Naphtali Fields October 19th, 2012
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields and her youth theater group redefine rap.
“Diego! Hold your chest up! Proud like a soldier,” I walk across the room and do my best stiff-armed soldier impression. Diego nods his head affably and imitates me for about a half-second. Then his shoulders slump back into their constant hunch and he begins his gangster walk towards the rest of the group. “No, Diego,” I repeat, trying to keep the laugh out of my voice, “don’t slouch like that, you have to be sterner, more in control.” Again the nod and the smile, but he can’t do it. He walks like a happy rapper whether he’s supposed to be acting like an indigenous chief or an army sergeant.
Diego joined our theater group in Las Palmeras only a few weeks ago. His first day, I asked the group members to compose a rap based on three different parts of Salvadoran history: the indigenous period and the Spanish invasion, the civil war of the ’80s and the current situation. They complied enthusiastically, none more so than Diego. At the end of the session, we got up to share our verses. Most people were off-beat, but their rhymes were solid and their message sound. Then Diego stepped up. He began crooning about a true love’s rejection as he bounced up and down in the middle of the group, one hand gesturing wildly, the other on his crotch. He has clearly spent time watching music videos; when he finished he slouched back to his place in the circle with a grin.
I wasn’t the only one surprised by his performance. The next week, as I readied the music for a second go at the group rap, I turned around to find the whole group imitating Diego’s stance and pelvic thrusts. “Is this how you do it, Diego?” Yolanda asked as she bounced her butt in a cumbia-style rhythm. Our youngest member, a 12-year-old girl, began to attempt break dancing on the hard linoleum floor. I couldn’t help it; I started laughing. We were rapping about indignities, violence, history and our dreams for the future. And everyone was convinced that they needed to clutch their crotch and waggle their rears to get the message across.
We eventually came to an agreement about the movement/song relationship. Bopping is allowed. Thrusting is not. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Diego. For me, he represents what ArtCorps is all about.
Diego lives a hard life. He’s from a poor family and before I met him, he found something that filled him with joy: rap. He swallowed the messages, the movements, he even changed his walk to match that of his new pop-culture heroes. And then he came to our group. Suddenly, Diego was introduced to a different idea about what rap could do. It can motivate people to action. It can tell stories of the oppressed. It doesn’t have to be about sex and money and drugs. It can tell his own story in a powerful, redemptive way.
The beauty of working with community groups is that each member brings with them a richness of past experience when they join. Sometimes that takes the form of singing, acting, or drawing. Two of our group members love doing bike tricks and we want to incorporate that into a play someday. And Diego is our rapper. He teaches us rhythm that we didn’t have, and we help him understand that he holds a tool for good in his hand that all of us can use together.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America.
ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrió invokes Fred Astaire to facilitate a dynamic exchange around shared power and tradition in the first training workshop with members of the Natural Resources Council of 48 Cantons, Totonicapán.
When I came to visit Totonicapán for the first time, I thought I knew all there was to know about 48 Cantons: it has one of the most deeply rooted structures for indigenous self-determination among the first peoples of the country. The area is also known for their community work to protect forests, water and natural resources.
Nonetheless, as I walked the streets I saw the people carrying a black stick in their hands; I thought: people DANCE here in Totonicapán. The image of Fred Astaire with his black cane and tap shoes flashed in my mind.
But that was not the case. The scepter in Totonicapán is the HIGHEST SYMBOL OF AUTHORITY. Whoever is carrying the scepter is, at that very moment, representing the power of the Maya Quiché people of Totonicapán and its villages. A tradition that is over 200 years old.
For the inhabitants of Totonicapán, the scepter is a well-established symbol, and one with which they are very familiar. For the uninitiated, it can awaken foreign and fantastic interpretations.
Under that idea, we designed a workshop together with the members of the Natural Resource Council. The idea was to deconstruct the significance of the scepter, taking it out of context, and then reconstruct its importance to reaffirm its living presence. The intent of this activity was to help conserve ancestral practices.
I sent an email to some friends around the world, attaching photos of the people of Totonicapán holding the black stick in different daily situations. I asked my friends what they thought of these images. Who were the people in the photos? Why were they holding black sticks?
Yuko, from Japan, said they might be police officers who were using the sticks to protect women and children from would-be thieves. Silvia, from Spain, said that they must be healers who carried herbs in their sticks to heal the population. Sunil, from the USA, thought they might be religious students. Amalia, from Italy, thought they were retirees. Eva, from Germany, said that they might be magicians going to perform at a children’s party. Anki, from Norway, also thought they could be dancers. And Zartosht, from Iran, said that the sticks were to keep bad spirits away.
I shared these answers with the nearly 40 members of the Council. They listened intently, with reactions ranging from alarm to laughter.
As soon as I finished reading the responses, the council members began to speak out, as if defending themselves. Taking their feet and raising their voices, they extolled the importance of their scepters. Without further prodding they spoke for more than 30 minutes, expressing ideas that included:
The president of 48 Cantons, Carmen Tacam, told us that she feels energy through the scepter: “The scepter holds the power, we are just intermediaries.”
Just as the scepter can be a blessing in the lives of those who carry it, it can also be a curse if people do not know how to use it appropriately. The scepter cannot be loaned to anyone. It can be used only by the person who carries it for that year.
Carmen also told us that the scepter only changes hands on the last day of the year, as it is passed on to the new Council President. The scepter is left in rosewater, in a clay pot. Rose petals are spread upon it, and it is left to rest for the night on December 31. A candle is lit, incense is burnt, and thanks are given for the protection, aid and wisdom that the scepter has granted that year. The scepter can then be passed on to the new authorities with new energy.
As we were all motivated after the intense discussion and exchange of ideas, we decided to set up a sort of mandala in our work space. Everyone spontaneously put their scepters in the circle. Through the exercise of drawing we joined into this year of mandalas, this time representing the past, present and future, as individuals and groups had done before us.
The morning flew by and before we knew it, we were having lunch amidst mandalas that had been filled with our concerns and hopes. And we had renewed energy to finish out the year.
This project is being implemented in collaboration with the EcoLogic Development Fund
When ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields started choreographing a dance for the Las Palmeras youth group, she chose the three-count stomp as the base beat, assuming that it would be easy for the group.
“Stomp, stomp, CLAP. Stomp, stomp, CLAP.” I remember countless basketball games my high school gymnasium as the bleachers erupted with the sound of feet stomping and hands clapping their three-count beat for the team. I’ve always thought of this rhythm as the most basic of beats, good for encouragement, intimidation or amateur rap.
“It can’t be that bad,” my visiting friend Junia chided as I mourned over my group’s lack of rhythm.
“You have no idea!” I replied, “the boys have an amazing ability to mess up the beat in a different way every time. First they lift their foot wrong, then they forget to clap. The third time they start two counts too late. It’s incredible; they’ve found every possibility for error and make them all.”
We were walking the fifty minutes towards Las Palmeras for the second session with the group’s boys. They were cast as the farmers in our play about sustainable agricultural practices, performing a dance/rap number that promotes native seeds, organic fertilizers and more communal farming techniques. As all eight of them lined up with the broomsticks we were substituting for their traditional planting sticks, Junia flashed me an encouraging smile and began the stomp. I led the girls in the rap as the line haltingly marched forward, hitting their broomsticks against the ground as they tried to keep up with Junia’s rhythmic marching. One verse in she called for everyone to stop.
“This isn’t working,” she stated. “Let’s divide up and have them watch us as we walk through it.”
Then we grabbed partners and made them do the routine with us. Then we all just tried to clap the rhythm. Three hours later we were still working on the same one-minute song. The clouds suddenly broke over our heads and as we started to run the long, muddy way home we shouted encouragement at the tired boys. “You can do it! We’ll see you next week!”
Stomp, stomp, CLAP.
Five days later a girl from the group told me that every night the youth had been meeting on their own to work on the rap/choreography. The girls were learning it, the boys were getting better, and everyone was excited to show off their skills to me on Saturday.
“We’re not going to embarrass ourselves,” she told me confidently. “We’ll practice every day if we have to.”
I congratulated her on her commitment to the play but couldn’t stop thinking about the awkward dancing boys. Is there another rhythm that would be easier for them? Am I imposing some kind of American beat that doesn’t fit with the movement of Salvadoran culture?
Saturday came but instead of showing off their practice, they wanted to work on the choreography for our second song. I spent some long minutes trying to get us lined up on the right beat, kicking at the same time with the same leg and twirling in the same direction.
Then, I stood back and watched for a minute. Fourteen boys and girls were singing loudly about their dreams for their rural communities as they linked arms and danced enthusiastically. What is rhythm after all? If it is the base, the pulse behind the song, then these kids have figured it out perfectly. They might not kick or clap or march on time, but they know what they’re singing about. And they know that stepping on beat is not the most important thing—it’s stepping together.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita and Oxfam America.