By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Cristian Pinzón / Courtesy Aphrodisíaco
Afrodisíaco is a Panamanian group that is conquering audiences by force of drum. The band, 2016 winner of the Gaviota de Plata award at the Viña del Mar International Song Festival and nominated in 2018 for Best Folk Album at the Latin Grammy Awards for the album Viene de Panamá, creates music that fuses the black and rural cultures of this Central American country with other more contemporary influences, because, after all, Panama is a country that was formed under the influence of diverse migratory and cultural waves.
Tatiana Ríos, one of the group’s vocalists, explained that it all began with an idea from the group’s other vocalist, her childhood friend Miroslava Herrera. Herrera wanted to know how to narrate, musically, the journey of those first Africans who were ripped from their land to be turned into slave labor in the Americas. “The idea was to narrate this journey and how the music they brought, that first drumming, evolved into different musical currents and genres,” Tatiana said.
A conversation and the first song were enough to convince Tatiana that Miroslava’s idea was worth it. “I listened to the first demo and it was incredible,” she said. That song, “Ese moreno,” is one of the songs on the album that was nominated.
Afrodisíaco’s history is recent. It all began in 2014 when, with a shared idea and a lot of enthusiasm, Miroslava and Tatiana began to analyze the different rhythms of Panamanian drums. They studied the drums of Darién and Colón, those from the region of Azuero and Chiriquí, and the drums of Veraguas and La Chorrera. They all have a common root: the African drum. “We began to imagine how to make these drumming rhythms, which are generally chorus and response, into a song.”
In the midst of this momentum they decided to sign up for the Viña del Mar Festival. They wanted to write a new song, but they very quickly realized that the project required other hands, other heads, and other knowledge. They went to their friends, because they “could give us this musicality that we needed.”
The package that contained their entry for the contest, however, never made it. Due to administrative issues, it remained stuck in Chilean Customs and, by the time the problem was resolved, the application deadline had passed. Far from making them give up —and now seen in perspective— Tatiana admits that this was “providential.” The following year they once again applied, this time with a more polished version of the song “Viene de Panamá,” and… they won!
After their triumph in Viña del Mar, the group —by then fully formed— decided to work on an album, which took a year to complete. The work was difficult: they wanted to achieve a fusion between the traditional and the contemporary, making sure that the drum always played the leading role, because it is around the drum that the spirit of the group revolves. They also tried to show the different types of drum rhythms, so bullerengue drums and congo drum music, the most “mestizo” of the drum music, from the Azuero region, share space on the album. Since each member of the group comes from a different musical background, the album also carries the influence of jazz and pop, in addition to rap interventions.
The Latin Grammy nomination raised the bar for Afrodisíaco. Not only because they realized that the Panamanian drum has everything needed to be projected internationally, but because this nomination meant being next to other great artists of the region, such as Eva Ayllón of Perú, Marta Gómez and María Mulata of Colombia, Natalia Lafourcade of México, and the Puerto Rican group Yubá-Iré.