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'Connected to my roots': Local cultural center hosts Afro-Colombian music, history workshops

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WINNIE LAU | STAFF

La Peña has strived to be inclusive and to move the Latin American culture forward by building authentic relationships with its community, artists, activists and allies, according to Natalia Neira-Retamal, executive director.

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AUGUST 26, 2022

Along Shattuck Avenue, near the border between Berkeley and Oakland, a colorful mural can be seen honoring the resilience of folk singers, activists and allies who endured the Chilean military coup of 1973.

The mural — titled “Song of Unity” — was painted three years after the establishment of La Peña Cultural Center in 1975. The center has since served as a base for community meetings, artistic expressions, activism and multicultural solidarity in the anti-Pinochet dictatorship movement.

Almost half a decade later, La Peña Cultural Center continues to serve as a multicultural hub for diasporic communities to uplift artists and promote social justice.

The ‘La Peña family’: Returning from COVID-19 pandemic closure

When COVID-19 hit the Bay Area in March 2020, La Peña Cultural Center closed temporarily, yet still worked to advocate for and secure governmental and institutional funds for the Center and local artists, according to La Peña executive director Natalia Neira-Retamal.

“Without La Peña, people were performing on the street or in a pub,” said Oakland resident and longtime La Peña member Breeanna Doan at the event. “I am really happy that they were able to survive the pandemic and really support artists through artist grants.”

The center reopened in December 2021 after months of strategizing financial sources, according to Consuelo Tupper Hernandéz, programming and marketing manager at the La Peña. She added that in the past eight months, La Peña has been working to rebuild relationships and regain the greater community’s trust in the organization.

In partnership with Rebolu, a New-York-City-based Afro-Colombian musical ensemble, La Peña Cultural Center hosted a series of Afro-Colombian music workshops Wednesday night.

“(La Peña) is one of those places that supports cultures … we want to be part of places like this,” said Johanna Castañeda, lead vocalist and manager of Rebolu. “Because of these places, music keeps on going.”

In the workshop, four members of Rebolu — who play traditional Afro-Colombian instruments including the tambora, the tambor alegre, the gaita and the flauta de millo — demonstrated how their instruments are crafted and played. They also taught and performed cumbia rhythm, one of the most prominent rhythms originated in the north coast of Colombia in the 17th century.

About 40 participants attended the workshops where they learned to play Cumbia rhythms on the traditional percussion, including local Colombian musicians who joined for impromptu concerts throughout the workshop.

While the name Rebolu has different meanings, for Castañeda’s group the word translates to “a fun time gathering together to dance and sing.” She and the band’s vocalist and composer Ronald Polo noted that bringing energy to people in each performance is one of their core values.

Jose Rivera, an Oakland resident and member of a local Colombian band, Los Bahianatos, said at the event that he has been coming to La Peña’s music events for 30 years. He added that he has performed at the center in the past.

“It is nice to check out this event because it is really close to home to the music I learn to play,” Rivera said at the event. “I made some connections too … connecting to what I’m playing.”

‘A pivotal moment today’: La Peña as a community space for dialogue around current events

The word Peña refers to Chilean community gatherings centered around music, food, drink and culture along with dialogue around current issues, according to La Peña’s website.

Apart from special workshops, La Peña Cultural Center hosts regular classes with help from local cultural bearers, an open-mic series empowering women of color and a monthly dance party named “BAILA!”  to celebrate Latin American dances as well as educate people about indigenous communities in Mexico through a community partner, according to Neira-Retamal and Tupper.

Neira-Retamal said La Peña has strived to be inclusive and to move the Latin American culture forward by building authentic relationships with its community, artists, activists and allies.

Born and raised in Chile, Tupper came to the Bay Area to pursue a postgraduate education in 2019. She said she was isolated at first, but that she was grateful to find a community at La Peña, where she participated in fundraising activities, community councils and other types of cultural gatherings in support of communities in Chile that were protesting on the streets during a social movement at the time.

La Peña also hosts an annual Sept. 11 memorial service for the Chilean exile community and allies to remember the day of the 1973 Chilean military coup through music and poetry.

“We’re in a pivotal moment today,” Tupper said. “We need to (keep doing this event) for the younger generations and think about how we keep this relevant with what is happening today in the world.”

According to Neira-Retamal, Chileans will vote on Sept. 4 to determine if they will adopt a new constitution that would replace the 1980 document established by the Pinochet dictatorship. She added that she is hopeful that it will pass in order to establish a more democratically crafted constitution.

If the vote sways in favor of replacement, La Peña will host a celebratory gathering at the next Sept. 11 memorial, which will commemorate 49 years since the 1973 military coup, and for many, a new sense of healing.

“I am feeling more connected to learn more about Cumbia in Chile,” said workshop participant Xavier Andrade, a Chilean American whose parents fled to the United Kingdom in 1976 after the military coup. “It is nice to have something connected to my roots.”

Contact Winnie Lau at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @winniewy_lau.
LAST UPDATED

AUGUST 26, 2022


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