How Marimba Dance is Saving a Community

This Afro-Ecuadorian community is using their heritage to get their neighborhood back from the drug cartels.
Dan Smith

Dan Smith

A passion for podcasting to tell the world about the great things Rotary is doing.

When traveling in Ecuador, collecting Rotary stories, I saw this extraordinary project on the Rotary District 4400 website and had to see what it was about.

In the southern part of Guayaquil, Ecuador, is a large, very populated island; the gateway to the Pacific Ocean and the main shipping port for Ecuador. This island is dark, drab, and very dangerous. Dominated by the drug cartels and extreme poverty this is not a place to live and raise your children, but people do.

In one small corner of the island there is a thriving community, about fifteen blocks, with brightly painted buildings, people sitting outside and kids playing in the streets. A stark contrast to the darkness and terror that surrounds them.

This bright spot is built on peace, love for one another and their heritage, including Marimba Dance. This urban island, that started as a slum, is home to more than 150,000 inhabitants, most of which identify themselves as African Ecuadorians.

A Brief History

In 1533, twenty-three enslaved Africans managed to escape a Spanish slave ship that capsized on the Pacific Coast. The group settled in the Esmeraldas province to the north where they established a free community.

The area came to represent a safe haven where enslaved Africans could escape. While free Black colonies gradually rose up in other parts of the country, many of those original settlers remained in the area for generations.

Today, Afromestizo Candente, a non-profit on Trinity Island, founded 15 years ago by Jimmy Simisterra, is working to save the community. The goal of the non-profit is to divert young Afro-Ecuadorians from crime, violence and drugs by sharing aspects of Afro-Ecuadorian heritage and helping at-risk youth develop creative talents. And it works. Most of Afromestizo Candente’s members are people who left criminal pasts to become artists.

One member, who used to rob said “People used to say, ‘there goes the criminal’, now they say ‘there goes the marimba player’

A True Cultural Heritage

Marimba music, traditional chants and dances are listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Marimba music and traditional chants and dances are musical expressions integral to the family and community fabric of people of African descent in the Colombian South Pacific region of Ecuador.

Chanted stories and poems are performed by men and women at ritual, religious and festive events as a celebration of life, a form of worship to saints or as a farewell to the deceased and are accompanied by rhythmic movements of the body.

The marimba music is played on a palm wood xylophone with bamboo tube resonators, accompanied by drums and maracas. The element is rooted in family and daily activities and the community as a whole is considered the bearer and practitioner, irrespective of age or gender.

Elderly people play a crucial role in transmitting legends and stories from oral tradition, while music teachers oversee the transmission of musical knowledge to new generations.

Each of these expressions facilitates family and collective integration through ancestral practices that heighten the sense of belonging to a particular group connected to a shared territory and history.”

Afromestizo Candente has been extremely successful in rescuing children from street violence, and drug-trafficking by providing them with a space for self-expression and emotional support. Thanks to community organization and the success of their projects, the Andres Quinonez Cooperative sector (this neighborhood) is now considered as a “Recovered Neighborhood” by the National Police and the safest neighborhood in the district.

It’s more than music

When you walk into the dance room, along the sides are chairs, instruments, folded tables, and piles of boxes. This one small room is the dance studio, dining hall, school, community meeting room and a place for church services on Sunday.

You walk through to the back past the brightly colored costumes to a very small kitchen. Out if this kitchen, Jimmy, his wife, family and team feed over a hundred people three times a week. I asked him what was on the menu and he answered that every day is different. “It depended on what food was donated that day.”

While this is not a part of the current funding, we talked about the possibly of bringing the dance troupe to California (the lead international partner for Rotary is the Santa Rosa, California club.) and Oregon on a tour. I asked Jimmy how this would impact his efforts. He said that “just getting the word out that there would be a tour like this will bring many kids off the street and into the community.”

In the Shows, they would be folkloric presentations, costumbrista theater with a specific theme, and teach the audience the steps of the marimba and the intonation of the native instruments.”

Jimmy, use to be a movie and stage performer so he knows how to put on a good show.

Where they’re at and what you can do to help

The Rotary Clubs of Guayaquil Astillero and Santa Rosa have raised about half the funds needed for this project by auctioning trips to visit Guayaquil, and the Galapagos Islands. A true Rotary experience complete with home-stays.

What we need is a club to join with the Santa Rosa club to raise the final funding. Santa Rosa is the lead club and is responsible for all the reporting and Rotary International requirements so this is a really easy program to support.

They need $44,500 to complete the funding which would be $9,500 in donations multiplied by all the District and Rotary International matching funds. We could raise the funds directly or maybe auction trips to Ecuador, it is an incredible place. Is anyone interested in visiting Ecuador?

Another idea, once the project is funded, is to bring the dance troupe on that road tour from San Francisco to Portland. What a PR opportunity for Rotary. Think of the clubs along the way, in towns big and small, that could sponsor a stop in their community, raise Rotary awareness and experience another culture. Shen Yun watch out!

Talk to your club. The District 5110 Rotary Global Grant and Rotary International match means every dollar we raise can turn into almost five dollars. That’s the power of Rotary.

If you have questions we can put you in contact with the Rotary club in Santa Rosa, they just came back from the trip to Ecuador. Or the team in Ecuador in either English or Spanish, your choice.

This is a great opportunity to not only help people change their lives but also participate in a unique culture and maybe practice or learn Marimba – who knows?

This is just one of the incredible opportunities to reach out and help. If you have questions about getting started with Global Grants please contact Juli Di Chiro the District Grants Chair. We, the District, have the resources, do you have the will?

This video is in Spanish but you don’t need to understand the words to get the meaning. This is the place. These are the people.

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