Mexico: “We Are Blacks from the Coast” Project

Vaqueros. Foto: Sergio Navarrete 2015

Vaqueros. Picture: Sergio Navarrete 2015

Mexico: During the colonial era, demographically, the majority population was the Indigenous People, the second-largest was of African origin, and the third was whites and mestizos of European descent. Mexico had two Black presidents: the Generals Vicente Guerrero and Juan Álvarez (called “El Pinto” because he suffered from vitiligo. Because of the white spots on his skin, he was portrayed as white).

There is a systemic process of social invisibility of the Afro-descendant Mexican population and are fighting for full cultural, social, economic, and political rights. Below we reproduce significant work of artistic and cultural recovery carried out by the “We Are Blacks From The Coast ” Project.

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“Somos negros de la costa”, “We are blacks from the Coast”, (Juvenile Afromexican Musicians in Oaxaca) is a project focused on musical creativity and musical learning modes, as forms of empowerment within the emergent political culture of black or Afro-Mexican communities in Oaxaca, Mexico. The project has been established in the pueblo Llano Grande La Banda and its objectives are to document and raise consciousness about the role music plays in young juvenile communities. It seeks to enrich its creativity and its performance abilities through music workshops, exploring a musical regeneration as a long term goal. The British Academy has granted financial aid through Newton grants and the Centre of Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology has provided resources in equipment and support to make the workshops possible.

Máscara diablos lo de soto. Foto: Sergio Navarrete 2015

Máscara diablos lo de soto. Foto: Sergio Navarrete 2015


The workshops are at the heart of this intercultural educational Project. Following the sway of the Atlantic Ocean in the historical musical waves between Africa and Mexico we played with children and youth forming a musical dialogue between Mali and the Black coast of Oaxaca. We carried out three workshops with male and female children and youth from Santiago Llano Grande, la Banda, and with professional musicians from Mali and different areas of Mexico. We were in search of fine sounds that gave new life to the musical tradition in this Oaxacan coastal Black population.
Distributing instruments and repertoires from local traditions, a pot, la charrasca, la guacharasca, el cajón, la tarimba, violins, guitars and the bajo quinto (see the description in this section). This was facilitated by the children’s prior familiarity with local genres such as la chilena, el merequetengue, and the son de artesa. In this way, a dialogue with Mali musicians began. The two musicians, members of the trio Da Kali, Lassana Diabaté playing on the balafón – an ancestral instrument to the marimba – and singer Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté were brought over to Mexico by Lucy Duran, a specialist in the music from sub-Sarahran Africa.
The recreation of the traditional music of the Black populations from the coast of Oaxaca and Mali can be exemplified with the pieces that illustrate well the musical dialogue between these two cultures. The song Oaxaca O is a creation that takes its melody from the responsorial Mande song Jokori Jokori sung in Spanish. It alludes to the recognition of the Afromexican culture as part of the Mexican nation. Inversely the son Entrada is taken from the emblematic Danza de Diablos (Devil Dance) as the harmonic base for the melody Mandé called Angatá (listen to the audios from the workshops in this section).
The project also endeavored to reintroduce and strengthen the presence of musical instruments that had once existed but had since disappeared and those that are now scarce in the region such as the violin, bajo quinto and tarimba. A luthier workshop was carried out to teach how to make local instruments such as the devil pot (bote del Diablo), cajón and tarimba.
Diverse methods were used for the teaching-learning process of music according to the characteristics of each instrument and the pedagogical experience of the teachers. We experimented on an ad hoc basis with the musical scores of local repertoires in a didactic fashion along with the teachers, (those that can use these are welcome to consult this section).

Danza de la Tortuga. Foto: Sergio Navarrete 2015

Danza de la Tortuga. Foto: Sergio Navarrete 2015

Music and Dance from the Afromexican Coast of Oaxaca

The Black music from the Oaxaca coast is immediately associated with three genres, the corrido, the chilena and the merequetengue, all of which are common rhythms (listen to la chilena “silencio corazón, y el merequetengue “el poquilín” from the repertoire of the workshop found on this website). El corrido or ballad, narrates an occurrence which is notable and often tragic. The Spanish relación and romance are its literary ancestors ( Gabriel Saldivar, Historia de la Música en México. Ed. Facsimilar, Gobierno del Estado de México 1980: 229-244). For decades the histories of important events for the communities were sung in corridos. These sung stories tended to extol the machismo of the characters involved in the violent, heroic and humorous events that transpired. (Gabriel Moedano Navarro, Atención pongan señores…. El corrido afromexicano de la costa chica”, Serie de la fonoteca no.38, INAH, CON.ACULTA, 2000:7).

La chilena is a Chilean musical genre known in Latin America by the name of cueca. This dance rhythm arrived by sea on the South Pacific coast of Mexico during the first decades of the 19C. La chilena retains many similarities of the original in dance and rhythm. Rhythmically the 6/8 can be written in the pattern (1/4,1/8,1/8,1/4) with accents in the first and fourth beat (played on the cajón or rectangular drum) and combined with measures on 3/4. The dance is a tap dance performed on a wooden platform or trough (carved out tree trunk), where couples, direct one another´s movement with a handkerchief held in the hand and imitating a rooster and hens courtship “dance”. La chilena has couplets of four repeated verses and choruses, in which there might also be interludes with humorous recitations performed as a duel between men and women (Thomas Stanford, El son mexicano, col. Sep 80, FCE, 1984:38-43; Carlos Ruíz Rodriguez, Versos, música y baile de artesa de la costa chica. San Nicolás guerrero y El Ciruelo, Oaxaca. El Colegio de México CONACULTA, 2004).

El merequetengue is a Columbian rhythm like the cumbia and el vallenato. The three rhythms grew favourite on the Costa Chica of Guerrero y Oaxaca and the coastal groups and orchestras compose their own versions such as “el poquilín” and famous covers such as “La golondrina”. El merequetengue is also very popular in the Mexican North East among groups of Northern Huapangos.


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