Making music with the Kogi: “Singing is a way for them to connect with the animals… a way to live peacefully among them without fear” | Songlines
Thursday, July 15, 2021

Making music with the Kogi: “Singing is a way for them to connect with the animals… a way to live peacefully among them without fear”

By Russ Slater

French producer Lion’s Drums talks to Russ Slater about recording the Kogi people of northern Colombia whose singing practices form an integral component of their profound relationship with nature

Kagabas Playing Drums

Until recently, French producer Harold Boué had been best known for making expansive, silken and often austere dance music under the alias of Abstraxion; rigid grooves perfect for dance floors. But in 2018 he took a sideways step, releasing an EP of highly-percussive tracks inspired by his city, Marseille. These songs could still be played in a nightclub, but they had a personality; there was a rawness with live percussion, playful synths and vocals that seemed to drift in from the streets; most noticeably, it sounded like music coming from a place, rather than a computer. The name of this new project was Lion’s Drums, named after his then-newborn son’s star sign and the instrument at the heart of the album, alluding to the fact that he had moved away from drum machines. The following year, in 2019, he took this same musical approach but applied it to somewhere far less familiar – northern Colombia.

Lion's Drums (photo: Yohanne Lamoulere)

“There was a special podcast on the radio about the Kogi, the Kagabas,” recalls Boué over a Zoom call, “where there was a máma [or mamo, the spiritual leader of a Kogi tribe] talking about how he was concerned by the modern world’s attempt to destroy the earth and was really trying to share some of his knowledge about the damaging lifestyle that we have, he wanted to speak out about this.” It moved Boué so much that he got in touch with the Nativa Foundation, an organisation that works directly with the Kogi to protect their land. Within a matter of months, and after consultations with the Kogi themselves, Boué was on his way to stay with them. “I was able to go there, but only for a week. If I stayed longer it would affect the balance of their life with me coming from the outside. This is a rule that they have.”

There is a chance you have heard of the Kogi, also called Kaggabas (with Boué using the spelling Kagabas). They are one of a number of Colombia’s indigenous tribes who dispersed to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world (the mountains rise to 5,700m, just over 40km from the coast), to elude the wrath of Spanish colonisers. Since then their culture has remained remarkably intact, and they must be one of the few indigenous tribes that have recently grown in size (their population rising from 12,000 in 1990 to around 20,000 in recent years; though the recent death of a máma due to COVID-19 makes their precarity all too clear). They have also become spokespeople for the planet, anointing themselves ‘Older Brothers,’ and all those who prize development and construction over the environment (aka the Western world) as ‘Younger Brothers.’ They have seen firsthand how their own isolated environment has been affected by climate change, and decided to have their say. In 1990, the British writer and filmmaker Alan Ereira captured their message in a film for the BBC, The Heart of the World, and he has worked with them ever since, passing on their warnings of a catastrophe facing the planet if the earth is not respected. It’s a message still being ignored.

The Kogi’s close relationship with nature, and the way they use music to reinforce that, is one of the main features of Kagabas, Boué’s latest release (reviewed in the May 2021 issue, #167). The producer explains how he would spend each day with his guide, Franz (from Nativa), Máma José Miguel and his son Camilo: “When we were walking in the forest, in the jungle, sometimes we were hearing a monkey and this song about the monkey happened [sung by Máma], because there was a special connection. Then, when we arrived at a village, there was a special rock that was used as a way to connect between life and death. Máma started singing and then his son Camilo started to get more and more interested. He was talking with his father, sharing memories from the knowledge that they have together. It was music from memories.” These two particular instances resulted in tracks from the album, ‘Alouatta (Hembra)’, ‘Alouatta’ – alouatta being the genus for howler monkeys – and ‘Kagabas’, Boué adding sparse percussion and synths to the singing of Máma and his son, always careful to preserve their intended message. “My idea around this album was to tell a story about what they wanted to express and what I’ve experienced there and how I could share this experience and share the story. I didn’t want to cut the lyrics, so with ‘Alouatta’ I kept in all [Máma’s] vocals from the beginning to the end and added some melodies. I was really following them and fulfilling what they wanted to express and when they wanted to express it.”

He also talks about the origins of the track ‘Water’: “They were fishing, getting some pieces of avocado and trying to catch fish [with the avocado]. But they were giving more food to the fish than getting fish out of the water. It was more about giving something and then receiving something. In the end, we got no fish but we were happy. It was something that I liked, especially as a vegetarian!” The sound of water and laughter run throughout the track, as well as some of the most joyous synth lines on the album, seeking to bring that memory to life. Other tracks like ‘Snake’ and ‘Deer’, which feature Máma singing about the animals of the title, are further proof of the constant conversation between the Kogi and those they share their environment with. “Singing is a way for them to connect with the animals,” says Boué. “It’s a way to live peacefully among them without fear and without the need to kill everything that is around them. It’s about equanimity, a balance between them and nature, respecting what is around them.”

I am intrigued to know what the Kogi actually thought about the final result. Boué says that his guide, Franz, took a copy of the finished album to the tribe, playing it to them on his mobile phone. “They relaxed as a result,” he replies, adding: “They actually sent me a message… saying that the album means a lot to them and that I’m one of them. It’s something that is still alive right now.”

There is a stigma attached to indigenous tribes concerning their perceived primitivism, but the Kogi, who allow musicians, filmmakers and journalists into their community, welcoming their ideas and offering them huge generosity of spirit, while still taking care to preserve that which they hold sacred – their culture, their community and their environment – show themselves to be anything but. Boué’s recordings on Kagabas capture their intimate communion with the earth, finding ways to elevate (and modernise) their songs without losing their essence. Through that process, he has helped disseminate their message, and if that means we now pay more attention to our Older Brothers it can only be a good thing.

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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