From the plains of eastern Colombia, the joropo's syncopated drive and top-of-the-lungs singing proclaim a cattle-herding mestizo people proud of their homeland. Percussive harp techniques and fast-picking bandola guitar rise upon a bedrock rhythm of cuatro guitar, bass, and maracas to produce the signature plains sound. Through exquisite musicianship and challenging arrangements, the Colombian group Cimarrón (named for the free roaming bull of the plains) pushes the frontiers of traditional música llanera, the music of the expansive eastern fluvial plains that water the mighty Orinoco River and continue into western Venezuela. Ranchlands stretch across the region, and more than a century and a half of cattle herding has left a mark on the lifeways of its people.
The region’s musical heritage evokes centuries of sounds and sentiments of its Spanish colonial past and the postindependence period of the 19th century. Harps, guitars of different varieties (bandola, bandolina, bandolón, six-stringed guitar), violin, maracas, friction drums (zambomba or furruco), and rasps (chácharo andcarraca) point to Spanish and perhaps indigenous sources.
Today, the musical instruments used in joropo include harp or bandola llanera, cuatro, maracas, and acoustic or electric bass. The regional bandola is a four-stringed guitar, plucked with a small pick in a fast-moving technique. The cuatro is a small four-stringed guitar, whose loosely tensed strings allow the player to create a multitude of rhythmic-percussive effects, giving a unique character to the joropo sound. The deceptively simple-looking pair of maraca rattles is the source of a great variety of subtle sounds. Most are fashioned from the totumo gourd, with a stick handle and small seeds or pebbles inside.
In creating and leading the group Cimarrón since 1986, harpist Carlos Rojas looks back to the joropo’s roots, and he sees it fundamentally linked to dance because the sound of the dancers’ feet became an essential part of the music. In contrast, when the music is taken out of this social setting and placed on the concert stage, it loses the sounds of the dance, changing the traditional musical intent. This approach, of making records and playing concerts, he says, “would seem to be more directed at magnifying the virtuosic, soloistic display of the musicians and to the nearly exclusive intense valuing of the joropo singer’s talents."
Looking to the future, Rojas has “redesigned” the basic musical ingredients of the joropo, bringing the rhythmic roots that resonate with the dance and that typically underpin the joropo’s melodies and harmonic accompaniment to the forefront of the sound. This meant both adding a rhythm box (cajón) to the instrumentation to evoke the rhythmic sound and spirit of the dance, and insisting that joropo dance (and song) be part of the performance whenever possible. This “new mix” creates “a new balance, a new relation among the acoustical weightings of percussion, strings, and voices within the joropo sound. This innovation has played well to national and international audiences, and now they are bringing it to the Montana Folk Festival in Butte.