One of the most recognized bullerengue groups is called Tonada, and Stefany Cotera (on the right) is one of its singers along with Febe Merab. They are the only women to have spent almost a decade researching the history of gender, while practicing it (Supplied / Rafael Bossio)
Editor's note: This article is a collaboration of one of the winners of the Gabo Scholarship for cultural journalism 2019 .
The real pain is a whale too big to be harpooned
”Rosa Montero, Spanish journalist and writer; quote from his book “The ridiculous idea of never seeing you again”
Stefany Cotera's throat has been spewing songs of lament for eight years. He was born 30 years ago on the banks of the Magdalena River, in Barranquilla, Colombia. Of those, he has been traveling the coast for eight in search of ways to sing about ailments, which were never only his. He sings them in bullerengue , a traditional ritual dance-music from the Colombian coast.
The bullerengue was created by maroon slaves who escaped and settled along the Magdalena River. It sounds sad, crossed by percussion, drums, maracas. Songs extended in the air, like throats that are braided to exhume pain.
One of the most recognized bullerengue groups is called Tonada, and Stefany is one of its singers alongside Febe Merab. They are the only women to have spent almost a decade researching the history of gender, while practicing it. They reformulate it after each finding.
“There are bullerengues that make my eye water. They create that bond that very little of music creates. The bullerengue is regrettable. It makes you cry, ”says Stefany, and she doesn't cry. Nor does he dance. But the bullerengue dance, like that of the bomba, in Puerto Rico, provokes in the body the certainty of a strength that is carried deep within, one that moves breasts, throats, waves palms, shakes torsos, contorts bodies. Their tune is a resonance strung together by what they have choked on, what millions of slaves needed to unearth from the body, and what they, in their everyday spaces, still need to claim: a place to heal from the voice.
Febe Merab is part of the Tonada group, along with Stefany. (Supplied / Rafael Bossio)
Regardless of the number of throats in each ridge, its strength is like the forcefulness of Latin America. Although there is so much left to heal.
“ Bullerengue is a way of life. If you feel something, you express it. Between joy and sadness ”, she says, and then adds that, when she heard bullerengue for the first time, she felt a“ sense of belonging ”, which has not allowed her to do anything other than to continue returning to this musical style, not only to create , but also to heal.
“It is healing. It is liberation ”, he speaks, and is followed by silence, which also sings.
In a similar silent moment, her grandfather's ancestral energy connected her with the healing power of the bullerengue.
“ My grandfather died two days before my birthday, and it was a pod that marked me. We did not expect it. He was strong as an oak. Every time that date came, I would get very sad. I didn't celebrate my birthday. I stayed still in the house. I was missing the planet. Until one day I decided to get rid of it. I said, it's good. It's time. To say goodbye, in a good way. And I made him that bullerengue. I made it festive so that it wouldn't be so sad. “
I ask what he is about, and I hope he explains, but he does not speak. And suddenly it happens. We are in the Plaza Santo Domingo in Cartagena de Indias at five in the afternoon. A skirt of craftsmen dresses the tree in which we are sitting, around, tourists, with their cameras and the desire to portray everything. In one corner, a woman with reddened white skin carries a melted ice cream in her hands, she looks at it as the worst tragedy.
A big clock rings, two, three bells, but Stefany's throat spreads clocks, beats silence, and perhaps time. It's five o'clock in the afternoon, in the middle of the square, but in two seconds everything seems to be behind Stefany's voice, and without further ado, he wins:
Ay ye ye ye my Mariana
Arrure my Mariana
Arrure go to sleep now
Someone to eat Mariana for me
“I did it to put her to sleep. A lullaby ”. “There are bullerengues that make me bristle. For me, singing is speaking with melody ”. “Depending on the songs, people cry, or dance to them. I made that song for my daughter. I have a six year old daughter. I sing it. And once a girl started crying because it reminded her of her daughter, ”she recalls. “I made my grandfather's in fandango, so it wouldn't be so sad.”
Listening to Stefany is asking yourself what is singing bullerengue, what is a song, and what is behind his words when he says that the bullerengue is the Colombian dance cantao 'that covers the most territory. The first time his body sang, he remembers, he felt that something of his was emanating from his body, a collective sensation, and at the same time very individual.
I ask him what is his relationship with Afro-descendants. He tells me not so much. He talks about his dad. Do not think of another link. It does not say bullerengue. I look at her, and I say so. Capable and the bu-lle-ren-gue has been a bond, a compliment, and she who nods. Another silence. Who also sings.
Stefany, a national reference point for bullerengue, before feeling hungry for music, had the urge to heal pain. Some healers carry healing powers in their voices, – even (or mostly) without knowing it, and without deciding to do so. Perhaps that is why Stefany makes a living teaching bullerengue in prisons, in communities. Not to sing it. The economic remuneration for his presentations does not allow him to just sing. The first thing he studied was not music, but medicine. And her husband, Diomedes Mesa, 28, likes to remember it. That, and how they fell in love, are two anecdotes that he shares as a subject that is well learned , and at the same time, with the illusion that colors the voice just when an affection is discovered, and it feels like a great truth.
Stefany Cotera, who studied medicine, lives by teaching bullerengue in prisons and in communities. (Supplied / Rafael Bossio)
Before singing bullerengue, his university life began with studying medicine. Later, due to fate, he left medicine and entered a university to study professional music, ”says Diomedes.
Transit makes sense. The song of the bullerengue is a long cry that sounds like an open wound. When she sings, her throat is a twisting braid, and she claims her right to exhale pain, not to wallow in it. But to heal it. Heal it. He always had to be healed.
Diomedes also likes to remember how they met. He is the maraquero of Tonada, of the group where Stefany sings, but he met her before. A decade ago he heard her sing at an audition, and at the same time, the bullerengue as a meeting space became home to them.
“We fell in love in December 2011, at the María la Baja Festival. All this is very curious, because there are three airs in the bullerengue. It is divided into three rhythms, so to speak: the bullerengue sentao ', the chalupa and the fandango de lengua. So, one of the bullerengues, the bullerengue sentao, is said to be the dance of fertility. And coincidentally, when we returned from María la Baja, at six months, Stefany was already pregnant. From then on we have not separated ”, he says, and his voice sounds like a drum, it cuts off sometimes, only to return with a ringing, and accentuate with percussion accents in his tone, that this story is not just an anecdote, but Present.
“In the bullerengue we fell in love”, Stefany will tell me in a while, still in the square, before singing to Mariana.
The first unreleased song that Stefany sang was Pa 'la negra, and it was a gift from Diomedes. “I said, I'm going to compose a black song for him!”, He recalls, and recounts how his partner's route of bullerengues compositions has been a swing of tunes born from affection.
It goes like this: the first unpublished bullerengue that Stefany sang, was composed by him, her husband, who is also part of Tonada. And the first one that she composed, she wrote to her daughter, Mariana. And so.
It is Wednesday and we are in Cartagena, but next Sunday we will not be here. Stefany will be in Barranquillas, with Mariana, with Diomedes. He will take drum lessons with his daughter, in a plaza like this one, but with 60 more female drummers, who gather to learn, fighting against the notion that the drum is only for men, “a plaza for warriors”, he thinks Stefany. It is tradition. The bullerengue takes her to the sea, but also returns her home, and to her fighting spaces. Maybe that's why she never left him. Is.
And it is not that he is there, it is that he inhabits it, sings it, crosses it, carries it in the occasional blink, in the calm voice when he talks about his grandfather, in the temperance he swallows when he remembers Mariana, in the singing of her voice that for so long is not only pain, but also, in addition and above all: song.