things coming together, a revuelto! And that is New York.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In Spanish] That’s what Rebolú is…
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English] Like scrambled eggs!
>> Roland Polo: Yes! [laughter]
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] That word is even common among many other Latin American cultures. Puerto Ricans say “Oh, there’s a rebolú, what’s going on?!”
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In Spanish] Oh, and that happens when we play! What’s that sound?
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] It’s a very common expression within cultures from the Antilles.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] Who came up with the name?
[Johanna and Roland point to Morris, and laugh]
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] Pure peace and happiness [laughter], makes sense that he’s the creator.
>> Roland Polo: [in Spanish] Johanna and I said “sounds good! Let’s go with Rebolú!”
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English] And it’s close enough to “revolution” that you can get into that if you want to.
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] What does Rebolú mean? Musical revolution!
>> Roland Polo: [in English] People ask us if it means revolution, and we say, musical revolution! If you want to call it that. But in reality the word means many different things coming together.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English] So do you borrow from other Afro-descendiente traditions of Colombia from the Pacific region, or vallenato music?
>> Roland Polo: [in English] We do borrow a rhythm from the Pacific coast called “porro chocoano,” we really like it because we met a very good friend in NY called Diego Obregón and he taught us all those kinds of rhythms like porro chocoano, currulao and other rhythms. But for Rebolú we just use porro chocano.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In English] That’s the online that we use from the Pacific, yeah.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English] Chocoano means from Chocó, right? The region, the departamento [department], which is like a state. That whole Pacific thing. But you are all from the north, right?
>> Roland Polo: [in English] Yes, from the north. From the Caribbean part.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in Spanish] So let’s hone on some of the details here [pointing to the musical instruments]. Can you tell me what’s that, and that, and that?
Johanna: [In English] So that one is our tambora alegre you know. And it’s a — I mean that one is basically it maintains obviously a rhythm but it’s also used for a lot of improvisation. It’s probably going to be the loudest one you know it’s the happy drum.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Yes.
>> Johanna Castañeda: If you translate it you know tambora alegre is the happy drum because it’s happy the whole time you know as it’s always improvising. And then we move to the tambura which you, know, some other countries do share same tambura you know maybe — made differently but played the same way with sticks.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Uh-huh.
>> Johanna Castañeda: And this basically.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Sideways like?
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yeah, yeah. Sideways.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Uh-huh.
>> Johanna Castañeda: You play sideways. And it’s, it’s going to be basically our bass you know. It’s going to do that bass sound you know on the music. And then usually this is smaller version of that a very tiny one. It’s called llamador you know. Which is usually the three instruments will create the Afro-Colombian percussion session.
>> Daniel Sheehy: And llamador means “caller.”
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yeah.
>> Roland Polo: Yeah.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Because it’s always calling a beat basically. So the llamador is only maintaining one beat the whole time throughout any rhythms, you know. And then we have the gaitas you know which this is the gaita hembra which is the female right?
>> Daniel Sheehy: Yeah
>> Johanna Castañeda: There’s usually a male version. Just the difference is that it would have only two, two holes to cover. This one keeps the whole melody throughout the songs. The other one will just hold long notes throughout.
>> Roland Polo: The bass.
>> Johanna Castañeda: The songs and also yeah. It creates support. So this gaita is very interesting because the body part is made out of a cactus tree.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Uh-huh.
>> Johanna Castañeda: The inside of the cactus.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Car—what is the name of that?
>> Roland Polo: Cardón.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Cardón, right, yeah.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Right. Yeah.
>> Johanna Castañeda: And then the, the, the head part is bees wax with charcoal mixed in and kind of molded into this head. And then usually the mouthpiece is a duck feather [quill].
>> Daniel Sheehy: I don’t know if this may be just for me, this may be one of the most easily identifiable instruments in the world. The style of playing and the sound of the instrument.
>> Johanna Castañeda: And the sound.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Yeah when you hear that you don’t think Venezuela you don’t, you don’t.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Right.
>> Daniel Sheehy: You don’t think Peru. You don’t think Canada, you know. [laughter] You think Colombia.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Colombia yeah, yeah, yeah.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Can, can we just hear a little bit of? Yeah, yeah, yeah.
>> Roland Polo: Sure. This is a tune called “El favorito” [The Favorite].
>> Daniel Sheehy: “El favorite.”
>> Daniel Sheehy: Is that your favorito [favorite]?
>> Roland Polo: [In English] It’s called “El favorito,” and it’s one of the first songs I learned on the flute, yeah.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] In Barranquilla? Is this something you learned in the cultural education program?
>> Roland Polo: [In English] Yes, all the schools have that. This song is one of the songs that everybody teaches.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In English] Did you learn the gaita at that school?
>> Roland Polo: [In English] Yeah, I remember my teacher. He teach me. But they didn’t have any schools then like they have now – now it’s different, there are more schools. But in those days the teacher only teach me the positions, and he basically would tell me, now you have to make the song by yourself! [laughs] So I would start listening to the songs of the Gaiteros de San Jacinto, and I would say “I have to get this song, I have to make it.” That’s how I learned the gaitas, and now I make my own songs with the gaitas, so this is what I try to do.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] So what, this was in the 1990s’?
>> Roland Polo: [In English] That was in 1987-88, something like that, yeah.
>> Daniel Sheehy: And the Gaiteros de San Jacinto…
>> Johanna Castañeda: The Gaiteros have been around for a long time.
>> Roland Polo: The Gaiteros are from my father’s time…
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] And to make something clear, the name “gaita” was given to this instrument when the Europeans arrived to the New World, but its pre-Colombian name is “Kuisi”.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Huisí?
>> Roland, Johanna, and Morris together: Kuisi.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Kuisi. [In English] And what language is that? From the Wayús? [In English] What would that be? I don’t know.
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] Is it Araucano?
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] No, it’s from the Sierra Nevada, so…
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In Spanish] The ones that make the beautiful woven bags.
>> Johanna, Morris, Roland: yes, them…
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] The Taironas.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In English] Yes, the Taironas.
>> Daniel Sheehy: So you took this — Well, I meant to ask: What is the most famous group — Is there a group that’s like the role model? You mention, the Gaiteros de San Jacinto…
>> Roland, Morris, Johanna: Yes, the Gaiteros de San Jacinto, for sure.
>> Roland Polo: [In English] Yes, they are the first ones, the main group in Colombia that’s promoting the gaita music everywhere. They’re everywhere. They’ve even won the Grammy.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] As I recall the Folkways CD that Juan Benavides produced won a Latin Grammy.
>> Roland, Johanna, Morris: Oh wow!
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] And they brought indigenous people from Colombia to open the Latin Grammy’s. That was really cool.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yes, I remember! That was amazing.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Ok, so let’s move on to Morris, here, what do you put into it [pointing to his instrument] in terms of rhythms and singing… from your point of view do you put into the music, into the music of Grupo Rebolú, of what you have here? Is it the drumming, or singing? Or whatever it may be…
>> Johanna Castañeda: (translating to Morris) What do you put into it?
>> Morris Cañate: When Roland is composing music for Grupo Rebolú, he usually consults with me about the rhythms. We both have the same knowledge about rhythms… so we have discussions. He might want to start a song as a cumbia, but I might suggest to start it differently in order to give it more energy, things like that. So the both of us are always think hard about which rhythms to choose, because he is the one who makes the music for our group, they are his inspiration. So my contribution is more of a rhythmic one because that is my strength in this band. Because of my deep knowledge of Afro-Colombian rhythms, that is my main task in the group.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In Spanish] I’d like to say something… correct me if I’m wrong. [in English] When I hear your music, I detect these turns of melodies that sound very Colombian… even the one with “patria”
>> Johanna Castañeda: “Colombia tierra querida,” yeah…
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] I mean, there are these turns of melody that sound very Colombiano to me — they don’t sound Mexican, it didn’t sound, you know… whatever. Of course, when you’re on stage, your motions… there are a lot of moves that you can say “ah, that’s Colombian.” Am I right about this?
Johanna, Morris, and Roland: Oh, yes…
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] And of course the instruments, the rhythms, and the genres. So really, your music is just filled with Colombian… just about everything. It comes out in every turn.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In English] For sure, it is Colombia, that’s the message that we want to take across, that this is Colombian music, even though we have other people that are not Colombian, and are putting maybe their input, but we want to focus on the traditional rhythms, and we want to explain what we are playing, you know. So they will know that we are playing a cumbia, or a bullerengue, so yes… that’s what we want.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] And the creative process… are you three the leaders? How does it work?
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In English] The creative process… this is going to sound funny, it’s going to be funny, because, you know, Rolando and I are husband and wife, so we share our life together, so we not only musically, but at home we have two little girls, so we have a whole life together, so a lot of the creation is basically me cooking and right next to the kitchen, he has his little studio, home studio.
>> Roland Polo: [In English] The best spot! I smell the food…
>> Johanna Castañeda: So basically I’m next to the stove making, cooking something, and he is playing something and he tells me, “so what do you think of this?” and I while cooking say “yes, I like that,” or “no, I think that’s wrong” so we basically go back and forth. So a lot of the creation part, especially the start of a new song goes basically like that (laughing). So definitely he is the main person that has the inspiration, he comes home every day with new songs… I have to say, if anything, he has five more CDs that we could record today if we wanted to because he has a lot of inspiration, you know… throughout life, through his daily routine, through his family, through his roots…
>> Roland Polo: Through my friends…
>> Johanna Castañeda: Friends, he has a lot of inspiration and he has a huge talent that God gave him, and he comes up with songs all the time.
>> Daniel Sheehy: When you said that he has a studio right next to where you’re cooking, I knew he was a wise man. You’ve got a smart husband there!
>> Johanna Castañeda: Right? He did that for a purpose!
>> Roland Polo: It’s so good! It’s inspiring… [laughter]
>> Daniel Sheehy: Do you have other lives other than music?
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yes…
>> Daniel Sheehy: I mean, parents…
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yes, parenting is one. I mean music is a tough business to survive on…
>> Roland Polo: Especially in New York.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Especially in a city like New York where every day is more expensive to live, so, you know, musicians’ lives in New York are tough ones, so we have to help ourselves through other things, so we do have other jobs. We do have them part-time, we don’t have them a 100%, because this is what we want to do a 100%, we want to do it full-time. So we made that choice that we want to work just a tiny bit just to support our family and support ourselves in this big, expensive city, but music is what we want to do. Every time we come to a concert, every time we take a trip and then we go back home, is when we really realize that we should really be doing music 100% because it’s what we really enjoy and love doing. So we keep working every day to get this band and this music to other cities and other countries. We really want to take this music across… we want to be able to live 100% from this, from something that we really enjoy.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [in English and in Spanish] Is that — You too, Morris? Do you feel the same way?
>> Morris Cañate: Yeah…
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In Spanish] We always talk about this. When the three of us are together we always talk about this. And we always have this idea that this is what we want to do 100%. We are working hard so that the group thrives.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] Who is your audience? Who are the people that you want to reach?
>> Roland Polo: [In English] That’s very interesting because we have every kind of audience. We have Colombians, we have people from the United States, people from… even… who were those guys from? Armania, Armenia…?
>> Johanna Castañeda: We have a lot of followers from Armenia!
>> Roland Polo: Armenians! And they follow us everywhere we go, and they say “we love you guys, we love you guys!” And we ask them, “but do you understand what we say?” and they say “no, but we love your music!”
>> Johanna Castañeda: I think we have every type of audience, we have this music, we love to interact with people, and we want to get people dancing, and get people singing, even if they don’t know… we roughly go quickly through what we’re doing so that they know, and again, our main focus here is to get across anything, and it doesn’t matter if you’re not Colombian, we just want to get the music out.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English and Spanish] You know, so this is just my impression. It seems to me, now looking at you here in the Library of Congress, that there’s a certain internal peace there that you have here, that allows you to be creative. I kept thinking about values… I just wondered: do you ever talk about values? Valores that are the base of everything you do? Something that you feel that you share, at least the three of you? I know sometimes you have to call musicians to come in and they do their job, but do you have like a mission in your life, or a set of values for Grupo Rebolú?
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] Well, I think that everything comes from the way that each of us was brought up. In my city, definitely… and in that sense, I can speak for all of us, based on what I know from there. In our city, Caribbean people are very united, very. And so family is incredibly important and is respected, you know… culturally, you see a lot of that respect toward family. And from Johanna’s side, I have realized too that the way you’re brought up is incredibly important, all those values instilled in the home, those values, the idea of appreciating what you have, is what for me is the most important.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In English] I think the values, and the way we express them… how we want to stay together as a family, as friends, as musicians trying to get this band together, and it comes from our backgrounds, our families. We were definitely taught what a family is, what your roots are, who you are, where are you coming from, and do your best to get this out there. And I think values are definitely our number one, and we have great ones from where we’re coming from. We’re from families that taught us great things.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In Spanish] Morris, would you like to add anything?
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] Well, the most important things are: respecting your neighbor, accepting others without judging them, just accept them for the simple fact of being a human being, and open your arms and receive them and have them be part of this family, and that is reflected in our group. All those that come to be part of or share what we do with Grupo Rebolú, we want to make them feel like they are part of our family. We want them to feel that it’s a family, to feel comfortable, that they can find a space to express all that they have artistically and musically inside of them.
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] Musically, that is reflected.
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] That they feel comfortable and that everyone around them is a friend. Aside of our communication about the music, Roland is always concerned about how the other is doing and asks “how are you?” He invites us to his home, we cook together, have a good time, the kids of all of our colleagues are around, so we create a little community that is united from the basis of respect and love.
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In Spanish] And that is perfectly reflected in the music and in everything, yes.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In Spanish] Do you guys live in Manhattan, or in Brooklyn, or…
>> Johanna Castañeda: In Queens.
>> Roland Polo: We live in Queens, but some of the other band members live in Brooklyn, or New Jersey, and other live in the border between Manhattan and Brooklyn, or in the Bronx.
>> Daniel Sheehy: I don’t who to ask this question to… can you talk to me about the other members of the band?
>> Roland Polo: You, Morris.
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] Well, one of the other members of the band with whom I have a great relationship is Juan Carlos Calvo who is the drummer. He is from Bogotá, but he is half Ecuadorian and half Colombian. Rudy Vidal, who is the base player, who is from Mexico. But he is also half Mexican, half Cuban, so he brings that heritage too.
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] We also have Eric Kurinski who was born here… in Albany, I think, but he grew up learning Peruvian culture. He is one of the best guitar players of Afro-Peruvian music; we plays the waltz and all the music from South America. When he met our group, he loved the music so much, that now he is a total Colombian. And he speaks perfect Spanish. 100%. Last time that we were playing, he brought his parents, and I thought they would be of Latino descent because his Spanish is so perfect, but that wasn’t the case. When we saw them, it was clear that they were American and from Irish heritage, or something like that. They didn’t speak any Spanish and it was a bit funny for us to see Eric, who plays with us, and then see his parents, who were so foreign. But they loved the music! We also have Hugo who is from here, born in Chicago, I think…
>> Johanna Castañeda: No, in El Paso.
>> Roland Polo: El Paso. But he is the son of Mexicans born in this country.
>> Johanna Castañeda: Juan Pablo Uribe, who is from Bogotá, and Erica who was born in New Jersey but her parents are from Barranquilla.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Is he related to Gregorio Uribe?
>> Roland Polo: No, Uribe is a very common last name. They are not related nor is he related to our former president. If you say that to him he doesn’t like it.
>> Johanna Castañeda: He (Gregorio) is a good friend of ours. We love his group.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In Spanish] And what about goals? Where are you guys going? Or where do you want to go with the group? What path do you dream of?
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In Spanish] Far. We want to go far. I realize that this is all that we want to do, and I am personally working extremely hard to make this dream come true, which is not just mine, but everyone’s. This group I know will go the distance, it has great potential; but what we need is support. Support from people, to have them follow us and support us. But this group has the potential to accomplish big and great things and take this music further. We have many, many goals, from continuing to record albums, making music, and continuing to get more followers and recognition.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In Spanish] How many albums have you recorded?
>> Roland Polo: So far we have made two albums, and we are in the process of recording the third one.
>> Daniel Sheehy: What does the third album have?
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] Well, it has what I was explaining earlier, it has the fusion of all of our rhythms, which are the same rhythms, but of course these are new compositions. One of our main desires is to make new music that honors Colombian folklore. Generally, if you see a group like this one, playing this kind of music, they all tend to play the same songs. And Morris and I began wondering when we were very young, why not make something different? Why does everything sound the same?! So we told ourselves, why don’t we set ourselves the goal of creating new songs with these traditional rhythms and to create interesting fusions with other things? For example, with the trumpets, with the saxophone, or the base… to have as the base our traditions, but to create something new. This is what we did with Rebolú.
And to answer the question of where do we want to take Grupo Rebolú? I have discussed this many times with Johanna and Morris, we know this is a large group –we are nine members—and these days things are hard given that people sometimes don’t like large groups, but we have such a unique color that no other group has. All of the bands that have emerged, they all have their own unique touch, and so just like them, we have something that’s very unique that if it’s taken away, it wouldn’t be the same. So it’s very important to us that this group continues making this kind of music because people are really liking it and enjoying it and we’d like to do this so that we can continue to have their support.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In Spanish] And so there are other groups that attempt to create different fusions with Colombian folklore?
>> Roland Polo: Were there others in New York, Morris?
>> Morris Cañate: There are some in New Jersey.
>> Johanna Castañeda: But they are more traditional.
>> Morris Cañate: There are some that are trying to create fusion, but it takes time…
>> Roland Polo: [In Spanish] The thing is that it all comes from what you know, your education about the music. If you know exactly where each rhythm comes from, then you can be playful and combine them. It’s not something that’s easy to do, to fuse our traditional rhythms with other types of music, like for example, jazz. We like to sometimes fuse Colombian music with jazz, or with more urban vibes, but the base that comes from the Colombian rhythms is incredibly strong, because that is very important to us.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In Spanish] Who makes the arrangements for the trumpet, or the saxophone?
>> Roland Polo: Well, me, but without Morris support in percussion and Johanna’s support with the harmonies… she is so good with harmony, without their contributions, I would not be able to make the music for this group.
>> Daniel Sheehy: Well, I feel very satisfied with this interview. I don’t know if you guys would like to say anything else, here for posterity?
>> Johanna Castañeda: [In Spanish] Well, we’d love to say that we would love for people to continue to follow our work and supporting us. Nowadays with social media, it’s amazing what people can do to help support artists, so we invite everyone to follow us so that we can continue taking this music far.
>> Daniel Sheehy: So you are on Facebook and all that?
>> Johanna Castañeda: Yes, we’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, in all of them!
>> Daniel Sheehy: And who does all that?
(Morris and Roland point at Johanna)
>> Johanna Castañeda: I do it [laughs]. With Erica’s help sometimes because I have two daughters, so I need a bit of help sometimes. But we are a team here.
>> Roland Polo: Yes, everyone contributes something. Well, I would like to tell people to not forget that we are continuing to work very hard for music, not just Colombian music, but music in general. This is a contribution that we are making to our culture, to music, and we hope that we continue having people’s support, and that you continue enjoying, and we are here for you.
>> Daniel Sheehy: And Morris?
>> Morris Cañate: [In Spanish] Well, our goal is to take this music to all corners of the world and to all the corners of this country. We want to remind people of how beautiful art is, music’s diversity, to cherish learning and learning about the world and for the world to know us through our art.
>> Johanna Castañeda: And a Grammy! [laughs].
>> Morris Cañate: Yes, and a Grammy!
>> Daniel Sheehy: Well, thank you all so much.
>> Morris, Roland, and Johanna: Thank you.
>> Daniel Sheehy: [In English] Thank you all for listening to this interview with three wonderful individuals. I say wonderful because they’re wonderful musicians and wonderful human beings with a deep sense of purpose. It is very impressive, it comes off loud and clear. And on behalf of everyone else in our listening audience, thank you so much for bringing your rich legacy to not only this culture but the world’s culture.
>> Morris, Roland, and Johanna: Thank you.