“A Universal Jam”, Teto Ocampo

Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo. Photo credit: Carlos Solano.

Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo. In memoriam (1969-2023)

Interview and comments © Sara Ríos and Juan G. Sánchez M.

Translated from Spanish © Jocelyn Montalban

If you prefer to read this post as a PDF, please click HERE

The crickets and cicadas awake in the night, the rattle follows the rhythm of the jungle, and suddenly a sweet flute, a human blow vibrating within a reed; music born from the longing to follow the vibration of the earth, the percussion of the Amazonian forest. These are some of the images that traverse those who listen for the first time to “La llamada” (The Call), the first track of the album “Copoazú” by Hombre de barro (Mud Man), by the Colombian musicians Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo, Urián Sarmiento, and Juan Manuel Toro. There is no sheet music to follow this paleo-futuristic rhythm, only improvisation, whistling, intermittence, and blowing.

The Hombre de barro album was what led us to interview Teto, at his home in La Candelaria neighborhood of Bogotá in mid-June 2015. Our intention at that time was to publish the interview the same year along with a review of the album, but we never sat down to organize the material. Perhaps, we did not fully understand the ideas that Teto was sharing with us. Years passed, and Teto passed away in 2023. Today, we recover the recording of the interview and share and comment on some excerpts in this tribute by Siwar Mayu to Teto Ocampo and Hombre de barro.

Teto was a composer, arranger, guitarist, and sharu flute improviser. Whether for the reader who is just discovering Teto Ocampo’s work or for those who have been enjoying his projects for years, in the end, it is his music that best explains who this musician from Río de Oro, César (Colombia), was; from the Colombian folk music of “La Tierra del Olvido” (The Land of Forgetfulness) by Carlos Vives to the paleo futuristic jazz of Hombre de Barro and Mucho Indio, passing through the tropical rock of Bloque de Búsqueda and the electronic cumbia of Sidestepper.

↳ “Farewell Teto” is a tribute from Carlos Vives to his friend.

Teto Ocampo was also, or above all, an improviser, as he emphasized in our interview: “When one improvises, one can only play what one plays, what one knows how to play.” For Teto, in the art of improvisation, the sound is free, it connects with the moment as if a voice were dictating to the musician what comes next. Teto improvised, as he explained to us, not only on notes but also on musical modes and phrases; he improvised as if being carried away by a river, “playing music,” not “touching music” (from the Spanish “tocar música”.)

It is precisely improvisation that inspires the album “Copoazú” by Hombre de Barro: “Basically, we are a group of friends who are musicians,” Teto told us, “good musicians who enjoy playing together (…) We are musicians of music. We are improvisers. That comes in large part from jazz.” In 2013, Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo, Urián Sarmiento, and Juan Manuel Toro gathered to play together in the Amazonian forest: “We went for a week, we stayed in a Maloca [ceremonial house], that’s like the civilization (…) Then we went to the middle of the forest where there is nothing, and we set up a camp there with a solar-powered studio, so we could record and we recorded many takes of many things, many hours, every day, for a week.”

↳ HERE you can listen to the album “Copoazú” by Hombre de Barro

The album was recorded with the assistance of Wuapapura Music Stream Earth, who have a solar-powered mobile studio for recording in natural spaces, and with the Fundación Raíces Vivas –a project that works with Indigenous communities in the Amazonian region– who facilitated the intercultural dialogue and the permits for the meeting with the Tikuna community of Puerto Nariño (Amazonas, Colombia). Reflecting on the result, Teto remarked: “We are surprised by what sounds there. We do not even remember playing that. Many were improvisations, let’s say, inspired by the surrounding (…) More than an exchange, it is the musicians finding themselves with the forest (…) The fact of being there and playing was a spiritual performance.”

When one listens to “Copoazú,” one is left with many questions, such as how the decision to undertake this project was made, or what the motivations of the musicians were. This is what Teto shared with us: “It is interesting to go and make music with the jaguar. To make music with the guacharaca and all those birds and insects. It was beautiful. When we entered into a trance with them, it was incredible. At night it was difficult.” The immersion in the Amazon was precisely an encounter with the music that is part of the daily life of the jungle communities. In addition to the flapping of wings or the friction of cicada legs, some songs from “Copoazú” feature the counterpoint of Tikuna songs, performed by Doña Alba Lucía, specifically related to the harvest of the chontaduro (when it is sought out, when it is cut, when it is prepared), and with the seed of the huito, from which body paint is extracted.

As seen in the video prepared by Wuapapura (see below), before venturing into the forest, the musicians worked all night shredding the huito. With its juice, the Tikuna elder painted their bodies and gave them their clans. “It’s like smearing on a mango,” Teto said, laughing. Teto’s clan was the ant, he told us. As the day passes, the paint becomes darker, until it’s “black black” at night: “This is done to enter the jungle. This is done to protect yourself from pests, and so the jungle recognizes you. If one does not have a spiritual attitude and respect, the forest can kill you, spit you out…”

↳ This video was produced by Wuapapura, and gathers some images during the recording of Copoazú in Puerto Nariño.

How does life change after a week in the middle of the Amazonian forest? What remains, what images, what sounds, what thoughts? This is what Teto told us:

“Life changes… all that’s left is gratitude. To be nothing, just an ant in that green sea. Here [in Bogotá] everything is so independent, wandering alone, not caring about friends. But no, not there, if you get lost, you are left alone, no…, there the best thing is to be able to be with your friends. Fire, for example, becomes very important. Many lessons learned.” 

Teto Ocampo

“Was there any existing concept before recording?” was another question we asked, to which Teto clarified that the music we hear on the album is the product of what emerged along with the soundscape of the forest. Some songs were born there, and others were built with arrangements and notes brought from the city. In both cases, the sounds of “Copoazú” seem to mimic the sounds of the forest or, at least, to enter the same rhythm. This is how Teto explained it:

“That was the exercise we were going to do. We are aware that the universe is making music all the time. Every minute there is music, and one can catch it. Music is passing through here, through life, through everything, a man hammering, the church bell, the dog that passed by. Some things are louder than others, the hammer is louder, the dog has pads on its feet and walks on them, but it’s also making sound, it’s just that one does not hear it all at once, but the dog has a rhythm it needs because there’s something over there, another person has a rhythm he needs because who knows what is calling him there, here the minibus stopped and then the guy on the other side honked, and just like this everything is connected. And besides that, it is not just the sound, it’s everything, it’s peace, love, light, tranquility, insecurity, they are cosmic waves that are not only on earth, right? And that is a tremendous power of healing if one manages to enter this rhythm. Music is that capability of healing oneself and of healing others. And that’s the way, making it possible for oneself to enter, and for people to enter into that universal jam.”

Teto Ocampo

The day we interviewed Teto, he received the remastered file of the second album of Mucho Indio, another of his collective projects. At the end of the interview, he left us with his music; and now that we think about it, perhaps we were some of the first ones to listen to the album. It is inspired by the ancestral music of the Ikv, Wayuu, and Nasa peoples, accompanied by paleo futuristic notes and scriptures, which was the methodology Teto used. This is what he shared with us in 2015:

“I have a group called Mucho Indio. (…) (…) Here in Mucho Indio, I’m searching for the spirituality of this music, and I am not so much jazz-oriented, it is more minimalist, much more simple harmonically, less complex. I am looking for the brightness, that does not lose the brightness, because that is music that makes you glow. So there are no solos, very few improvisation solos because that is full of ego, right? It does not have to be like that, but it bothered me, in the end, I ended up discarding the solos.”

Teto Ocampo

↳ Listen HERE to the complete album from Mucho Indio

While we were listening to his music, we told Teto that some tracks by Hombre de Barro and Mucho Indio reminded us of India, and that perhaps there was wordplay precisely between “indio” (as Indigenous) and “India” (the country) to which he responded: “What Hombre de Barro or Mucho Indio have most in common with Indian music it is not the music, not the melody, not the rhythm, but the purpose, they resemble each other in purpose, which is not like Western music, whose purpose is blurrier, its purpose doesn’t seem to be spiritual (…) The songs of the Indians [Indigenous peoples] are for making invocations, not for playing just anything, so in that way they resemble each other.”

At this point of our interview, Teto told us that, in addition to his cumbia heritage, seventy percent of his personal archive consisted of music from Africa, India, Turkey, and Mongolia; non-Western sounds. And amidst all of this: jazz. For him, it was essential to emphasize that Bogotá was an avant-garde jazz city: “a lot of people making very unique music, something terrific is happening here and people do not know.” For him, Bogotá had a jazz scene far superior to what can be found in other jazz cities in the world: “Every time I give an interview I say that because I am interested in people knowing. There’s an education problem here.” Bogotá jazz musicians perform alchemy with their music through experimentation with Indigenous or folk songs, producing or “liberating” creative paths. In this urban crosscultural space, minimalism and spiritual quests serve as the bridge between diverse musical traditions. Beyond harmony, rhythms, styles, and genres, Hombre de Barro and Mucho Indio demand from the listener an experience that surpasses mere listening, a sensory experience that speaks to us of non-human languages. As Teto told us:

“The music of powerful plants, for example, that’s not in the books, that can only be created by making music and ingesting plants. I think there are many people who are making new music, incredible music here, that I believe are making that music because they have taken yagé, like Toro, Urián, Héctor Buitrago, people who are in the ceremony, who know what a ceremony is and why people are in the ceremony ingesting plants. One ingests plants to heal, and the music one makes after healing is to share that healing and heal others as well. So that’s the thing, at the end of the day, it is healing. That’s it. Music can heal, and if music can heal, music must heal. I mean, I do not want to make music that makes people sick, why would I want to… So I do my best to make music that heals.”

Teto Ocampo

Throughout the musical legacy that Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo left, we can travel around the world and perceive how everything is connected through sound. One of the musician’s pleasures was precisely to record the soundscapes he encountered on his travels: “Sunrise is great because the birds sing, and you realize the tremendous difference between one place and another.” Thus, through the music of life, we learn to perceive and recognize the territory we inhabit as humans; the pleasure lies in making music that resonates with these soundscapes.

From music to territory and identity, at the end of our interview, Teto gifted us a reflection beyond music, one that touches creativity in all its directions, as well as Colombian and Latin American identity in all its wounds and futurities. Speaking about the struggle of the Indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and how they have known how to resist, but also dialogue with the settler, he told us:

“…I committed myself about ten years ago to reclaiming the sacred territory, not only that of the Sierra, but now meditating on what sacred territory is. It is not just the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta and those farms. Sacred territory is music, it is sound, or not just sound, but what lies behind the sound, I mean that spiritual purpose. What is the spiritual purpose if we don’t know? Ah, well, it might restore many things, languages, concepts, weaving, food, medicine, natural law, rights, family, life in the community, the maloca, the mamo [the elder], and his political leadership. That’s where music was left with its fair share. So the music I make does that, because I am committed to that cause, which is political, philosophical, historical, and music is its language. So I make music that is political even though it does not have to speak. That politics is the new mestizaje. It is the reverse of the mestizaje. Here, there was a biological mestizaje, but there was no cultural mestizaje. The Spanish raped the Indigenous women, and they forced their children to live as Spaniards, but second-class Spaniards, they did not let them into their house, so I am creating the new mestizaje, based on respect, on the power of coming together, of bringing two things together…”

Teto Ocampo

We are left with that invitation, Teto, to reclaim the spiritual territory; to create music, fabrics, poems, films, and dialogues that help us remember who we are and who we can be. That is a great political act. Thank you, brother, and have a good journey towards the brightness.

For more about Teto Campo, Hombre de barro, and Mucho Indio

For more about the interviewers

Sara Ríos Pérez studied literature at the Javeriana University, and currently works as a reading and writing promoter. She is a collaborator for the digital publication Columna Abierta. She accompanies the processes experienced by public and rural libraries in different parts of Colombia. She is the author of De lo Imaginario a lo Real: Cuentos y leyendas de Montes de María (“From the Imaginary to the Real: Tales and legends of Montes de María”), and co-author of  Voces que caminan territorios (“Voices that walk territories”,) an investigation on the right to communication in the Colombian Southwest.

Juan Guillermo Sánchez Martínez was born in Bakatá/Bogotá, in the Colombian Andes. He coordinates the online multilingual anthology and exhibition Siwar Mayu, A River of Hummingbirds. He has published several books of poetry, including Uranium/Uranio (Japan 2023). He works on the crossroads between Indigenous art, literature, and science. He recently co-edited the open-access volume Abiayalan Pluriverses. Bridging Indigenous Studies and Hispanic Studies with Gloria E. Chacón and Lauren Beck (Amherst College, 2024.) He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Indigenous Learning at Lakehead University (Thunder Bay, Canada). 

About the Translator

Jocelyn Montalban was born in Ontario, Canada, where she currently resides. Her parents immigrated to Canada from Guatemala City in 1997. In 2023, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in criminology from Lakehead University (Ontario, Canada). She is currently studying to obtain a master’s degree in Social Justice Studies. Her research focuses on Indigenous issues in Canada. In her free time, you can find her traveling or hiking in the mountains.

Un jam universal. Teto Ocampo © Sara Ríos an Juan G. Sánchez Martínez ~

Siwar Mayu, May 2024

A Universal Jam © Translation by Jocelyn Montalban

Putisnan, disenchanting the memory

By Sara Ríos Pérez

Translated by María Grabiela Gelpi

“We did not know that we were Indigenous” is one of the first sentences that is pronounced in the documentary Putisnan, disenchanting the memory (2022), directed by Colombian Oliver Velásquez Dávila—an anthropologist who leads his life between activism and investigating the memory of Indigenous Communities of the Colombian southwest.

At the beginning we see green, green in majestic mountains sheltered by furrows and planted with potatoes, beans or corn. Then a panoramic view of the village of Aldea de María, located in the south of Colombia, in the Nariño Province. This is where the story of the Cabildo Indígena Aldea de María, Putisnan, of the town of Los Pastos is told.

Oliver’s recent documentary is a spiral flight over the territory. First, we look at the landscape, the mountains, the furrows; then we go down and we find the stones, which like great crumbs left by the ancestors, are responsible for taking the inhabitants of the territory to meet the memory of the Pastos. Closer and closer to the earth we see the town, the roofs of the houses, the crops, the roads, to land on the people, in the faces of the inhabitants and enter their house, to their daily lives.

Oliver together with director of photography, Juan Pablo Bonilla, propose a natural handling in the use of shots and follow-up sequences to the characters, with a camera on their shoulder they record the actions of the protagonists as an indiscreet spectator

From the reference of Jean Rouch’s cinema, they propose an image with social commitment and at the service of Indigenous communities. Likewise, there is the influence of the Colombian documentarian Martha Rodríguez, above all in the research methodology, which refers us to participatory narrative constructions, where the audiovisual production instead of made “about” Indigenous people is “precisely from” those involved, in order to support the process of seeking their identity, and the remembrance of their cultural history and resistance.

“We came from a culture of peasants, mestizos, from another way of thinking, not our own way of thinking, after that we came into this process (…) of feeling, thinking and acting like Indigenous people,” says Eloy Gesamá, one of the interviewees.

The documentary shows how the earth is the one who sustains, keeps the practices, the memory whose traces are in the stones. It recounts the process that the Aldea de María community has gone through to rescue their traditions as Indigenous Pastos People, claiming their rights and finding their history, after colonization, modernity, and “development” arrived in their territory.

There are shots of hands brushing the stones, cleaning the earth to remember, to claim the memory, and disenchant it. The stone is called Mama Piedra—she shines to make us see, it is the flame that guides us to rescue ourselves from oblivion.

Putisnan means cosmic library, which is why, in one way or another, the documentary shows how the inhabitants of the resguardo, from their daily lives, are remembering their ancestry as the original Pasto People, searching throughout the traces of that library: “first you have to teach people that there is nothing wrong of being Indigenous,” one of the young women, who is actively participating in this process of awakening, says.

In another scene, Alejandra Güepud adds: “for me, it is to start by putting aside the shame of saying I am indigenous (…) first we have to feel proud of what we are, of who we are, that we do not need to change anything, and begin to feel that we belong to something much bigger, because we descend from someone as important as the Pasto people (…) we have to feel that pride of saying yes I am Indigenous, I know where I come from, and I know where I am going.”

Oliver Velásquez Dávila accompanies this process by documenting with his gaze and showing the viewer a glimpse of the Pasto territory. 

In addition to the present documentary, Oliver, within his searches, has focused on the transmission of shamanic knowledge from the Upper and Lower Putumayo River Basin, among the Kamëntsás, Ingas and Kofan Peoples, which allowed him in 2009 to carry out a documentary titled “Las Rutas del Yagé”, produced by Señal Colombia and DocTv, which deals with the dissemination of these practices in urban contexts. In this journey, he dedicates himself to studying photography and documentary filmmaking as a way of translating ethnographic research into images.

↪ Watch “Las rutas del yagé” here: https://vimeo.com/48574556

More about the Pastos Indigenous Community

More about Sara Rios Perez

She studied literature at the Javeriana University, and currently works as a reading and writing promoter. She is a collaborator for the digital publication Columna Abierta. She accompanies the processes experienced by public and rural libraries in different parts of Colombia. She is the author of De lo Imaginario a lo Real: Cuentos y leyendas de Montes de María (“From the Imaginary to the Real: Tales and legends of Montes de María”), and co-author of  Voces que caminan territorios (“Voices that walk territories”,) an investigation on the right to communication in the Colombian Southwest.

The translator

Maria Gabriela Gelpi Cortes was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 9, 2000. During her upbringing, she studied at the Colegio Marista de Guaynabo where she received a bilingual education. After graduating high school, she moved to the United States to continue her education at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. She completed her bachelor’s degree in International Studies and a minor in Political Science while working at the college’s Health and Counseling Center and interning with a non-profit organization. On the other hand, she worked alongside Dr. Juan Sanchez Martinez creating content and translating texts for the Siwar Mayu project. Maria also took on the task, along with two colleagues from the Latinx community, to create an organization at the university that would support the interests of marginalized communities and give them a space to carry out these types of conversations. In the future, Maria would like to continue her education and obtain a master’s degree in human rights.

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