He’s a 45-year-old Bolivian who says that he has felt music in his veins from a very young age. He is the son of a family of political exiles who, fleeing the dictatorship in the Andean-Amazonian country, took refuge in Sweden to start over with a one-and-a-half-year-old baby.
Viviana Díaz Frias
From the age of four, Jorge Alberto Echazú accompanied the band that his father and some friends formed in Sweden. Even though his arm was tired of playing the marimba, the satisfaction of finding what would later be his path in life made him happy.
It was also in that European country that he was first introduced to Cuban music, a moment which, he is sure, changed his life.
“I met a Cuban musician, Vicente Chapotín, who played in a band which I, at only just 14 years-old, was also in. Also, I played with another Dominican trumpeter called Manual Mercedes, and a Venezuelan conga player, Marcos Muro. Muro was also our teacher because he handled the drums and was the ‘hot black guy’”, Jorge Alberto remembers.
Guided by the hand of Chapotín, Echazú journeyed into the melodic world of Cuba until, seduced to the very core, he decided to leave to study music in Cuba.
He was 20 years old and started to study percussion at the National Arts School. He also studied harmony and composition “to become a well-rounded musician”.
His relationship with the Caribbean nation goes way beyond music. His aunt and uncle, Inti and Coco Peredo were members of Che Guevara’s guerrilla group in Bolivia. They died along with the well-known leader in the revolutionary war in that country.
Coco’s wife, sister of Echazú’s father, sought refuge in Cuba, where she settled and later welcomed her nephew, eager to feel the music of the island with his own hands.
“I arrived fascinated by the Afro-Cuban rhythms. The drums caught my attention the most, but I love it all: the layers of jazz, brass, the development of timba…I’m in heaven”, he explains excitedly. “Maybe” he adds, “subconsciously, back then I knew that one day, when I was back in Bolivia 18 years later, I would form a group with the same name as one of the most worshipped Yoruba deities in Cuba: Shangó”.
As a musical project “Shangó” was created just over a year ago. “I left another group and decided to form this one because I had always felt the need and was anxious to develop as a musician and not to stagnate”, Echazú explains.
The new name is also a way to remember the group of one of Echazú’s Peruvian friends who died. His group was called Changó.
“My friend’s band, which I played in many times, was Changó, with a C. But here in Bolivia the word ‘chango’ means boy and in Mexico it means monkey, they would therefore misunderstand you and not notice the accent. Better to be Shangó with an S and, incidentally, allude to my time in Cuba and set the tone of the music going forward”, he thinks.
In its short lifespan, Jorge Alberto’s group has championed Afro-Cuban and popular dance music from the island, combining it with Andean elements and Bolivian rhythms.
Highlights include performances at Cuban and Venezuelan embassy events in Bolivia, at presentations by UN Women in favour of women’s empowerment; in cultural activity at the Dakar Rally 2018 and the Festijazz gala in 2017.
Echazú defines “Shangó” as “we are multifaceted, multidisciplinary, we do everything. It is a group made up of five people, but it is also a cultural movement, a brand, a feeling.”
The Bolivian musician believes that “Cuba is paramount. Musically speaking, it opened my eyes. As a person, it made me grow. It was a turning point in my life. I would not be the Jorge Echazú that I am today if I had not gone to Cuba”.
In this regard, he remembers his meeting with Chucho Valdés and Los Papines, as well as his bike rides through the streets of Havana in the 90s.
He also remembers the smiles of millions of Cubans who showed him how to be happy with very little.
In defining himself as a person, Jorge Alberto confesses, “I feel Cuban like you, totally. The rhythm, the concept of popular dance music and the folklore, everything that I learnt in Cuba I use here to define myself”. (PL)
(Translated by Corrine Harries. Email: email@example.com) – Photos: Prensa Latina