Las Alegres Ambulancias is in residency at the Old Town School of Folk Music July 13-18. They headline World Music Wednesday at the School on 7/16 are also playing 7/13 at the Square Roots Festival. While they are here, they will conduct workshops on Colombian song, dance and percussion. You can also see them Friday 7/18 when they celebrate Colombian Independence Day at Las Tablas Colombian Steakhouse. For more information, visit www.oldtownschool.org.
Preview By Don Macica
Last night, as I was gathering my thoughts to write this, I came across a documentary on Netflix about a band that is considered a national treasure in Haiti, Orchestre Septentrional. When the Drum is Beating traces the band’s 65+ year history and its place of pride in the hearts of Haiti’s people. I was among the lucky ones who got to see them at Millennium Park a few years ago in the summer following the devastating earthquake, and it was one of the more joyous experiences of my life. The group’s rhythmic foundation is based on the vodou ceremonies practiced by many Haitians. Vodou, a belief system with deities that are inextricably entwined with drums, dance and song (there is no separation, really), is a source of deep spiritual sustenance in the face of life’s hardships as well as a connection back to Mother Africa.
Like Septentrional, Las Alegres Ambulancias de San Basilio de Palenque trace their formation back generations. The group was started in 1905 in the town from which they take their name, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Its purpose was, and continues to be, to preserve the musical tradition of the grandmothers, mothers, aunts and fathers who were its members, all part of an extended family in a town that was founded by escaped slaves in 1691. Las Alegres, like their Haitian counterparts Septentrional, is more than just a musical ensemble.
“Alegres Ambulancias” quite literally means vehicle of happiness, and their music is certainly that. In its traditional folkloric form, it is used almost medicinally to mitigate pain and suffering and help members of the community who have lost loved ones. It is still relatively isolated in San Basilio, and thus the community has held firmly onto its Afro-Colombian heritage. You immediately hear that in Las Alegres Ambulancias music. It’s a joyous and insistent rhythmic workout, built on a foundation of drum patterns, songs and dances that date back 500 years.
The group is now led by the descendents of their original singer, Graciela Salgado Valdez. It is directed by Tomas Batata, also part of the extended family. In 2011, Batata did extensive research into the music’s origins while simultaneously filling out and modernizing the sound with the addition of electric bass and guitar, a western style drum kit and saxophone. Its essence, however, remains in the rhythms and songs that have gone essentially unchanged for centuries.
Las Alegres Ambulancias will likely be a vehicle of immense happiness to anyone who encounters them.
About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.