Colombia’s Carlos Vives gives back to wetland culture that inspired his music

By Jorge Gil Angel

Buena Vista, Colombia, Dec 7 (EFE).- The Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta, a swampy marsh near Colombia’s Caribbean coast, occupies a special place in the heart of famed recording artist Carlos Vives, who is now repaying a debt of gratitude to the people who live there with a school project benefiting 150 children.

That unique landscape is home to stilt-house villages whose inhabitants have been hard hit by the Andean nation’s longstanding armed conflict, are largely abandoned by the state and make a living from fishing amid a general lack of basic services.

One of their most pressing needs is education, which has been the focal point of Vives’ social outreach efforts.

To that end, his Tras la Perla non-profit organization has worked in tandem with one of those communities, Buena Vista, to renovate and completely transform the “Institucion Educativa Departamental San Jose,” a school attended by 150 children.

The walls of that establishment are now painted in the same bright colors as the wooden-floor stilt homes of that and other local communities, whose residents use boats to transport themselves amid the swampy marshes located between the Magdalena River and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range and separated from the Caribbean Sea by an artificial spit.

Vives’ project, which is backed by DirecTV and Fundacion Somnia, is aimed at reducing the technology gap in a remote part of Colombia that had no fixed Internet connection just a few months ago and a weak and intermittent mobile Internet signal.

Through the initiative, the school now has an electrical system, new wood finishings in the classrooms, a new roof, a library, a television set, 70 desks and 25 other pieces of classroom furniture, 25 sport mats and six computers.

Vives traveled to that remote village on Monday to inaugurate the school and pay tribute to a marsh-dwelling community whose culture served as inspiration for his two most recent albums: Cumbiana and Cumbiana II.

The singer-songwriter and actor said the goal of the project is ensure that young people in that community do not have to travel to Nueva Venecia, the largest stilt-home village in the area, or make a nearly hour-and-a-half boat and bus trip to Santa Marta, the capital of the Colombian department of Magdalena, to pursue an education.

“We’ve been able to start to bring modernity to a certain degree … there’s now an Internet connection, we’ve brought in facilities,” the recording artist said.

Vives has strong ties to those communities that date back to visits he made as a young child with his father while growing up in Santa Marta.

“It’s a place I learned to love as a very small child. We’d come with my father who had patients, and the fishermen invited us to eat. We really enjoyed that amphibious lifestyle. And those mojarras (fried bream) were delicious, the music, everything was very special,” Vives said.

Many years later he explored the region’s musical roots and found that the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta was the “epicenter” of the Caribbean’s musical tradition.

Those findings inspired him to choose that marshy realm as the setting for the videos he recorded for his 2020 album “Cumbiana,” which explores the genre of cumbia (a folkloric genre and dance from Colombia) and its history.

“There are many reasons why we wanted to be involved: we wanted to lend a hand, to contribute, to improve the quality of life of the amphibious culture of our Cienaga Grande,” Vives said.

One of the beneficiaries of this initiatives is Andrea Alvarez, a local resident and teacher who is educating the community’s youngest members.

“It’s a blessing and highly motivating for the children because when you have a pleasant environment, it’s much more conducive to learning,” she said while teaching a class of 10.

One of the greatest benefits, she said, is that the children will no longer have to travel to Nueva Venecia by canoe and risk suffering accidents.

She said the goal is to help forge a more prosperous future for this remote community – one of thousands in Colombia that have experienced state neglect for decades. EFE

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