Part 1: Understanding Chile’s Black History
Tumbe, a traditional style of music and dance practiced by Afro descendents in the North of Chile. Up until recently, this dance was close to perishing, but thanks to a few committed individuals it has been reborn with greater strengths. The story of Tumbe provides an excellent case study on safeguarding our intangible cultural heritage. For this post, I interviewed Camila ‘Matanga’ Marchant, a Tumbe dancer, teacher and art therapy student. It is thanks to her careful input that I was able to discover this ‘almost’ forgotten dance and learn of its mystical and troublesome history. With all of my cariño Matanga, this is for you.
What is Tumbe?
Tumbe is a rhythm of African origin. The name Tumbe is derived from “tumbarse las caderas”, to hip-bump your dance partner. Hips are the focal point of the dance. It is danced in a “comparsa” which is a troupe of dancers and musicians. The drum provides the central rhythm to the dance. It is a dance full of joy, energy and flirting. The steps relate to the agricultural activities developed in the Azapa Valley, outside of Arica, which are still practiced today. These include cutting the cane, picking cotton and collecting olives, among many others.
If you didn’t know that Chile has a black history, you are not alone. In fact, most Chileans don’t know this part of their history. Let’s go back in time to understand what happened. Chile was colonised by the Spanish in 1540 and was part of the black slave traffic industry. In fact, Coquimbo and Valparaiso served as important ports for the slave trade, along with Rio de Janeiro and Lima. Between 1650 and 1860, approximately 15 million Africans were forced into slavery and transported to the Americas. Most ended up in South America and the Caribbean, while 500,000 were sent to North America. Many perished at sea. Most of these people came from West and South West Africa, from Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone and Senegal. They brought with them their religious practices, cuisine, music and dance. African customs and traditions can be felt throughout Latin America, in Cuban salsa, in an okra and black beans dish from Brazil and in the rhythms of Colombian cumbia.
It is estimated that up to the year 1558, the number of blacks, mulatos and zambos in Chile was of about 5,000; compared to 2,400 Spaniards, 17,000 mestizos and 48,000 indians. According to these statistics, up to the end of the 16th Century almost 20% of the Chilean population had some kind of black blood. Why is it then, only in 2019 Afro-Chileans were officially recognised by the Chilean Government? Stay tuned for part 2.
Part 2: The Rebirth of Tumbe
There was a tradition in Arica, many years ago, where a comparsa would gather every weekend and move along the streets from one household to the next, singing, dancing and eating along the way. An example of this processions still takes place in cities like Montevideo in Uruguay where a group of people gather every Saturday afternoon in a celebration that is called Candombe.
Up until recently the tumbe tradition was on the verge of extinction. In response, the NGO Oro Negro was created to celebrate Chilean Afro-descendents. This was the first organisation in Chile to acknowledge the Afro-Chilean culture. The purpose of the NGO was to bring people together and to collectively fight for the rights of Afro-Chileans. In 2002, the NGO received funding from the government which allowed it to interview people of African descent, in order to rescue historical data on ancient customs. The result of this project was the creation of the Comparsa Oro Negro, which in 2003 made a parade through several streets of Arica, after more than 30 years of absence. In the past 16 years tumbe has been transformed from a dying artform on the verge of extinction, to a thrival and active community. Currently there exists more than 30 tumbe troupes all over Chile, spanning the whole length of Chile from North to the very South of the country. Comparsas perform at festivals and carnivals and give lessons to continue to diffuse the culture.
But perhaps the NGO’s most notable achievement has been the recognition of Afro-Chileans by the Chilean government. After years of petitions, in 2019 the Chilean Government passed a law officially recognising Afro-Arican tribal people.
Part 3: Meet Camila – a Tumbe Dancer
Camila Marchant, a tumbe dancer, teacher and art therapy student, started to dance relatively recently, in 2013. Her school oragnised a parade where a local tumbe comparsa ‘Arica Negro’ participated. A comparsa is a troupe of dancers and musicians, typical of the Afro-Latin traditions, that performs at carnivals and parades. It turned out that many of Camila’s classmates were musicians in the troupe. She loved to see the joy of everyone dancing, the bright colours and the intoxicating music and decided to join. From there, she immersed herself in Afro-Arican culture, a journey which eventually led her to discover her own African roots. Camila was fortunate to have been taught by one of the “mothers’ of tumbe tradition, Carolina Letelier, whom she continues to learn with to this day.
Since then, Camila has immersed herself in the tumbe tradition, becoming more curious about other Latin American dances, including folkloric dances from Peru and Colombia. She is deeply grateful for the teachers that she has encountered along her journey. Great Masters such as Karla Robles and Aimet Campos among many others. “I have been fortunate that all of my teachers have welcomed me with open arms and taught me with great care and affection.” She also draws much of her inspiration from her family. Her grandmother used to dance in folkloric dance groups.
I have been fortunate that all of my teachers have welcomed me with open arms and taught me with great care and affectionCamila
I love to teach and this is reaffirmed to me every class. When one teaches, one also learns and that is what attracts me the most. I have learnt so much from my students over the years, so I stay humble in my role as a teacher, knowing that my greatest lessons come from my dear students.Camila
“I love to teach and this is reaffirmed to me every class. When one teaches, one also learns and that is what attracts me the most. I have learnt so much from my students over the years, so I stay humble in my role as a teacher, knowing that my greatest lessons come from my dear students.” But teaching tumbe is not your traditional teacher-student dynamic. Even though a comparsa will normally have a leader, everyone participates in the exchange of knowledge and techniques. In this way, the approach to teaching is much more collaborative, where the ‘leader’ takes on a secondary role.
Preserving intangible cultural heritage
Camila believes that it is important to teach and diffuse knowledge and customs. It is also why she takes part in the comparsas and teaches tumbe. She thinks young people especially need to learn. “It is very important for the new generations to know their roots we need to know where we came from, to understand where we are going. The best way to preserve this heritage is to study and experience it, be it traditions, festivities, music or dance. It needs to be experienced by the body, not just the mind. In this way the tradition lives on, moving from body to body.”
“It is very important for the new generations to know their roots we need to know where we came from, to understand where we are going. The best way to preserve this heritage is to study and experience it, be it traditions, festivities, music or dance. It needs to be experienced by the body, not just the mind. In this way the tradition lives on, moving from body to body.”Camila
Since 2014 Camila has been part of a local music and dance group, Sabor Moreno. The group meets regularly to practice and perform at local festivals. The group has been pivotal in Camila’s journey as a dancer. The knowledge and support she has received has taught her a lot and she continues to learn both artistically and at a human level. She is also currently finishing an art therapy degree, which has involved her in other types of arts such as visuals and theatre and has helped her to understand how to teach better. In her spare time she teaches dance classes for children and adults, in cultural spaces, dance schools or on the street. She is a firm believer in deconstructing the traditional model of learning dance from a formal school setting and taking the rhythms to the streets.
For Camila, learning tumbe has been much more than just about learning the dance steps. It has been a journey to discover her African roots, learning about her family history and honouring the tradition of her ancestors. Through tumbe she found her way back home. In her, we can see that the tradition of tumbe is as lively as ever, and perhaps a new generation of tumbe dancers are already in the making.
With the arrival to Chile of several thousands of Haitian Afro-descendents in the last few years, it is more important than ever to learn and understand the African roots of Chilean culture. Tumbe is perhaps the best door to start exploring it.