My ears perk up in Zumba, and my body immediately responds. The music has transported a small piece of my mind far, far away from this wood-floored dance studio, to a place where bare feet sashay like the palms, stomping for emphasis, where bright skirts twirl and hips shake with abandon.
Our reflections in the wall-to-wall mirror might be telling a different story – we’re still a group of athletic-attired women dancing Monday night away in a Chicago dance studio – but it’s easy to make the mental leap to those warm locales where the women perform these same salsas and cumbias in full traditional dress. It’s all right there in the music! The soaring decibels and pulsing percussion of Celia Cruz, Cucu Diamantes, and other great Latin music artists move us straight into the heart of Latin America to lose ourselves in the rhythms of the Spanish-speaking world. Drumbeats are very transportative, and in much Latin music, drums are a critical component defining the rhythm, flavor, and framework of the entire song.
Alternately, Latin music can convey the utmost relaxation. It can seem a more melodious extension of the waves and rustling palms. Or it can also feel natural by way of incorporating sounds that pay homage to the jungle – a tropical bird’s squawk, a monkey’s howl – to evoke the wilderness that indigenous peoples in Latin America (and this is especially true in Panama) have been living peacefully within for centuries. They would not choose to overlay these wilds with too much artifice. And why?
Because it would only serve to dispel, not deepen, the meaning they find within their homes in the heart of the jungle. Their music is a medium for understanding the wild surround they both adore and fear – to celebrate its gifts, to respect its power.
In an indigenous village, the flutes and drums are soft, inviting – sounding the place where the villagers live, so that you hear it before you see it and know where to go to receive your welcome. You can take a 2-minute journey down that path with the 2011 Island Interns in their video of a visit with the Emberá of Tusipono, Panama, where the tribe welcomed Luke and Ben into their halting two-step traditional dance without a moment’s hesitation.
In the Ngöbe village of Soloy near Isla Palenque, the children perform a dance consisting only of the call of the conch, the rattle of handcrafted maracas, and the soft patter of their feet. Arms thrown around one another’s shoulders, the group moves in unison, leaning on each other, taking lead from their neighbor, so that the dance builds on itself from hesitant first steps to a strong and synchronized motion — one that moves its observers as powerfully as it does the dancers. The sounds they dance to can’t exactly be called a song, but the pulse of their music is organic and alive.
During your travels in Panama and elsewhere in Central America, you’ll be able to pick out sounds from the music playing in restaurants, wafting out of doorways or through the open windows of a local’s home — many you’ll recognize as being distinctively Latin in flavor even before you hear the Spanish music lyrics. Especially in Central America — the crossroads of North and South, East and West — influences from around the world have come to leave their mark on the traditional music of the region, and in no country is this more apparent than in the treasured isthmus of Panama. Afro-Caribbean and European influences, jazzy Cuban sounds and Colombian rhythms… the globe is referenced, and the ambient effects are resoundingly pleasurable.
Through our Island Music series (launching tomorrow), we hope to deepen your understanding and appreciation of these vibrant musical styles, which will be played for your listening pleasure at our restaurants on Isla Palenque.
Sorry to be such a tease… but we didn’t want to just lead you into the dance without proper introductions. 🙂