February 2014

Dancing to Divulge: La Saya Afro-Boliviana

A minority ethnic group in Bolivia, the Afro-Bolivians make up for what they lack in numbers with their rich traditions and distinct cultural heritage. Their greatest influence in Bolivian culture is La Saya, a style of music and dance used both as a way to express and solidify the Afro-Bolivian identity, and which is a form of resistance and empowerment. Erika Duarte, a performer of La Saya and prominent member of the Afro-Bolivian community, discusses this art form and its significance to her people.

By: Tamar Honing
Projects Abroad Volunteer
New York – The United States


Dance ensemble of the Afro- Bolivian La Saya
Photo: Ximena Noya

Music and dance are often considered universal languages, and watching the Afro-Bolivian performers of La Saya, it is easy to understand why. The pulsing beat of the drums accompanying the dynamic chanting and rhythmic movements of the dancers more than compensated for the incomprehensibility of the lyrics. While the literal meaning of their soulful singing was beyond me, the Afro-Bolivian performers nevertheless effectively conveyed a strong message about their cultural roots.

Wrapped in the rhythms and motions surrounding me were centuries of tradition extending back to the early Spanish colonial era, when the ancestors of modern Afro-Bolivians were brought as slaves from Africa to work in the silver mines of PotosĂ­. Each pounding of the drum seemed to transmit the resilience of a community that has retained its vibrant culture despite continuous oppression and marginalization. The performers, with the full force of their mosaic history shining through their performance, expertly communicated sentiments ranging from bitterness to joy. In doing so, they captured the triumphs and tribulations of an entire race and created a memorable experience for myself and the other festival-goers.

Each pounding of the drum seemed to transmit the resilience of a community that has retained its vibrant culture despite continuous oppression and marginalization.

I sat down with one of the performers, Erika Duarte, to learn more about this meaningful part of the Afro-Bolivian culture. Ms. Duarte, with her mixed Afro-Bolivian and indigenous heritage, manages to find several hours a day to devote, to rehearse and perform La Saya while balancing many other demands on her time. She is the gender and generational secretary of El Consejo Nacional del Afro (Conafro), a national counsel that advocates for the interests of the Afro-Bolivian community. In addition, she is studying law and is the mother of four children.

To begin, Ms. Duarte explains a bit about the origin and history of La Saya Afro-Boliviana. The ancestors of modern Afro-Bolivians arrived in Latin America from various areas of Africa as slaves. As music and dance are ingredients of human life around the globe, these cultural elements traveled to Latin America along with the slaves. Although the migrants spoke different languages and dialects, they had certain African rhythms in common.

The Afro-Bolivian Saya eventually emerged, consisting of aspects of its African ancestry blended with characteristics of the culture of indigenous Latin American peoples such as the Aymara (a native nation in the Andes and Altiplano regions of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile).

La Saya became a unifying method of communication amongst the slaves – a form of expression as well as of protest against their subjugation.

Both women and men wear white to symbolize the purity and innocence of the formerly enslaved race, as well as the Afro-Bolivian fight for liberty.

According to Ms. Duarte, La Saya carries immense cultural significance. Historically, it served as a mode of expression for an enslaved race. Nowadays, it is used by Afro-Bolivians to receive recognition as contributing, equality deserving members of Bolivian society.


Ladies wearing traditional clothes during dancing La Saya
Photo: Ximena Noya

Every aspect of La Saya ties into the art form’s cultural significance, right down to the attire worn by the performers. According to Ms. Duarte, both women and men wear white to symbolize the purity and innocence of the formerly enslaved race in addition to the Afro-Bolivian fight for liberty. The white Aymara-style blouses and skirts of the women are adorned with strips of color and embroidered with ribbons and laced in bright, zigzagging patterns. These colorful touches represent joy. The men sport colorful embellishments to their white outfits, as well, and also carry a red handkerchief that represents the blood of their ancestors.

Even the hairstyle of the Afro-Bolivian performers harks back to the time of their enslaved ancestors. The women wear their hair in long braids down to their backs to commemorate a remarkable practice of Afro-Bolivian slaves long ago. In the era of their forced servitude, slave women would braid maps in their hair to formulate escape plans without attracting the master’s awareness. These braided maps were a secret form of communication through which slaves could discover routes to freedom.

The sounds characteristic of this art form are just as integral a part of La Saya as are their aesthetics. The deep voices of the men and the soprano intonations of the women complement each other to produce a multihued chorus of chanting. The beating of the drums and the jingling of bells worn around the ankles resonate powerfully as the dancers move and sway in time to the cadence of the percussions. Other traditional instruments contribute to the festive atmosphere as well. The cuancha, for example, rests against its player’s shoulder as he scratches up and down the notches carved from side to side out of a section of bamboo. When asked about the most rewarding aspect of taking part in La Saya, Ms. Duarte responded that it is very gratifying to show people the Afro-Bolivian culture and to demonstrate that her people still exist and have a valuable presence in Bolivia.

As for the most difficult part of La Saya, Ms. Duarte replies that there is none. For those who bear La Saya in their blood, she says, the rhythms and movements come naturally

She expressed pride that they do not need a government or modern technologies such as electric guitars to produce their music – the sounds of La Saya emanate from natural materials and the performers’ own voices.

As for the most difficult part of La Saya, Ms. Duarte replies that there is none. For those who bear La Saya in their blood, she says, the rhythms and movements come naturally. For her and many other members of the vibrant Afro-Bolivian community, La Saya is simply second nature.

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