Thursday, September 15, 2016

Meeting the Culture Keepers in the Costa Rican Rain Forest

                      “That’s my uncle!” Luis Quetzal exclaimed me in Spanish as we watched a scratchy vintage video at the Gold Museum in San Jose.  Luis, a 12th generation shaman, had come from his remote village to help lead our group of “LEAF Ambassadors”.  He’d never visited the museum before.   Luis was surprised to see his uncle on film chanting and ceremoniously divining a cure.  “He taught me those same songs,” Luis excitedly said. Around us lay the artifacts of Costa Rica’s indigenous cultures.  Beside us walked a man who still practiced those traditions. It was a poignant introduction to why we had come. 
            The LEAF Festival is held twice-a-year in Black Mt., North Carolina. Sold out crowds revel in the atmosphere of positivity set to stellar world and regional music. But LEAF’s mission of connecting cultures through the arts at the weekend festivals and in their numerous outreach programs to Asheville schools extends much farther. In partnership with programs in Bequia, Guatemala, Panama, Rwanda, Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti and Tanzania LEAF International helps support indigenous culture keepers.  Luis explained, “If you take a tree that only has roots from two years, it’s very easy to uproot the tree but if the tree has roots from 10 years, it’s very hard to uproot that tree.”  Deeper roots teach the children that their culture didn’t start 200 years ago.  It’s ancient. Seeing the ideas in action as we did was a transformative experience.  
            I’d been to Costa Rica a few other times including some relatively remote locations but nothing like this.  From Puerto Viejo, we travelled by public bus, hired van and (when that broke down) pick up truck until we reached the Urén River where long dug-out canoes were being loaded with everything from furniture to bunches of bananas.  We gingerly tossed in our backpacks and headed into the Talamanca.  Up the river, down a dirt road and through a grove of giant   bamboo, we came to the Amubri village of Koswak. Its huge conical huts, made entirely from bamboo and palm, are truly marvels of engineering.  There is a dining hut where our hosts cooked delicious meals on a wood fire, a two story sleeping hut with private, mosquito-netted beds, a gathering hut large enough for dozens of folks and running water and toilets nearby.  
Our days were spent on “intercambio”:  cultural exchange.  We whipped up a rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” to sing in classrooms.  Until a few years ago, the only songs taught in their schools were the ones the evangelists had allowed.  During those years, the indigenous language was banned.  Now the Bri Bris control their own schools so the children sang their traditional songs in their original language.  That night we danced in a circle with local drummers to depict the world’s creation.  We hiked to visit Jairo, a drum maker.  Beside his family’s smoky conical hut, his father and he showed us the s’bok drums they were making by meticulously carving out the core of logs and covering them with snake skin.  Before
LEAF’s support, Jairo was making trinkets for tourists.  Now his students learn fables set to music.  At every opportunity Luis sang: for our safe arrival, before our long journeys home, to welcome the sunrise...  Every occasion is elevated by music he told us. He conducted healing sessions for those who were willing. The chants and potions left fellow-traveler Steve with a mysterious bolt of energy coursing through his body and cured Isaiah of “FOMO”, the fear of missing out that our culture promulgates.

            “LEAF makes us feel that…our cultures are important,” said Alexis Rodriguez, the culture keeper who worked with LEAF International to unite indigenous tribal members from Costa Rica and Panama. In their sacred mountains they saw their musical traditions performed for the first time as art.  The power of music is evident in the Rwandan program which helped turn homeless orphans into touring drummers.  “To watch these teen street boys become young men living in a home, and each being a world-class performer has been a series of miracles and a testament to the human potential,” LEAF’s founder Jennifer Pickering says.  Musical horizons are expanded when the festival brings international students and culture keepers in to proudly share their traditions with American audiences and Asheville students.  Luis came last year after consulting his spirit ancestors.  “I was very nervous to go to Asheville…but I found it was part of my journey.  I’m happy to share with you because we’re only one family.” 
             “Music is the great bridge that can bring diverse communities together in a manner that transcends conversations and divisive ideologies…Politics and religion fade while friendship and understanding start to erase “isms”,” Jennifer says. Luis puts it this way: “the only way to talk to God is music.” 

LEAF Community Arts:
Koswak Bri Bri village:
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