Bandas de viento (wind bands, aka brass bands) historically speaking are an integral part of Latin American culture no matter where you look, through their role in municipal and military history from colonial times through independence, and in the development of national forms of music in general (some say the origins of New Orleans marching bands and jazz developed from local and Mexican military bands in the 1800s), and Colombia is no exception; indeed, these brass and percussion orchestras are popular still to this day. In this particular case, what interests us here is the ‘creolization’ of brass band music, through the adaptation and integration of indigenous costeño forms into the banda de vientos format. The affinities between certain instruments of European origin, like the clarinet, and those of indigenous roots like the various flutes and pipes played by Afro-Colombian, mestizo and Indian musicians (the gaita and caña de millo), as well as European, African, and Indian festivals and civic events, also insured a fascinating cross-pollination would occur between cultures, lending a distinctive nature to this graceful yet wild ensemble music that grabs the uninitiated listener by the ears and makes them listen. In Colombia, bandas de viento spread from the cities to the smallest towns and even the country hamlets and some large farms. Though many had orchestra leaders that had received some sort of formal training and were often foreigners (Italians, Spaniards and Germans were frequently hired to fill these positions), the rest of the band tended to be staffed by working class laborers of color who had day jobs and were members in municipal and police bands only on the side, performing mostly at holidays, commemorative events, “nocturnal civic processions” (ie saint’s days and carnivals), and workers’ weekend parties. The bands’ repertoire had not only European genres and styles like polkas, mazurkas, fandangos, pasadobles and walzes, but also “bailes de tierra” (traditional dances of the land) like the porro, puya, paseo, cumbia, currulao and mapalé, and to accomplish this syncretic blend of cultural worlds, a complex Afro-centric rhythmic base was grafted to the wind orchestrations, with various indigenous beats and percussion instruments being added to traditional European marching drums (snare and base drum, cymbals). In addition to clarinets, the banda de viento consists of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, a bombardino or two, and occasionally a tuba. The bands were often named after their place of origin or a town’s patron saint festival, wile others were even named after some important event in their region’s local history or in the annals of the group’s career. For many years these organizations labored primarily out of the limelight, and were not seen as music for the upper classes. For this reason, you won’t find too many early commercial recordings of bandas de viento, since they were not seen as fit for mass consumption. As one set of particularly righteous liner notes from a 70s La Banda de la Boquilla album put it, Emilio Fortou and the Baranquilla-based Discos Tropical decided to put to wax the rarely recorded “band of ancient ancestral musicians full of small town flavor” that “predates the commercial nightclub orchestras that stylized and sanitized our traditional tropical costeño music”, adding that with modern technology it was now possible to preserve this valuable but little appreciated musical patrimony for the education of current and future generations to come.
Founded in 1910 by Rafael Mendoza Araújo, Banda 20 de Julio de Repelón hailed from the city of Repelón, in the Atlántico region, and was originally directed earlier in the 20th century by maestro Julio Utria, who passed the leadership on to his son Daudet Cantillo in 1970. Daudet Cantillo was responsible for many of the band’s subsequent hits like ‘El perro negro’ and ‘El sindicato’, acting as arranger as well as conductor and tenor saxophonist. While in Baranquilla to perform some of their songs on a local radio program dedicated to folkloric music, they caught the ear of Víctor Prieto Castro, a DJ and empresario who fell in love with their authentic sound and convinced them to play in the pre-carnival festivities and put their best numbers to tape for his friends at Discos Tropical. Unlike some bandas, Repelón under Daudet Cantillo added vocalists, which greatly enhanced their appeal. ‘La butaca’ was a popular Repelón song heard at many a Baranquilla carnival accompanying the comparsas (processions and floats) during the 70s. Sporting a similar line-up but hailing from the Caribbean coastal fishing community of La Boquilla, near Cartagena, La Banda de la Boquilla’s maestro was Manuel Villanueva, who led the band through a string of popular albums on Tropical in the 60s and 70s.