Culture, Globe, Latin America, Music, United Kingdom, Visual Arts

Los Caporales, the Bolivian dance that brings the foreman to life

How are we going to show the world our heritage if there are no scientific investigations, no documents, and no evidence?

 

Jorge Petinaud Martínez

 

More than 25,000 people performed the Dance of the Foremen or ‘Caporales’ in 74 cities and three provinces across four continents on 13th January; bringing further victory to Bolivian Napoleón Gómez in his fight against the demons of cultural heritage in this South American nation.

“The only thing that Bolivians and the Bolivian Organisation for the Defence of Folklore (OBDEFO) demand, is for the origin of this dance to be recognised. For example, no-one denies that the tango is Argentinian, that ‘rancheras’ are Mexican, or that ‘danzón’, ‘son’, ‘mambo’, ‘cha cha cha’ and ‘rumba’ are Cuban,” Gómez, the architect of the Second World Meeting of Caporales, 100 percent Bolivian, reiterated to the Prensa Latina agency.

According to Gómez, the dance was created by the ‘Fraternidad Urus del Gran Poder’, founded in 1969. The Estrada Pacheco family, young dancers with a great deal of talent, saw the foreman of the Dance of the ‘Negritos’, which is performed in several countries with African-descent populations, not only in Bolivia.

Victor Estrada watched the foreman (the ‘caporal’) walking ahead -the big boss alone with his whip- and he hit upon the idea of all 20 young people dancing like this boss, of copying his steps.

Thus, the Dance of the Caporales was conceived, based on the character of the foreman or overseer. It is not the creation of this character, but rather its recreation, bringing it to life in a different way.

As such, they began to create the steps, to choreograph the foreman, who was no longer a lone figure. There were 20 foremen doing the same steps and adding others from different dances, initially with a very simple costume, which has been reworked over the years.

The dance was performed for the first time in 1972, at the ‘Gran Poder’ festival, where they won the first prize.

The Dance of the Caporales became a resounding success and they began to perform it in different places around La Paz. At that time there was a lot of discrimination, strong racist tendencies, and they could only perform up to a certain point in the city; they could not go to the centre.

In some way, the success of the Dance of the Caporales also helped to gain ground in La Paz, where divisions between white people of Hispanic origin and indigenous people existed, serious discrimination in short.

But through culture, folklore, music and dance -which to me are instruments of revolution- spaces were able to be claimed.

The dance then transcended national borders, as groups went to perform it in Peru in 1974-1975. Of course, the Peruvians liked it so much that they began to dance it.

Then in the 1990s, when the dance was already a success, the youth made it their own. It was in this context that the elites began to distort reality and to present the Dance of the Caporales as Peruvian.

In the same decade, the dance travelled to northern Chile too, where it was also a success. It is performed at a folk event in Arica, in the Fuerza del Sol carnival, to which they take Bolivian musicians and dancers, who they show to a different Arica. Gómez graduated in Political Sciences from the University of Helsinki, Finland, in the 1990s and recounts how when he returned to his home country at that time, Bolivia lacked policies to promote and circulate popular national music and dance, which neighbouring countries were appropriating.

“It was then that I gave myself over to the passion and obsession of making Bolivian culture and folklore known around the world. I toured the entire country, showing through videos and documents how other neighbouring countries were spreading Bolivian Heritage in Europe.”

On one of those trips, in Cochabamba, he saw in the press that some Argentinians were trying to break the Guinness World Record for panpipes, an instrument which is Bolivian in origin.

He immediately returned to La Paz, where he talked with the cultural authorities and proposed to break this record.

“So, in 2004 we achieved our first official Guinness World Record, with 2,317 panpipe players who played six pieces in unison, dressed in red, yellow and green -the colours of the Bolivian flag. In this same year OBDEFO was also founded, whose mission is to promote our culture throughout the world,” recalls Gómez, now the holder of four such records.  “Time has gone on, and in the last 14 years OBDEFO has broken four Guinness World Records: the largest panpipes ensemble; the second we recorded at the ‘Festival de Bandas de Oruro’, where we gathered an ensemble of 1,666 trumpeters.”

Then, in a patriotic gesture, they formed the world’s biggest human heart, when there were attempts to divide the Andean-Amazonian nation.

“They wanted to create another Republic, and as a cultural institution we focus on uniting Bolivians. So, in 2009 we dressed in red and formed a heart in the Félix Capriles stadium in Cochabamba; 8,500 people participated. It was powerful, it was something very beautiful.”

They achieved the last record in 2014, when a folk dance was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for the first time, the Morenada. It was a success.

Gómez wrote the book Caporales 100 por ciento boliviano (Caporales, 100 percent Bolivian) in 2010, as there were no texts about the origin of this musical expression.

“How are we going to show the world our heritage if there are no scientific investigations, no documents, and no evidence?” he told the Prensa Latina news agency.

According to the folklorist, the recently celebrated Second World Meeting was organised as Peruvian elites intentionally distort the origin of this dance, devised in 1969 by the Estrada Pacheco family from La Paz.

“These elites are traffickers of culture who take costumes from Oruro and La Paz to Puno, Peru, for their festivals; they do business and make money from the costumes, they take artists to do business.” (PL)

(Translated by Rebecca Ndhlovu – Email: rebeccandhlovu@hotmail.co.uk) – Photos: Wikimedia Commons & Wikipedia

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