A few months back I was asked by fellow student Esther Rojas from Berklee College of Music to travel with a group of students to Colombia for the College. Although I was never in doubt as to whether I wanted to go or not, I had my thoughts about the country based on the picture painted by media. Colombia used to give me associations such as cocaine, criminality and poverty, but since my visit that has drastically changed. I have experienced a very different Colombia from how I imagined, filled with amazing food, fruits, coffee, music and art. The people have been very welcoming and friendly, and our music students have been great to work with.
With a group consisting of me from Norway (tenor and soprano saxes, goat horn, EWI), Caili O’Doherty from the US (piano), Ester Rojas from Colombia (bass) and Patrick Simard from Canada (drums), we went to experience the Colombian culture while also sharing some of our own. I have made memories and friends that I will never forget, and this certainly is not my last visit to Colombia.
The non-profit organization Colombo Americano aims to help students learn about educational opportunities in the US and ways to access these opportunities. They do this by teaching english in many different locations in Colombia, and by arranging cultural exchanges, which is what I was a part of. The jazz camps in the various cities we visited happen every year, and this year is the 4th time the event takes place in Medellin, and the 5th time in Pereira.
The first week was spent in a wonderful city called Medellin. It was strange for me to see a city with over 3 million people located in a mountainous landscape like this. We came to Medellin from the mountains surrounding it, and it was really breathtaking to see this wonderful landscape from above. We started teaching the second day in the city, together with two groups from the University of North Texas and Cincinnati who were also part of the cultural exchange. The clinics we had lasted for about six hours a day, and we were free to do with that time whatever we pleased. It didn’t take long to connect with the students, and the their interest and engagement was something that impressed me right away. They had done their research about us and Berklee, and made us feel really appreciated.
The Colombo organization assigned some amazing people to take care of us, and by taking us out to nice dinners and showing us the culture in the city we felt really appreciated. We got a chance to see some Colombian art at a museum, experience local food such as cows tongue and «chicharone» (fried pig skin), and I even attempted some salsa dancing. The ladder caused lots of laughs among the locals, although all in good spirit. They also had us visit a TV station to perform live on national Colombian TV. The program lasted about an hour and featured several of our original tunes. I believe this to be the first time someone has performed on a goat horn on Colombian TV. For me it was important to share some of my culture with the Colombian people, since they were so willing to share theirs with us. By bringing in one of my compositions featuring the goat horn into our concerts I hope I left some Colombians with a broader knowledge of my little country and its music. On our last day in Medellin we also had a chance to go up in the mountains to see a smaller Colombian town called Retiro. In the center of the town we visited a church, a small grocery store and a market. In Colombia we tasted many interesting fruits that you wouldn’t find in your average American or Norwegian grocery store, and this marketplace was no exception. During our trip we had some really amazing fruits, often in the form of juices. Some of my favorite fruit juices were guanabana, lulo and mandarin. When we had finished eating fruits and checking out the local market, we finally arrived at a school in the eastern part of Antioquia. It was lead by a lady who spent her retirement giving the local youth an opportunity to learn english, use computers with internet and even learn some music. I got to speak to one of the students there, a twenty-year-old boy who told me that this opportunity had really changed his life. He had lived on the street and in an orphanage for most of his life. His english was very good, and he told me he dreamt of becoming a writer. Seeing the people in this school was really inspiring, something that was reflected in our music later that day.
Our second week was spent mostly in Pereira, with a short visit to Manizales. The students we had in Pereira were divided into two groups: one with classical musicians our own age, and one with kids age 13-17. We spent a lot of time working on the feel of jazz, which I think they learned a lot from. With the younger students it took some time to make them comfortable with improvising, but by having them improvise one-note-solos and with clapping I think we opened some doors for their future musical experiences. The first show we played in Pereira was broadcasted live on Colombian radio. We had also been in the studio earlier in the day for a short interview. On our last night we played on a large outdoor stage, something that was a new experience for me. The crowd was amazing (much due to our students being there, cheering for us), especially when we all did background voices on a Colombian standard song. Some of our younger students had even made us all bracelets, showing their gratitude for the workshops they took part in. I was really moved by their interest and eagerness to learn, as well as their support for our music. I believe we left them with a broader perspective of music, and motivation to keep studying jazz and music in general. I definitely learned a lot from them. We also made sure to give them our contact info, so we can keep in touch and hear how they develop in the future.
Two days before leaving Colombia we went for a day to visit Manizales, where we also played a concert and had a master class. The audience was amazing, and even as we were walking around the city after the show people came up to us with compliments and to take pictures (definitely a new experience for me). We also ran into a local instrument maker who had seen the show and wanted to share with us some South American instruments. After talking for a bit we decided to meet up with him before leaving the next morning and check out some of his drums and flutes. Patrick ended up buying several percussion instruments, and I bought two indigenous flutes named «quena» and «quenilla». I also gave him some information about how to obtain Norwegian traditional instruments, and I think we both gained a lot from the encounter. I am so happy to be able to bring some of the local music home with me, as the goal of the project was to exchange culture. After two long weeks of teaching it was very nice to visit the hot springs in Manizales. After our show we spent the remainder of the night bathing and relaxing. On the way back down to Pereira we got to see a lot of the Colombian country side, which I really appreciated. The coffee plantations were all over the place, and we got to take pictures and see things we couldn’t find in the bigger cities.
I can honestly say I made memories for life in Colombia. To get this close to the South American culture was a huge learning experience. The people were extremely willing to share their culture, and also open to ours. Although our trip is over, our work is far from done. We hope to show others that Colombia is not the way it used to be. By sharing our experiences I hope to open for more cooperation and cultural exchanges between Colombia and other countries. Music has once again proven to be a fantastic way to make new friends and share culture.