Part four of Tom Lynham's attempts to find the meaning in a poem by the Colombian writer Rubén Darío Flórez Arcila.
I emerge from the gloomy tube into Brixton station and confront a bank of churning escalators. Stairway to heaven or journey to the centre of the earth? Not sure, but I do see a paternoster of Márquezian characters gliding up and down in effortless locomotion. The whole human zoo is here today, translating their inner aspirations via their outer manifestations. Every lock of hair, turn of sock, painted eyelash, rouged lip, tattooed shoulder, elastic strap, saggy trouser, branded sneaker and emblazoned T-shirt is a mating call. I count wiggers and brutherz, Goths and Rastas, rude boyz and hoodies, hoochies and gangstas, thizzies and old skool, kandy kids and waisians, femme dykes and try-babies, kwazzy-jerks and shuga-daddies. But strangest of all is the soundtrack. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony blares out of the public address speakers. Back in 1989, US forces ejected General Noriega from the Vatican Embassy in Panama by bombarding him with heavy metal rock. In 2009, London Transport deters troublesome kids from entering the station by playing music that is so uncool, they wouldn’t be seen dead within earshot of it. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Macondo becomes a magnet for itinerant gypsies, insane evangelists, snake doctors, mad inventors and wandering minstrels. Márquez describes them as - handsome specimens with oily skins and intelligent hands, whose dances and music sowed panic and uproarious joy through the streets. They bring extra-terrestrial wonders that amaze the residents: A hen who laid one hundred golden eggs to the sound of a tambourine…an apparatus to make a person forget his bad memories…a poultice to lose time…jugglers with six arms…a syrup to make one invisible.
Bar Amazonica is five minutes from the station and styles itself The First in Colombian Salsa, Pachanga & Boogaloo. The dining area is fitted out with wooden booths reminiscent of a Tyrolean bierkeller. A few men sit and drink. A large windowless dance hall off to one side contains PVC sofas, spotlights and a snoozing glitterball. I dropped in last week asking for Colombian contacts. The manager took my number. Yesterday Diego phoned and said he would be happy to talk. I introduce myself at the bar and someone goes to find him. I glide across the rectangle of scuffed parquet flooring where three nights a week, people come to lose their inhibitions and practice vertical sex. The walls are saturated with the perspiration of expectation.
I settle at a table and check the tape recorder batteries. Diego appears and sparkles with enthusiasm. Born in Colombia in 1976, he came to England as a teenager to study music technology. I tell him about Rubén’s poem and describe 26 Exchanges as an exploration of translation. He twigs immediately and finds a striking parallel. I work as a translator for other musicians. The person at the desk in the studio has to interpret what the musician wants, so the music and technology become inseparable. First you lay down the base track of a Salsa then you layer one track over another. It’s like a pyramid. Then you start mixing. I’ve heard acres of Latin American music over the last two weeks, but know nothing about the origins or genres. Diego illuminates. We’ve got lots of different rhythms. Cumbia is from the Atlantic coast in Colombia and extends down to Ecuador. It’s a mixture of Afro drums with brass instruments and comes from colonisation times. Then on the Pacific coast which is mainly black, they still play original African drums and rhythms. There used to be no R&B in Colombia. Now there is dance music, R&B and influences from America and Europe. Everything is being mixed up with old African instruments, plus the cumbia, and it’s becoming a new gender of music - like reggaeton which uses technology like Cubase, LOGIC and midi instruments mixed with African rhythms.
I ask why music is so essential to Latin Americans. It’s about expressing your aura, your ego - I am from here and this is how we make music. We have lots of songs related to places. Cali in Colombia has the Guinness Book of Records for the most songs about a city. Dancing is a ritual from ancient times. Man goes to seduce a woman. It says - I am here, and I am a beautiful person, and I am showing myself to you. In Colombia we have bajenato from the Atlantic coast. Very romantic rhythms. Lyrics about love or deception. Like opera, it’s comedy or tragedy with nothing in the middle. They feel good about the love stories. But when its bad - OHHH my girl left me - they turn to drink and tragedy. It feels good to dance so you look for a woman. In Colombia people write more about tragedies than comedies because of the rigid culture. So tragedy is a reminder of something not right that we shouldn’t do. Every country has a musical identity but we share a lot. We share cumbia with Ecuador, but they listen to more Colombian cumbia than any other. Colombians listen to more Puerto Rican music than Colombian music. The Cubans listen to more Colombian. So everybody listens to each other except themselves.
I hand Diego the poem. He devours it line by line. It starts out talking about Mother Earth. In the black hole of the universe, there is this beautiful little dot. Then it doesn’t make too much sense. It’s about Me and Earth. Like deep penetrated sex, the jungle swallows all who enter. He grins. It sounds so beautiful in Spanish but doesn’t make sense in English. He reads sections out loud in rapid Spanish. It’s very difficult to translate. This next part is a comparison between coke, sex and sand. Coca grew like the word, sex…like the mouth, like the word in the saliva…was the heaven. Diego expands the background. In southern areas aborigines chase food in the jungle and chewing the leaf of coca gives them energy. This is very difficult to find meaning. It is talking about the coca…grows…like the word air, like the sex and the word in the saliva was heaven…
The words are tantalising. We don’t know exactly what Rubén is trying to say, but think we can feel it. A dim distant biblical reference creeps into my head. In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God... The idea that language was a gift from the gods occurs in numerous religions. Mayan folklore has parallels with the story of the Tower of Babel; that man became so lippy, the gods divided us with different tongues to curb our arrogance.
Diego moves onto the next section. This bit is about land…you don’t have a land unless you have been expelled from it. I struggle to grasp this and he tries to clarify. You don’t know what your land means until you lose it. In Spanish it makes a kind of sense. It’s about cultural identity. To come back to your land is to go to heaven without stars that you carry in your heart. Diego laughs and explains the form of Latin American tragedy. The way it goes traditionally is - something bad happened to me but I’ve still got you. He reads on. The plane flies me to heaven. I could almost touch the white beautiful clouds. Downwards the earth is populated by assassins, addicts, lovers, everything wrong. Downwards all the bad things like you and me full of new violence, full of war, but still full of your love. Diego grins and slaps the table. Ha! This part is very good. The poet is still in the plane. Below is the earth and I am touching heaven. But up here I still have viruses and the bad things from down there and that makes my heart beat. I am made of good and bad things. Diego has been translating off the top of his head. A pen and piece of paper would be good! But suddenly, he is on a roll like a code breaker who has cracked a cipher. He rattles through the last lines. Heaven comes from the fanaticism of jealousy, its purity like flames in the ground, burns in jealousy the souls of the believers! We both feel a bit breathless. Diego passes the poem back to me but I insist he keeps it. He traces a finger over the text. I respond to everything in it. It is very clever. I am made from down there, but I am touching the purity of heaven. We all feel like that. This bit here is very erotic. If it could be translated properly it would be brilliant.