By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman
It is October 2015. We are at the legendary “Ballena Azul” (Blue Whale) in Buenos Aires. The concert hall is filled to bursting. The lights go down and we hear the introduction: “Herencia de Timbiquí!” One light comes on, followed by another and another, gradually bringing eleven musicians out of the shadows. A marimba de chonta (marimba made of peach palm wood), typical of the Colombian Pacific region, plays in the background and is progressively joined by cununos (single-headed drums, mostly closed at the bottom), bombos (bass-type drums), and guasás (bamboo rattles), before the bass, guitar, and sax add their notes. Up to this point, I knew only that the group was Colombian. This first performance was a revelation. The notes flooded the air, my senses, and my entire body. My feet quickly took on a life of their own.
That was just a few months ago, and now I have the chance to meet them in the Atlapa Islands in Panama, during a marvelous night of music and folklore that forms part of the “Africa in the Americas” event. It is obvious that I am not the only one affected. This is not Buenos Aires, but this audience also gets carried away by the magic of marimbas and drums. Spellbound by the music, everyone is dancing even before the more well-known instruments begin to play.
Now I am in the lobby of the group’s hotel, trying to unravel the story by hearing the members themselves recount how a group of men from a paradise that is as remote as it is beautiful, as musical as it is unknown, ended up touring the world. I want to know and understand the story behind the sound. Where on earth is Timbiquí? What is a cununo or a guasá? How have they managed to fill auditoriums in Chile, Russia, Zambia, the United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe, and Switzerland when, four years earlier, they were barely known in Cali (the city nearest their home)?
Herencia de Timbiquí was born in 2000 in a small town called San José de Timbiquí on Colombia’s Pacific coast. This is a humid, rainy, jungled land bathed by rushing rivers and plagued by violence, illegal mining, and extreme poverty. But there is an innate joy that shows in the region’s songs, celebrations, and drums.
At that time, the band, consisting of only local musicians, played regional folk music with a traditional sound. William Angulo and Begner Vásquez (vocals), Enrique Riascos (the marimba maestro), and Pablo Mancilla and Etiel Alegría (conga drums) appear in many amateur videos filmed during the religious festivals that are celebrated with great fervor in this town lost in the middle of the jungle. They either absorbed the atmosphere or were born with rhythm in their blood, since Timbiquí is a worthy offspring of the currulao (a folkdance performed to the sound of marimbas) and the marimba de chonta. The children of their home region are lulled to sleep by traditional singers who also perform during the celebrations of saints’ days and at wakes.
The group members dreamed that one day their music would take them far. In search of that dream, they took the leap to the big city of Cali, but destiny had marked only five of them for the trip. The threads of fate dictated that they would meet university students and musicians who were also dreamers, resulting in the blended group that set Herencia de Timbiquí on a new path. This was when the marimba, made in artisan workshops out of peach palm wood and guadua bamboo, picked up an accompaniment of keyboards and rattles (known in the Pacific region as guasás), and combined with drums and even sax. It was a fusion of peoples, rhythms, colors, and flavors, a “palette,” in the words of Christian Salgado, the group’s music producer and keyboard maestro. A year after their arrival in the city, the group was ready to conquer the world and share the legacy of their roots.
“Life brought us together in this way. We were born to the folklore of the Pacific region, so we have a responsibility to bring that folklore to Colombia and the world, transmit it respectfully, and offer it sincerely,” Christian observes when I ask him: “Why folklore?”
All of Colombia takes notice when Enrique Riascos’s marimba sounds, and with the band having grown to include a perfect mix of members, their repertoire of rock, jazz, funk, and other sounds now converges delightfully in “a unique Latin creation” that carries its own rhythm and lays down its own legacy.
But the road was not easy. Born on the Pacific coast and shaped in Cali, their first attempts at blending traditions were rejected by audiences. Even though they had already taken first prize in the Petronio Álvarez Pacific Music Festival in 2006 and earned the honor of Shock Recording of the Year in 2011, the band went through a dry spell in 2012, when they performed just two concerts.
Christian tells us that they finally experienced “one of those life moments that changes everything.”
“As a young child I used to watch the Viña del Mar Song Festival on television with my aunts, and when I joined Herencia, I said: ‘I want to see the band playing in Viña del Mar’,” Christian confesses with a child’s wide-eyed gaze. So in 2013, they decided kick themselves into gear and try their luck. They devoted a lot of time and effort to composing “Tormenta,” a song they feel expresses the essence of the band. They were sure that this would be the song to sing in Chile’s “mammoth” competition. The song can still be heard and it is indeed magnificent. It has that typical flavor of the Pacific, that gentle beat of the marimba, and those voices characteristic of the region. But when the time came, they were not entirely satisfied with the song. Begner showed up with a last-minute surprise that left everyone breathless: “We started to do the chorus, but it wasn’t working,” remembers Christian; they didn’t record it until they got it right, which is how “Amanecé” traveled to Viña and won the Silver Seagull for the best folklore performance.
“It was a new day for the band,” says Enrique, remembering their feelings upon returning to Colombia, which brought an unexpected celebration. “All that time waiting, and now what were we supposed to do?” band manager Pablo Gallego remembers thinking. But everything worked out and “Amanecé” is the hit that sent them on their still-continuing journey around the world’s stages.
Nonetheless, these young people are not ones to rest on their laurels. They were still enjoying the thrill of their success at Viña del Mar when they began producing their new album: This is gozar. “We don’t have the infrastructure of a record company; we have done everything with hard work and through the support of radio, social networks, and certain Colombian artists,” notes Christian. The blood, sweat, and tears put into this work comes out in the energy evident on stage when they perform “Quiero cantarte.”
The charm of their music has enchanted other stars, and many have participated in the band’s productions or invited the band to appear on their own recordings. This is one reason that listening to the band is so satisfying; your hair stands on end when you hear “Nochecita” with the Colombian-Dutch trumpeter Maité Hontelé, “Siempre juntos” with Naty Botero, “Que no se acabe el tiempo” with Pipe Peláez, or “La Tierra del Olvido” with Carlos Vives. These fusions take Pacific rhythms to another level.
But they are still Herencia and the band never forgets Timbiquí. The group is also a foundation that works in their native town and other parts of the Colombian Pacific. In the words of Pablo, “The foundation doesn’t get caught up in the bad stuff; our role is to focus on what’s good and beautiful. The foundation works to draw out children’s abilities.”
As we talk about the importance of culture in social projects, Enrique adds: “We work to bolster people’s self-esteem. Progress goes hand-in-hand with advances in culture.” They are a model of success in Timbiquí; they showed it is possible to pursue a dream if you work hard and preserve your dignity. That is what they would like to share with the town they left only a few years ago.
I see them here, sitting across from me, and I can sense their humanity and their underlying gratitude and respect for their roots. I remember how just a few hours ago they chatted with some music students, sharing their knowledge and instruments. They move easily from huge venues where thousands of people shout their names to a small room at Panama University, from singing into microphones under stage lights to improvising with Joe, a trombone student who got out his instrument when he heard the piano. In seconds they created a first-rate jam session, without any regard for who was who.
By the end of the concert, no one was sitting down: everyone was dancing on the stairs, in the aisles, and between the rows; everyone had been infected with the beat, the marimba, and the voices of that chorus that “wasn’t working out.” The lights go down again and I say goodbye, for now, to rhythms that will play on.
Some of Their Greatest Awards
Petronio Álvarez Pacific Music Festival. First Place, Free Category. Colombia, 2006.
Shock Awards. Recording of the Year for the album Tambó. Colombia, 2011.
Viña del Mar International Song Festival. Silver Seagull, Best Folklore Performance. Chile, 2013.
Simón Bolívar Blue Cross Medal for their cultural contributions to Colombia. House of Representatives, National Senate. Republic of Colombia, 2013.
Shock Awards. Recording of the Year for the song “Amanecé.” Colombia, 2013.
Herencia de Timbiquí is also listed among the one hundred most successful companies in Colombia. Semana Magazine, 2014.
The group consists of Pablo Mancilla (conga drums and cununos), Enrique Riascos (marimba de chonta), Christian Salgado (keyboards), Julio Mancilla (bombo), Begner Vásquez (vocals and composition), Harlinson Lozano (saxes and direction), William Angulo (vocals), Omar Trujillo (trumpet), Etiel Alegría (bombo), Andrés Pinzón (electric guitar), and Julio Sánchez (bass).
De mangle a mango y siguiendo el camino (2006), featuring the noteworthy songs “Caleño,” “Se te acabó,” “Ni marido ni mujer,” and “Pacífico,” among others.
Villancicos negros (2007).
Tambó (2011), which includes the final versions of songs like “Te invito,” “Y qué,” “Coca por coco,” and “La sargento Matacho.”
This is gozar (2014).
You can listen to their music on Spotify, iTunes, and the group’s webpage at herenciadetimbiqui.com