september 2010

Grupo Semilla

Husein Meghji
London - United Kingdom

Husein Meghji talks to Alejandro Camara of the Grupo Semilla about folk music, the Bolivian youth, politics and the environment.

The contents of the airy room betray the profession of its owner. In one corner, a charango is perched on its stand, while on the mantelpiece sits a golden award. The real giveaway, however, are the posters on the walls. They depict the Grupo Semilla over the years, each dating from a different phase of its 20-year history, bearing witness to members lost and gained in this time. Yet one man appears in all. Alejandro Camara is the founder and longest-standing member of Grupo Semilla. Today, the singer and charango maestro receives the Cocha-banner in his home for an interview.

Alejandro quickly runs down the group’s history. Grupo Semilla was formed on 20 November, 1990, he recalls, making this year their 20th anniversary. It originally consisted of three brothers from the Camara family, and two from the Tarbula family. A sixth member was incorporated when they started to play live and required a percussionist. Today, many changes later, the group numbers three: Alejandro and his two sons, Cesar and Fernando.

And so the musical tradition in the family continues. The younger generation of Camaras have proven themselves to be talented musicians like their father. This includes Lucero, Alejandro’s daughter, a talented singer and percussionist who was until recently the fourth member of the group. She has temporarily withdrawn to look after her family. Yet Alejandro insists that his children were never expected to follow in his footsteps. “At one time, they were studying for other professions,” he says, “but they felt naturally more inclined towards music.” They, like him, grew up listening to Bolivian folk music, and its pull proved irresistible. “Finally, they decided to dedicate their lives to it.”

The incorporation of two generations into the group has affected the evolution of Semilla’s music. Alejandro was born and grew up in the campo with its customs and traditions. He is proud of this heritage and often sings in Quechua. “English, German and Spanish are quite cold languages,” he says. “You can express yourself perfectly well but Quechua has a sweetness, a mischievous element that lends itself to jokes and pranks. You can never be too serious in Quechua – there are always double meanings. People love this in songs.”

To this fondness of tradition, Cesar and Fernando add a youthful influence. They are responsible for many of the group´s romantic songs such as Paceñita and Luz de mis Ojos. Furthermore, they are city born and bred. “They have more current ideas”

Alejandro admits. The introduction of modern instruments such as electronic bass and keyboard, which feature on the album El Ch’iti Alejito, was one of these. But it is just one way in which Semilla´s music is evolving. “We´ve kept the traditional style but added a youthful perspective” Alejandro explains.

This is a matter of some importance to Alejandro. For him, music ties in with other parts of Bolivia´s heritage. He compares national music with the patrimonial food, historically centered around maize, which “hasn´t died, although so many foreign foods have appeared”. The appearance in Bolivia of innumerable “fusion” music groups is a fact he laments, particularly as many let their foreign influences wear the trousers in the musical matrimony. “They mix too much… the essence is lost.” In his opinion,“In Bolivia, there are two types of music”: the national music and other music, all of which he sees as taking influence from outside Bolivia. “[While] some electronic groups, for example, barely make folkloric music but rather take influence from all over, from cumbias, reggaeton ...we who call ourselves folklore groups have always been about national folklore music.”

Like popular music folkloric music experiences trends. Different rhythms come in and out of fashion, from the Caporal to the Tobas to the Morenada which is so popular today. “Bolivia has a huge variety of rhythms,” Alejandro explains, “too many. There are periods, you see, of rhythms... at one time the caporal was number one in the country. Now, it´s the Morenadas, and without a doubt, one or two years from now, other rhythms will be popular.” For Alejandro, this is what sets folklore apart: “You can go one, twenty or fifty years, and carry on liking it - it doesn´t get old, whereas more modern genres, like reggaeton and so on, enjoy huge peaks of popularity, but then they die out”.

This variety of rhythms, often upbeat and energetic like the Morenada, and their association with fiestas and dancing, is perhaps why the young people of Bolivia are the most enthusiastic fans of national groups such as Semilla - the reverse of the trend seen in many countries. Alejandro is clearly fond of this youthful following. He has a refreshingly optimistic view of young people in Bolivia, little seen among the older generations. “In Bolivia, the young people are happy, they like to dance,” he enthuses.

His fondness of the younger generation is perhaps why, when asked about his plans for the future, Alejandro first states his intentions regarding the Escuela Camara, the music school which he runs. “As a person who has always dedicated myself to music, I will continue to teach values to the new generations… through music,” he says. However, his work with the Grupo Semilla clearly also continues to give him much satisfaction. “The public were so amazing” he says, speaking about his last performance, a stadium filler in La Paz.

The group can expect to perform to more large crowds, with dates lined up in Santa Cruz, Copacabana, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. And so Semilla continues to spread the music tradition of Bolivia, living by the mantra on which it was founded: “The flight of thought brings together the customs and traditions of a people, which are translated into a universal”

“Bolivia has a huge variety of rhythms”

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