Llaneros: Creole Cowboys

Colombia is a country with regions very distinct from each other, differing widely in climate, vegetation, topography, and the spoken language and dialect. Geographically, there are five main regions in Colombia: Andina (the central region), Atlantica (bordering the Caribbean Sea in the North), Pacifica (the western region bordering the Pacific Sea) and OrinoquÃŒa (the eastern region bordered by the Orinoco River on the East and by the Amazonian river on the South).

This article is about the OrinoquÃŒa region. This most eastern region of Colombia is a place with only scarce mountains, with vast plains, many rivers, and vegetation consisting mainly of small bushes. It lies at the foot of three mountain chains creating the sensation that the landscape flows out into an enormous green delta.

The population of the OrinoquÃŒa region is small, with the main economic activity being cattle breeding with ranches the size of 20 to 40,000 animals. Many of the inhabitants here are so-called Creoles, people who are of mixed Spanish and indigenous blood. The white people, or Blancos as they are called, in most cases own the large terrains on which the Creoles work as cowboys, driving the cattle.

Although the cattle on the ranches are considered ëdomesticated,í they are certainly not easy to handle. It is said that the cattle are so savage that to put 300 heads inside a Corral you need well over fifty Creole cowboys. This is not an exaggeration.

Living conditions in the OrinoquÌa region were and still are substandard ñ there is no running water, no aqueducts, no bathrooms, no energy and no power supplies, and the only means of transportation available are old cars, bicycles and motor bicycles, horses, mules and donkeys. Some communities that lie near a river use a bongo (a handcrafted boat). The owners of the lands generally do not live here full-time, but the Creoles do. They live on a so-called Hato. A Hato consists in general of about 1, 000 hectares (1 hectare = 100 m≤) and usually around eight Creoles (around two families) live on it.

The harsh living conditions on a Hato have not been an obstacle for the development of a rich culture, conserving and expressing the unique way of being, thinking, and feeling of the Creole cowboys. The Creoles of the OrinoquÃŒa region share some cultural characteristics with their Venezuelan neighbours who preserve many of the same traditions.

Solitude is a feeling that generates a need for expression in music, singing, dancing, poetry, and oral stories. The scarce means of communication and widespread population force Creole men and women to be alone for extensive periods of time. This isolation renders them opportunities to evoke memories, miss a loved one, or plan out a next fight with a friend or person that has a bone to pick with them.

Not always is the thinking of the Creoles necessarily directed toward other persons; it can be directed toward animals or the vegetation, while the Llano or the vast grazing plain itself might be a topic of inspiration. The senses of the people are incited day by day, being exposed to amazing sunrises and sunsets, to the concerts of thousands of birds and insects that are part of the wildlife, to the sounds of cattle and horses. Another typical sound of the OrinoquÌa region, which bears music, is that of the horseís shoes hitting the earth at many varying speeds while horse riding.

All of these different sounds and songs of nature and life in the Colombian plains are mimicked in the typical music of the region. In Creole music you will find instruments such as: a Harp, a Cuatro (a little four-string guitar), capachos (or maracas Рa pair of two round ended sticks filled in with seeds that produce a particular sound) and in some cases a bass that for many years was an instrument called furruco, which consisted of a vessel made of leather with one stick that was struck in the middle and bellowed in and out producing the same sound as a bass. The Spanish word ñ quite well known- for this type of music is joropo. The coplero (singer) can be a man, woman or child, and sings popular songs to the joropo music.

The subjects of the songs may vary from personal experiences of daily work with horses and cattle, like funny or dangerous episodes, to the political situation of the Creoles (especially in the music of the 1950ís). But you will also find songs of complex poetry describing the Llano, its vast landscape and its plays of light, or poetry about Women and Men, about love and death, about the struggle of the people and their culture. Riddles and popular sentences deriving from the Spanish Conquerors, mixed with indigenous vocabulary and context are frequently found. Auditory memory and a highly developed level of language skills are necessary for the singers to remember songs that may last from 5 to sometimes 10 minutes long without any repetition of lines. In order to win a singing contest, the coplero must be able to rhyme in a quick response to the other singerís lines, a technique called Contrapunteo.

Battery radios and CD players are the only regular means of contact with the external world on the Hato, unless people visit relatives or friends. Another rare way of contact with outside groups is by traveling to towns and villages, which may occur every six months. Due to the relative isolation, every now and then parties are organized in order to meet with different people, and to make new frends. It is also the opportunity for each to show their dancing skills.

Dancing to the joropo is not easy and there exist tacit rules: it is the man who conquers the woman, so he is the one that leads the dancing, the one that has to dominate, tapping in different styles and he is the one that attempts to make women fall in love with him. By doing so, the man shows that he is able to take care of her, while the womanís dancing is very simple, following the movements of the man and the only thing she is allowed to do, is to slide and turn around at some moments. This is considered very feminine. Obviously, the woman wears a special dress with decorations such as live flowers, and wide skirts that allow some extent of flirting. There exists a beautiful metaphor in this culture, which tells you when a man has conquered a woman: he rides away with her on the same horse.

It is not possible to understand this Creole culture if one does not think about how social values develop to bind a particular society together. Courage is highly valued to these Creoles, especially amongst young boys: you have to be able to remain in darkness for long periods of time while controlling your fear; you have to be able to fight against big savage bulls that weigh over 600 kilograms. If you happen to meet a wild pork or a jaguar you have to be able to beat it off, not to mention snakes, babillas (caiman typical of north-west South America), anacondas, piranhas, etc. You also need some creativity in order to face some of the situations just described, so you will be able to trick the animal into hiding or resist it trying to attack you.

The special skills of these Creoles to observe and predict animal behaviour is highly developed; they have to know how to master animals if they are to succeed in some of their most common daily tasks. Most of the Creoles know at what time or where to find animals, otherwise a huge amount of physical and emotional energy would be wasted.

Good instincts, and the ability to act intuitively in the right manner instead of thinking twice is another important trait, since animals may react in unpredictable ways. Also, persistence and obviously humour is needed in the harsh conditions in which the Creoles live. The amount of apparent frustration under such circumstances would not be bearable to a human being if humour were not present.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the Llaneros culture was traditionally highly isolated from the rest of the country. Only in recent years, has there been more promotion of its rich cultural expressions and now you will find music, books, presentations and shows about the Creoles of the OrinoquÃŒa region available in other regions, and even in other countries. Now people of my generation, who were born in the 1960Â¥s are more aware of the importance of promoting abroad cultural manifestations of the Llaneros and we take actions to do so.

On December 27 of 2003, I was invited to a show in which twelve singers, over 60 years old average, presented a beautiful work of five CD¥s on which songs, stories, riddles, poems, and prayings were recorded by two persons that are fighting to preserve the culture of the Creoles for humanity. The Title of this work is: ëRaices de la Musica casanareÒaí or ëCasanareÒa¥s Music Rootsí (Casanare is a state in Colombia) and it is an honour to share this experience with all those readers interested in far away and unknown cultures. Even though some cultures are less known, it is important to realize that they are not less important or less precious in contributing to the rich culture of mankind.

This work is not yet available for purchase, but we hope to share the culture of the Creole cowboys in other ways so many people can enjoy it.

Links with mp3’s of Llaneros Music:
www.llanera.com (Look for: M˙sica Llanera en Real Audio)
Orlando ìCholoî Valderrama (Look for: Discos)

March 14th, 2004 by