Cimarrón’s ‘plains music’ anything but flat

Cimarrón brings the little-known sound of joropo from Colombia to Somerville.
Cimarrón brings the little-known sound of joropo from Colombia to Somerville.Daniel E. Sheehy/Photo by Daniel E. Sheehy

The typical joropo song begins with a fast homophonic block of melody and rhythm, stringed instruments led by folk-harp and bandola guitar, and percussion — BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! And then a piercing nasal vocal cry: "Aaaay!"

It's the call of the cattleman, herding his charges. Joropo is music born of the plains that extend from Colombia into Venezuela. Though the area has since the late 1900s seen the advance of the oil industry, it has a longer tradition as ranchland. And that's where joropo, and other plains music ("música llanera"), comes from. Like a lot of regional folk music — from Cajun and Creole in southwest Louisiana to Tex-Mex conjunto — joropo is high-energy and highly emotional, declamatory, full of boasts and laments, and created to be performed with dancers.


Don't expect to see much dancing except for onstage when the joropo septet Cimarrón makes its Boston debut in a World Music/CRASHarts show at Johnny D's this Saturday. The club is known to attract throngs of knowledgeable dancers for touring Cajun and zydeco acts. But, says Cimarrón founder Carlos Rojas Hernández, the helter-skelter triple meter of joropo is "such a complex dance, so fast that it doesn't entice" North American dancers. What's more, the regional style is little known even in much of Colombia, never mind LA or Somerville.

The swish and stomp of dancers' feet were originally of a piece with the rhythms of joropo. To compensate for that missing element in recordings and concert performances, Hernández, who founded Cimarrón in 1986, has over the years tweaked the band's sound, adding the cojon rhythm box and electric or acoustic bass. "When you listen to the recording, you don't get to hear the sound of feet, so we try to re-create that sound and those rhythms," Hernández says in Spanish through an interpreter at a tour stop in Albuquerque. And, throughout the live performance, there is constant dancing from the band's two percussionists.


So, if what you hear at Johnny D's (or on the band's 2011 Smithsonian Folkways release "Cimarrón: Joropo Music From the Plains of Colombia") doesn't exactly match what you might hear at a festival in farm country along the Orinoco River, there are other compensations. For one, there is the stunning virtuosity of the band, evident in the complex flurry of patterns from Hernández's harp, the bandola of Ferney Rojas Cabezas and the four-string cuatro guitar of Darwin Rafael Medina Fonseca. The various sets of maracas approximate the swish of dancing feet, while the actual feet of the percussionists stomp out forceful zapateado rhythms, a sound Hernández describes as "much louder and more aggressive" than flamenco.

Cimarrón has several instrumental features in its book, but the stories of joropo and música llanera come from its two vocalists, Luis Eduardo Moreno and Ana Veydó. Moreno is esteemed for his impassioned, rapid-fire delivery, and his skill in contrapunteo (competitive verse improvisation), which is akin to the freestyling of rap battles, with cash-prize awards. You might improvise boasts about your skill at roping a steer or, as in rap, simply about your vocal and lyrical prowess.

That's a pretty macho context for a woman to enter into. After all, Moreno's nickname is "El Gallito Cantaclaro" — "the clear-singing cock." But Hernández says that in Cimarrón "there's no such thing as female and male songs. It's one kind of music. It focuses on scenes of love but also scenes of working on the farm, with cattle and horses." So there are songs about milking and riding, about the pride of being a plainsman ("Llanero soy"), or even an homage to one's hat ("Mi sombrero"). Veydó, with her flexible, darkly colored voice, is as adept at those work songs as at songs of love, and especially effective when one becomes a thinly veiled metaphor for the other as in "El cimarrón" ("the wild bull"), and its lyrics, "I go singing 'El cimarrón'/ along the moonless roads/ I go recounting to the plain/ my sorrows, one by one." And although there are more women singing joropo these days, Hernandez describes Veydó as "a pioneer" for women in the genre.


Hernández says that although the band has toured internationally, in Colombia itself, joropo is still not as prevalent as the Andean-style folk music from urban centers like Bogotá or even the Afro-Caribbean cumbia of the northeast coast. The lineage of the music, he says comes from the native Indian culture as well as Spanish colonialists, including the North African slaves who found their way through Spain to South America. Perhaps that accounts for the Arabic tinge of the band's highly ornamented string playing.

But, though he has written extensively about joropo, Hernández says this information is secondary to enjoyment of the music. "It's a music that transmits a lot of feeling, a lot of character. So it doesn't need any other explanation. Sit back, enjoy, and be surprised by the aggressiveness, the rhythms, and the force of the music."


Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com.