Maya Jensen’s documentary film SOLIDARITY IN SAYA has been a labor of love for over a decade now. What began as a short trip turned into a divinely-inspired journey into a lost people, resurrected culture and ancient heritage represented by Bolivians of African descent. These Afro-Bolivians found a universal language in the Spanish-speaking land of their political and labor oppressors: Saya music, an old artform. Jensen’s film documents Saya music of today.
Jensen is a musician herself (she plays cello and bass) and Northwestern University alumna who majored in Anthropology. She came upon groups of Saya musicians in 2006 in Bolivia. Her life changed from there. She created an expansive thesis on music, history of Africans in Bolivia, and political implications of their independence movements as related to Saya music. Her thesis became the culmination of her education at Northwestern and also the DVD liner notes to the film, a deeper report into the history and music for those who watch the film.
I am so proud that five years ago I had privilege of assisting Ms. Jensen’s edits of her thesis and DVD liner notes for SOLIDARITY IN SAYA. Later I decided to interview her about her work, this landmark film and Saya’s meaning for Afro-Bolivians today. Here are highlights of the interview accompanied by still images from her movie, SOLIDARITY IN SAYA.
Q: Many people are still unaware of realities like 35,000 African descendants in a Spanish-speaking country like Bolivia. How does Saya music help change that?
Well first off, 35,000 was actually a number estimated based on unofficial surveys. In 2012, after years of organizing and pressure from Afro-Bolivian activists, the government census finally counted Afro-Bolivians for the first time. The number came out a lot lower than expected, at 16,329. Since this was the first time the category was offered on the census, some community members predict the next census might yield a higher number. Organizers must continue to work on outreach in the Afro-Bolivian communities.
So to get back to your question, I still often meet people who have never heard about the Afro-Bolivian community, but Afro-Bolivians have gained a lot of visibility over the past few decades. The revival of traditional Saya music has been a powerful tool in gaining recognition and spreading awareness.
Saya music was a way for people in the Afro-Bolivian community to come together, build solidarity, and demand to be seen by gathering and claiming space physically with their collective presence. Through performance and song lyrics, they could define their own identity, tell their own stories, and have their voices be heard as an opposition to the racism and erasure they faced in a continuation of the colonial system.
What began as gatherings of informal music groups became a platform for organizing a movement that has gone far beyond just Saya music. Since the documentary was filmed in 2006, the movement has had many incredible achievements, socially and politically. Performing Saya music publicly is still a great way for Afro-Bolivians to celebrate their culture and has continued to be a space where political messages can reach the public.
While Saya continues to be an important tool, many Afro-Bolivian activists have moved on to form organizations that focus on other avenues of organizing or to holding positions in government. There are also some people in the community who feel Saya music undermines the movement. Some are concerned Saya music has become the main representation of Afro-Bolivian culture, which they see as an appeasing, non-confrontational form of entertainment. It may please audiences but might make people not take Afro-Bolivians and their political goals as seriously, just reducing them to entertainers without respecting the diverse community of so many things beyond Saya music.
You returned to Bolivia and the region where you filmed SOLIDARITY IN SAYA. Did you think you would make it back to the country?
I had always planned on going back to Bolivia once the documentary was finished and I had a final product I could bring back to the communities I worked with. But it took me so much longer to finish the movie and get back to Bolivia than I ever imagined. The people I had been in touch with in Bolivia and most of the people I know heard me say so many times over the years, the movie is almost done, so I’ll be back to Bolivia really soon! But this project turned out to have continuously new layers of work I hadn’t expected. I was learning the process of independently producing a documentary as I was making it. So it took many years, but it was amazing to finally be able to go back.
What was the reunion with the land and the friends you made there like?
It felt great to go back to Bolivia and see so many familiar things and so many things that had changed in the cities, in the rural villages, and within the Afro-Bolivian movement. It was nice to reconnect with friends and catch up after so many years. Some people I had lost touch with said they assumed I wasn’t ever coming back. A lot of the children I met had grown up in 7 years. They didn’t remember me. After a few months there, I got so used to the lifestyle again I had culture shock coming back to the U.S.
In the time between you starting the film in 2006 and your return to Bolivia in 2013, did you notice any evolutions in Saya, perhaps from younger musicians?
There are many new Saya groups that formed in all the major cities. Many younger Saya musicians have been writing new songs and incorporating various popular music songs. For example, I went to see the Saya group MOCUSABOL at a night club called Malegria in La Paz, where they perform weekly. They did a Saya rendition of the Pitbull song. I heard some Saya musician elders were critical. They want youth to stick to traditional songs.
What is the journey to Bolivia like? The film and your research uncovered how the roads were blocked in the past. Talk about that more. What is the terrain like now?
The landscape in Bolivia is incredibly stunning and dramatic, especially in contrast to where I’ve spent most of my life, the completely flat region of the Midwest. Flying over Bolivia and seeing the mountain ranges takes my breath away every time. When you arrive in the el Alto airport, you can feel how thin the air is from the altitude. It takes some days to adjust to breathing normally again. The view looking down into the basin of the stunning cityscape of La Paz is surreal. It’s a city that looks like it is just growing organically out of the mountaintops. Bolivia has such a vast array of terrains and climates in the different extreme ecological regions from the Amazon to the Andes.
In my research, I learned the only reason there were not more African slaves in this region was because of the extreme landscape. It caused higher death rates during travel, making slaves prohibitively expensive for many. This was a reminder of how the dehumanizing brutality of slavery came down to an economic system of greed and profit.
Los Yungas is a rural semitropical mountainous region with the highest population of Afro-Bolivian people. Colonists brought African slaves to this region to do agricultural work in haciendas. Their descendants stayed there even after the abolition of slavery, in part because it was such an isolated area so leaving was hardly a viable option.
I learned more recently that the road that made this region more accessible was built in the 1930s during the Chaco War by Paraguayan prisoners of war. That adds another layer of sadness to the story of this road. This road is still notoriously dangerous. It has actually been called the most dangerous road in the world, or “la carretera de la muerte” (the highway of death). Although this road is an attraction for mountain biking tourists, taking a bus to the villages in the Yungas was always terrifying. I heard an estimate that a bus falls off the edge every two weeks!
During this past trip to Bolivia, I was looking forward to traveling to the Yungas with the safety of a new paved road with guardrails. It finally opened in 2007, after decades of construction.
Although I was eager to go back to visit the villages in the Yungas where I had filmed, I arrived in Bolivia during the rainy season. Many people advised me it was not safe to go to the Yungas because many roads had collapsed or couldn’t be crossed because of so much rain and flooding. I talked to some friends who told me they were stranded in their village. So I learned the new safer paved road only covered one portion of the route. Most of the networks of roads that connected villages in the region were still the old dirt roads.
When I finally went to the north Yungas after the rainy season started to pass, I was delighted to be on the new paved road with guardrails. I did not fear for my life at all, unlike all the times I had gone to the Yungas. Then I took a separate trip to the south Yungas. I found that we were taking a different route because this was the region that still relied on the old dirt roads. So we had to reroute around the roads that had collapsed from the heavy rains. At times I looked out the window and looked straight down the edge of the cliff into a ravine thousands of feet deep. On the journey back to La Paz, I got into two minor accidents in two separate buses. This is a whole other terrifying and absurd story. While I was very grateful for my life after that trip, for all the people in the Yungas, traveling on this road regularly is a normal part of their lives.
I’ve heard many stories from people in the Yungas about losing friends and relatives to this road. When I was visiting the village of Chicaloma, I heard of a story of a few years ago, a bus carrying the high school boys soccer team fell off the road on the way back from a tournament. This village tragically lost 16 young boys at once to this road.
So still today many Afro-Bolivian and indigenous people who live in the Yungas as subsistence farmers struggle with this notoriously dangerous road.
How did you process all you learned about this African slavery/colonialist past?
Before I went to Bolivia for the first time in 2006, I had never heard anything about Bolivia having a community of Black people. So visiting very remote and isolated rural villages in the Yungas where there are large communities of Black people, in a country not widely recognized as having a Black community, was surprising. I had read a lot about Bolivia to learn as much as I could about the country before I went. Yet I had never read any mention of an Afro-Bolivian presence or of a history of African slavery.
So once I was there, I learned a lot talking to Afro-Bolivian people I met. Then as I continued trying to research more about the history of African slavery in Bolivia, it was incredibly frustrating to realize how much this story had been systematically erased from Bolivia’s history. Even in the very special Africana collection in the Northwestern University library, where I was doing my research from 2006 to 2007, there was barely anything published about Afro-Bolivians. I found a couple chapters or articles and a few books. These were only published in Spanish.
Seeing how few historical sources about Bolivia even mentioned this history gave me a new understanding of the extent of the systematic erasure and denial the colonizers managed to carry out to create their white-washed version of history.
I also often heard Bolivians describe their understanding about the history of African slavery in Bolivia in an over-simplistic and inaccurate story of how the slaves ended up in the Yungas because the climate was similar to Africa. Anthropologist, Sara Busdiecker goes into depth analyzing this narrative in her article, “Where Blackness Resides: Afro-Bolivians and the Spatializing and Racializing of the African Diaspora.”
So even today, most people only know the colonial narrative they have been taught as the truth. Researching this specific history made me understand just how much the colonial narrative continues to hold so much power today. Since there were so few resources that existed that discuss Afro-Bolivian history and they were so hard to access, I was motivated to use this documentary project as a way to share as much as I could about what I had learned about this history.
Is there anything you recommend as a base primer for this history?
Fortunately, there are more resources coming out every year. I was excited to find out about a book by historian, Lolita Gutiérrez Brockington, Blacks, Indians, and Spaniards in the Eastern Andes: Reclaiming the Forgotten in Colonial Mizque, 1550-1782, published in 2009, a couple years after I finished my undergraduate thesis. This book uncovers the presence of African slaves and their descendants in a region of Bolivia that is not commonly recognized as having had African slaves. Seeing the erasure of Afro-Bolivian history also helped me understand more how and why so many people don’t acknowledge that our modern systems and institutions are a perpetuation of the same oppression and inequalities that began with colonialism.
Have you screened the film in Bolivia? If so, what do people think of it?
While I was in Bolivia, I set up screenings in La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba at venues including museums, art galleries, a movie theater and cultural centers. I also screened the film in two villages in the Yungas where I filmed, Tocaña and Chicaloma.
Of all the various audiences I’ve shown the film to, I was more nervous than I had ever been to screen the film for Afro-Bolivian audiences, many of whom were in or knew people in the film. I was really relieved to have lots of positive feedback. Some responded that it was great to have documentation of people to describe the beginnings of the movement in the late 80s, and of the time when the film was shot in 2006 when the movement had been gaining momentum for a few decades. Some commented the movie was a way that they could remember and reconnect with where they came from and how far they had come as a movement.
One person who was in the film, Paola Yañez Inofuentes, spoke about how it was interesting reflection for her to see herself speaking in the film, how her personal political perspective and discourse has developed as she has grown as a person and as an activist.
Others spoke about how it was nice to be able to see several people in the film who have since passed away. People in the village of Tocaña especially liked the extended interviews in the DVD extras with the village elders, Abuelo Manuel and Abuela Angelica, both of whom have since passed away. People in the village said it was almost like these charismatic elders were back in the room again telling their stories.
Many people in the Afro-Bolivian community also commented they were glad that I came back to Bolivia to screen the movie in the communities where I filmed. Their experience has repeatedly been that foreigners come and take photos or videos or interviews and they never end up seeing the work. Often they don’t ever hear from them again. Several people said that since it had been so long that I hadn’t come back that they assumed that they would never see the video I shot of them, as they had experienced so many times before.
I know we’ve talked about this in the past, but it’s been a while and I think it’s important to share. Can you remind us how you first encountered Saya music?
I initially went to Bolivia out of an interest in all of the social movements and indigenous mass mobilizations that had been happening in the early 2000s. I wanted to explore how music might be supporting or connected to these movements. So I had a general idea of interest for a research topic for my anthropology undergraduate thesis, but I didn’t actually have any specific knowledge of any current music in Bolivia.
When I got to Bolivia I began asking people if they knew of any political music and multiple people mentioned Afro-Bolivian music to me. My host brother, whom I was staying with in Cochabamba, played me a compilation CD of various Bolivian traditional music. When I heard the Saya music tracks, I was immediately drawn in and wanted to learn more about the music and the movement.
As a theorist and practitioner of anthropology, one who both researches a group of people but also lives among them, which side do you enjoy the most and why?
I really did enjoy a lot of anthropology theory while I was studying it as an undergraduate student. Also, going to Bolivia with the specific intent of researching a topic for my anthropology senior thesis was an amazing opportunity to connect with a community and learn from people I otherwise never would have met. I was really humbled by how many people I met who were incredibly welcoming and kind. They invited me into their lives and shared their stories with me.
These days I have been pretty distant from both anthropology theory and practice since it’s been years since I was studying it. However earlier this year, I was honored to be part of an event at Northwestern University that consisted of a lecture by anthropologist Sara Busdiecker, who has written about the Afro-Bolivian community. The documentary was screened, and we had a panel discussion with Professor Busdiecker, Professor Sherwin Bryant, who organized the event, and two other visiting professors, Michelle Bigenho and Zoila Mendoza.
It was great to connect with these academics and have the opportunity to share the documentary with them, to hear their analysis and hear about the work they were doing in similar topics. Professor Busdiecker and I speculated that it was most likely the first ever day of Afro-Bolivian Studies. So that was really exciting.
You’re very absent in the film. Some documentary filmmakers converse with their subjects or have a pretty conspicuous presence in front of the camera. However, we do not even hear your voice. You have a narrator. What was your general approach to filming people, parties, music sessions, etc…?
I really wanted this documentary to feature the voices of the people who this story is about. As an outsider to the community, I only spent 4 months in Bolivia. I really struggled with the question of how to work with this story that was not my own, and wanting to speak on behalf of a community I didn’t come from. So keeping myself out of the film as a subject was important to me, so as not to distract from keeping the Afro-Bolivian voices as the central content and focus.
With the history section of the documentary, I initially tried to piece it together from one interview with Edgar Vasquez, an Afro-Bolivian activist and academic. He spoke extensively about the history of Afro-Bolivians. Then I realized that instead of piecing together parts of a conversational interview, a scripted narration could provide a more concise and thorough historical picture, without getting too far away from the story about the present community.
So I scripted the historical narration. I went to my friend’s recording studio and attempted to do my own voiceover. I made multiple attempts at re-recording the voiceover and many stages of edits. Finally Ilko Davidov, who was helping me with editing, told me I should hire a professional voiceover actor. A friend connected me with an incredible bilingual voice actor, Catalina Maria Johnson. When I hear her voice narrating, I am always so happy not to feel awkward listening to my own voice as an inexperienced voice actor. Like so many things in this project that I attempted for the first time, I never appreciated how difficult and how many subtleties are involved in doing a great voiceover. I discovered how awkward it is when inflections are even slightly off.
As far as filming interviews, it actually felt easy to get a lot of great material. So many of the people I interviewed were so open, charismatic and articulate. I used a small hand held camera. So at performances and parties, I would usually just get in the mix with people and the camera was pretty unobtrusive. It was often a challenge to control myself and not dance so I could get steady shots, which was really hard when I was immersed in a crowd of people dancing and playing music.
I believe I remember you saying this film happened by accident. Correct me if I am wrong, but let us all know the moment you knew this was something special.
Well I wouldn’t say it happened by accident, but it was more like I pursued an interest without knowing where it would lead. I was interested in Bolivia and went to look for a political music movement not knowing what I would find. I signed up for a 6-week course in documentary film making in Cochabamba. I was just thinking it would be useful to pick up basic video skills and that video would be a great supplement to my anthropology research. I definitely did not expect that I would be going down a trajectory of spending so many years to produce and release a documentary project of this scale.
It was once I began the interviews and hearing the stories of the people I met in the Afro-Bolivian community that I realized how important it was to do something with these stories I had documented. In a lot of the interviews I asked people what they would say to people who might watch this video. Several people responded that they wanted the world to know that the Afro-Bolivian community exists.
Since these people I had just met took the time to open up to me and share their stories, I knew I had a responsibility to do my best to create a well-edited complete piece I could give back to the communities I worked with and distribute as widely as I could. When I came back from Bolivia, I began doing more research about the Afro-Bolivian community. I found so few published sources, which I only had access to from being at a university with an extensive Africana collection. Then it felt all the more important to me to make this into a complete documentary that could be used as a resource. Since my anthropology thesis was only going to be seen by the professors grading it, I thought a documentary short would be a great way to share the story with the widest variety of people. So after I finished the thesis and graduated, I continued working on the documentary.
When I was frustrated at various stages of the process or when I would get burnt out and take a break from working on it for a few months, the commitment to follow through with the people I filmed always brought me back to trying to push myself and keep going until it was done.
You go went through some pretty great lengths to research, uncover and break down the political oppressions behind this music. It did not just spring up out of nowhere. Did you have concerns about intertwining these messages, that it would be too much history for mainstream audiences or Bolivian officials might object?
Most of the people I interviewed about Saya music spoke about how this story began when their ancestors came from Africa as slaves. So I wanted to include these historical beginnings of the Afro-Bolivian community, but I struggled with historical information. I wanted to include as much history as possible to inform audiences without straying away from the story about the current community and movement. I was also trying to find a balance between wanting it to be accessible to general audiences, while also wanting it to be used as a resource in university classrooms. I started out cramming too much into the history section and little by little chiseled away pieces until the balance felt right.
I wasn’t concerned about what Bolivian officials would think, but I was concerned about historical accuracy given the lack of historical sources. I was grateful to have the support of the historian I mentioned earlier, Lolita Gutiérrez Brockington, who was kind enough to take time to look through the historical narration and essay for inaccuracies.
Most of all, I was concerned what the Afro-Bolivian community would think. I wanted to represent the history of their ancestors in a way they would approve. So I sent copies of the DVD and links of the video online to Afro-Bolivian friends to get their perspectives, to make sure they took issue with nothing before I finalized the editing.
How long have you played cello? What about the instrument resonates with you?
I started playing cello when I was 9 years-old. My dad and brother are both cellists so I grew up listening to the cello all the time since I was in the womb. So I connect with the instrument very deeply. The quality of the instrument’s sound resonates in my body in a way that no other instrument does.
When I was 20 I decided to start learning the upright bass. For several years I focused on developing and working on the bass, although I also still love playing cello. I often feel like my commitment to these very large instruments is impractical and limits my mobility and flexibility in my lifestyle and traveling. But the deep rich delicious sound and vibrations of these giant string instruments, keeps me attached to playing them.
Talk about your music career a bit more. Where have you played? Do you work with a set group of musicians, or do you travel to venues and blend in more often?
The past few years, I have been in and out of Chicago spending chunks of time in different places, so I haven’t been able to commit to any consistent music projects. I’ve mostly been playing on my own or with friends in more informal jam settings. I take occasional gigs when they come up. When I travel, it’s usually impractical to bring my enormous primary instruments, so I often travel with an acoustic guitar to have something portable to play. While I was in Bolivia for a few months, I was able to borrow an electric bass. I had a lot of fun playing in a group with some friends. We played shows in a beautiful small venue with arched stone ceilings, in a 500-year old building in La Paz.