Currulao: a musical gateway between Africa and Colombia

by Lucas Silva


Peregoyo y su Combo Vacant (The King of Currulao)

Currulao is a purely African rhythm; it is employed equally in singing about the misfortunes of love, feasts of the saints, or for lamenting the loss of a child.

After more than five centuries of neglect, the Pacific coast of Colombia, one of the country’s best kept secrets is gradually beginning to shed its isolation and obscurity. This region is a “New Africa”: 95% of its inhabitants are of African origin, brought there to work in the gold mines and plantations during the age of Spanish colonization. The remaining five per cent are made up of various indigenous Indian tribes such as the Buscajá, Calimas, Emberas, Katios, Noanamas, Urabáes, and Tamanáes.
After their arrival in this region, the Blacks enriched their own cultural baggage by integrating various aspects of Indian cosmology into their own, including shamanistic traditions and the knowledge of indigenous inhabitants. The descendants of quite a few West African tribes came to settle the region’s tropical rain forests including the Mandinga, Ashanti, Akan, Yoruba, and Congo. To this day, various surnames of African origin have survived such as Carabali, Balanta, Manyoma, Mena, and Viáfara, names assigned to them by hacienda and slave owners. Searching for traces of Africana in the Pacific region is a fascinating task that remains to be undertaken, in order to establish a new point of departure, namely, our own, one that relates the truth of our history and which forms the basis of a better future.
The first orchestra to record in the whole Pacific region was undoubtedly Peregoyo back in the 1960s; for that matter the Combo Vacaná was one of the first to record Afro-Colombian music in the entire country. Its leader and founder was Enrique Urbano Tenorio, a local high school teacher. His primary aim was to liven up the feasts for the patron saint of the Virgin Carmen during the month of June. Besides playing the alto sax, Peregoyo was also a master of calligraphy; everyone remembers his stylistic, romantic and baroque form of handwriting. Urbano Tenorio reunited several of his friends who were living in the port of Buenaventura and they went on to play what is still considered today to be the sweetest music of that era. “The name,” Tenorio said, “is taken from the three states where the musicians originated from, Valle, Cauca and Nariño; Peregoyo y su Combo Vacaná. The band included the finest musicians from the region and brought together various musical sounds and influences. For me it is a great pleasure and honor to write the liner notes to this CD which is a page of biblical proportions in the annals of our musical history. The maestro laid the foundations for exhaustive ethno-musicological research into the afro-roots music from the mountains, rain forests and rivers of the coastal region. On his first commercial long-playing record he included the mother of all local rhythms the currulao, together with the aguabajo, porro, arrullo and the son montuno from the Caribbean, also incorporating the descarga in the manner of the Cuban orchestras.
Enrique Urbano Tenorio was the son of two zambos, a mix of Negro with Amerindian, born in Timbiquí, Nariño; at an early age he showed a natural inclination towards music. At home he sang along with his brother Martin and learned to play the guitar by ear. Without any musical knowledge he went on to play bass drum in Los Barbacoanos, in the only fanfare orchestra in Buenaventura with any formal musical training.
Enrique learned to read and write music at the age of thirty-one and was asked to join the Buenaventura Banda Municipal by its director Manuel María Burbano. Burbano recognized his musical sensibility and promoted him to first musician surpassing his two sons Vicente and Antonio Burbano, who were professional musicians. While a member of this orchestra Peregoyo learned to write musical scores and play the clarinet. After a few years he decided to form his own band called Grupo Bahia to play boleros and other Caribbean rhythms as a welcome alternative to the Banda Musical. He left this orchestra when it disbanded after Professor Burbano left Buenaventura. In 1962, at the age of forty-two, Peregoyo sealed his fate when he formed “El Combo Vacaná”.
The band’s first recording was a private edition made for a sugar factory in a limited edition and it received no airplay. Soon afterward they recorded their first sides for Disco Fuentes with the great female singer González Mina (“la negra grande de Colombia”). Then, taking advantage of their stay in the capital city of Antioqua, Medellín, Vacaná recorded a 45 rpm single of their own material with the songs “Mi Peregoyo” and “Mi San José, that became a big hit on the Pacific region radio stations. At that time a Radio Buenaventura journalist gave Enrique Urbano Tenorio the nickname “Peregoyo”, who until then had been known as “Mantequilla”. The word peregoyo is a variant of a typical word “emperegoyado” that refers to a person who always looks sharp and is well dressed and groomed and so naturally a maestro.
Discos Fuentes wanted to release regional music and they called the group together. And so they recorded their first long playing record with tracks that included: ‘La palma de chontaduro’, ‘La pluma’, ‘Río de Juajuí’, ‘Marta Cecilia’, Así es mi tierra’ and ‘Mi Buenaventura’. The recording was made in 1965 when Enrique Urbano Tenorio was forty-eight; it was done live and with a single microphone. Ever since, the song ‘Mi Buenaventura’ has become an anthem for the Pacific region and in turn a hymn for Buenaventura. Peregoyo y su Combo Vacaná went on to record five other albums.

From popular music folklore to the jungle of the Recording Studio
From 1961 onward, the music from the Pacific region of Colombia was no longer only heard in the mangroves, the flood plains, the villages or rivers of the Chocó region but because of radio airplay, all Colombians were exposed to it and could dance to its rhythms in the major cities and the currulao started to become internationally known as a danceable genre in much the same way as the cumbia, porro and gaita. Peregoyo also recorded Caribbean themes such as the guaracha “Chechundino” , Mon Rivera’s Puerto Rican bomba “Ola de Agua”; Marco Micolta’s pachanga “Che Pachanga” and descargas, such as Enrique Tenorio’s own “Descarga Vacaná”, among others. Peregoyo was a pioneer in the use of the new stereo sound and radio of that age when people on the west coast still used the old RCA Victor record players and jukeboxes. His songs were about the animals, the hunters, the legends of the old folks and grandparents, songs that were gathered during his investigations in the hamlets and towns along the coast, showing in a simple and direct manner the true face of those living in the Pacific region. Urbano Tenorio’s group is the father of Colombian salsa, prior to the salsa “boom” and the group acted as a school from which many musicians graduated who went on to perform in various musical styles. The heights of Colombian salsa began at the outset of the 1980s with the advent of such musicians as Jairo Varela, Alfonso “The Wizard” Cordoba and Alexis Lozano, all from the Chocó region; with those who went on to form Grupo Niche and after that Orquesta Guayacan, made up of musicians from the port of Buenaventura some of whom were once members of Peregoyo. During its first years, Peregoyo fused the sound of the Pacific with influences from the Caribbean, with good result.
In August 2000, an important event took place: for the first time in thirty years Peregoyo went back to the studio to record with the same musical force that made them famous. The recording was released in Colombia in 2002. The new record is a testimony to the musical power of an institution that has continued to be active. The Pacific region’s most famous orchestra has returned to the studio!!
Today Combo Vacaná is considered the local version of the Buena Vista Social Club. Peregoyo, at 87 still composes new songs and continues to give advice during rehearsals about the new musical material, ensuring the band’s sound is kept intact. The other sax player Luis Murillo, or “Murillin” is nearly eighty and the rest of the musicians are in their fifties and sixties. Some of the original group members have passed away and been replaced by new musicians who are often either old musical friends, or their offspring. The group’s most recent loss concerns vocalist Ramón Sanchez who passed away a few months after finishing this recording. The band’s present-day musical director is trumpet player, composer and arranger Francisco “Pacho” Peña, who is also in charge of translating Peregoyo’s new musical ideas, while business matters are run by Anibal López, the band’s timbales player and one of its vocalists. On guitar is veteran Luis Diuza and the band has managed to incorporate one of the Pacific region’s best vocalists, the great Pablo Emilio Redin, born in Tumaco and endowed with a terrific voice and years of experience.
And so new blood has caused the phoenix to rise from the ashes, its music is a bright journey through the African sounds of the planet from Haiti to Colombia, from Cape Verde to the Zairian rumba, from the gold mines of the Pacific to the occult lands of the Congo – it is a marvelous journey crossing new sounds, fresh sounds, tastier than a bowl of clam chowder more intense than a Caravan descarga and as joyful as a Jamaican mento. “Everything I bring is destined to drink aguardiente and dance currulao” sings Anibal López and listening to its melody you could imagine yourself being in Angola or Cape Verde. The album ends with Caravan; Duke Ellington’s standard is transformed into a savory roots rendition of Latin jazz.
Peregoyo is at the outset of a grand new adventure, it is the Father of those who exist today; it plays for those old campesinos who gave birth to this music, for all those fishermen and farmers who make their living each and every day…it is the long history of an invisible region, virtually underground, that is gradually revealing its treasures to the world. To this day, 87 year old Peregoyo is still composing folk melodies of the Pacific coast to the indigenous rhythms of our country’s Afro-Colombian lands. May God grant him many more years of life, and may his orchestra last forever, crossing over to new generations!!!
(Lucas Silva – The Original Champeta Man)

“Greetings to all the Ashanti warriors mixing it up everyday in the ghetto and laying the foundations of tomorrow’s music: to all the stowaways hidden in the ships transiting between Colombia and the USA; to all the Colombian Rastas who are in the game, it’s like the Shakaman says: “Live or die, partner; life is a war and we are the warriors of this day and age” and to all our countrymen, playing the marimba, percussion and drums who are the lifeblood of our tradition”.

With thanks to: Rafael Quintero, Manuel Antonio Rodriguez, Francisco “Kiko” Peña and my sweet lady who shows me the light…