I had headphones on and I had that thing you sing into like in the music videos, like Daddy Yankee. I was Daddy Yankee. –Popocho, 11yrs old
I still cant shake the moment from my mind when I asked Yair, a 13-year old natural percussionist, to play some shakers over the developing rhythm he and Pocho had laid down. With a straight face, he moved only his hands and his hips as he played right on top of the rhythm… as if his they were both the same body part. He wasn’t the only one either. Popocho, the 11-year old lead singer, followed a similar rhythm to butter up the attitude in his voice. After a few hours of recording, we took a lunch break and reflected on the magic that was happening inside the humid recording room in Portobelo, Colon. I remember telling Michael Brown, the Co-Founder of Cambio Creativo, how inspiring it was to see the youth express the rhythms with their bodies even before a hand hit a djembe drum, tambourine, maraca or triangle. Then they would refine the rhythm as their ears caught up with what their bodies were doing.
My initial interest in this project stemmed from the need for literacy with an emphasis on learning the alphabet and the phonetics of the letters. After weeks of working with the students it became evident that many of the students could not recite the alphabet let alone understand their homework assignments. Lorena Endara, Co-Director of the program, had the idea to create an Abc’s song that the youth could identify with. Most songs we found on the internet were Western-European influenced songs that had no place in the ears or hearts of the youth who were more accustomed to the fierce native rythms of Plena, Salsa, and Congos. The goal was to create a song made and sung by the students that they could teach one another.
The audition/rehearsal sessions were incredible. When we first started I asked the students to play whatever beat they wanted and two came naturally to them: traditional Congo rhythms and the theme song from their beloved Barcelona soccer club. When the rhythm would catch fire a random 7-year old student would playfully dance his way into the room while clapping the clave to the rhythm on the off beats. My smile would fill the room as I was deeply humbled. Most adults I know couldn’t do that to save their lives! Once the rhythm section was established, Yari the 15-year old, took the female vocal lead and was backed up by her younger 10-yr old sister, Mili. Both girls were incredibly bright, talented and were just as good as any of the percussionists.
The first time we all heard the final mix the students bashfully smiled at each other. The second time we heard it many were singing along even though they didn’t exactly know what letter followed but you could see the effort in their concentration. In a matter of days they were singing sections of it amongst themselves and would ask if we were gonna record some more even though the project was completed! This was the first time the youth had seen themselves as recording artists and it left them wanting more. I was really honored to have been a part of this mutual learning experience. Amazing things happen when we embrace the youth to take control of their artistic flow. This is one of my proudest recording projects I have ever been a part of and I owe it to the youth of Coco Solo. This is the first of many to come.