Danielle M. Roper, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, Romance Languages and Literatures
The drumming gets louder as I walk through the doors of the popular night club Malegría in La Paz, Bolivia. A carnivalesque beat, it is the type of rhythm that makes you want to sway your hips, throw your hands in the air and march down a street. Boom ba da boom ba da boom. You cannot escape that beat of the drum.
But Malegría is too small for marching. Instead, I dance my way through the thick crowd of tourists and patrons to the front of the circle they have formed around the group of black drummers and singers performing the “Saya.” The Saya is the signature dance and musical genre of Bolivia’s black populace. The word ‘saya’ is the name of the music and dance form, the term for the cyclical call-and-response in the music, and it also refers to an ensemble of musicians who perform the genre. This performance troupe is the Movimiento Cultural Saya Afro-Boliviana (MOCUSABOL)—the most important troupe in Bolivia.
When the lead singer sings, the drummers respond in unison. A dark-skinned black man with long dreadlocks bangs the tambor mayor (large drum). Another man with tightly braided corn rows grins and chuckles. Suddenly, he starts to rapidly scrape the cuancha—a long wooden instrument that he holds on his shoulder. It sounds like a record scratching against the booming of the drums. The lead singer suddenly belts out a high-pitched tune and the chorus responds loudly. My friend Coral—a member of MOCUSABOL—turns on the light of her phone to help me record the performance. But upon seeing the performers up close, I am confused. Why are these black performers dressed in traditional indigenous clothing?
I am a performance theorist whose research focuses on the relationship between racial formation and performance in Latin America and the Caribbean. I came to the Saya through my work on racial impersonation in Bolivia and Peru. In my investigation of blackface in the Andes, I examine imitations of blackness by indigenous and mestizo subjects in two neo-folkloric dances: the “Tundiki and the “danza de caporales.” Many of the performers I have interviewed have erroneously claimed that these dances emerge from or are based on the Afro-Bolivian Saya. In acts of impersonation, the Saya functions as a stand-in for blackness itself. Such distortions of the genre and of blackness have sparked bitter controversy. When the Saya emerged in the 1980s, it became a crucial counterpoint to stereotypical representations of blacks and a central platform for black activism. Its popularity also indexes the role of performance in the articulation of black racial projects in the Bolivian context.
The Saya surfaced after Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform in 1953, when many black cultural practices and forms had disappeared as blacks migrated to the capital. In 1976, a group of elders from Coroico—a town in Nor Yungas—re-constructed the Saya for a coffee festival. Six years later, under the guidance of the elders, a set of Afro-Bolivian high school students decided to perform the Saya for the annual patron saint fiesta dedicated to the Virgin de la Candelaria. When they danced in the town’s parade, the Saya was reborn. These students would found Movimiento Negro which would later become MOCUSABOL.
At Malegría, the lead singer of MOCUSABOL is a young light-skinned black girl wearing a pollera (a traditional indigenous skirt) and she has two long trenzas (plaits) in her hair. The men wear sandals, traditional pants and a large belt. Coral explains to me that these are Aymara (indigenous) impositions on the black community. The Saya is from Nor Yungas—a province of La Paz whose population is largely comprised of descendants of enslaved blacks and indigenous people. Through its fusion of Aymara and black cultural forms, the dance encapsulates the fraught relationship between black and indigenous subjects in the region and in the broader nation-state. The lead singer’s mother is indigenous and her father is black. For many mixed-race people of African descent, like the lead singer, to perform the Saya is not only to embrace one’s black heritage, but it is also a means of publicly declaring one’s blackness. In sites where racial categories are nebulous, performance can function as a device of racialization and of racial differentiation.
Given Bolivia’s celebration of a mixed white and indigenous polity, the Saya became a crucial mechanism for countering the erasure of blackness in the national imaginary. The lyrics of many of the songs invite black Bolivians to join in and dance the Saya, and to publicly embrace their own blackness. As more blacks joined and formed dance troupes, the Saya facilitated the formation of black publics and black collectives. Today, there are several Saya ensembles across Bolivia including Saya Mauchi, Tambor Mayor, Orisabol, and others. These groups offer support and resources to Afro-Bolivians particularly black migrants to large cities. They typically use the income from performances at night clubs and fiestas to fund anti-racist organizing, cultural education, and programs geared towards black empowerment.
Their performances operate as sources of transmission linking the historical and contemporary struggles of black Bolivians.
One song says:
Ahora ya no es el tiempo de la esclavitud
¿Por qué tratas a mi gente con tanto rancor?
Now is no longer the time of slavery
Why do you treat my people with so much hatred?
Songs often recount the story of black liberation and will offer praise to Manuel Isidoro Belzu—the Bolivian president who freed enslaved blacks in the nineteenth century.
MOCUSABOL shouts Belzu’s name tonight and suddenly, the lead singer dances the pracan —a set of fast circular turns marking the end of the performance. Its circularity is an apt metaphor for the cyclical nature of the Saya itself, the back and forth of cries against racial oppression and celebrations of black liberation, and the temporal shifts that seem to merge the past with the present as performers tell the stories of black experience.
 The turn is also danced at the beginning of the performance and is also referred to as the ‘praca.’
Templeman, Robert. “We Are People of the Yungas, We Are the Saya Race.” In Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean: Social Dynamics and Cultural Transformations, by Norman E. Whitten and Arlene Torres. Indiana University Press, 1998.