Select Page

La Saya: Afro-Bolivian Performance

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[1] —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.

[1] 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.





Reflecting on CLAS Events: The New Bolivian Economy

By Hong R. Zhang Durandal, Masters in Public Policy student, Harris School of Public Policy


In April 2015, the Bolivian Minister of Economy and Finance Luis Arce Catacora came to the University of Chicago to present a new economic model that Bolivia has developed and put in practice since 2006. He explained the Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model and why it is effective in Bolivia. In this system, the state becomes the largest investor in the economy and it focuses on developing a strong domestic demand while strengthening the Bolivian currency.

Since the implementation of this economic system, the Bolivian economy has been growing constantly and it has reduced extreme poverty by more than 10%. Arce said, “Bolivia reduced extreme poverty from 32% to 18%, we would like to lower it to a similar rate as Ecuador which is only 12%.” At the same time he also mentioned that the unemployment rate declined from 8.5% to 4% and that this was one of the lowest in the region. There is no doubt that the Bolivian economy has strengthened since the implementation of this new economic system but it is unclear if this boom was solely due to the rise in price of raw materials or other factors. The system is still young compared to other more robust and well tested systems around the world. The exportation of natural resources still is the backbone of the Bolivian economy but with an emphasis on reinvesting in other industries, industrializing raw materials, and the redistribution of wealth among the ones that need it the most. Let’s explore the actual facts and what this new economic system has been able to do for the Bolivian people.

Among the most notable achievements of Evo Morales presidency under this new economic system have been: improvement of education availability in rural areas, creation of new infrastructure of parks and soccer fields, improvement of public transportation, and the launching of the first Bolivian satellite to bring free Internet to the most remote areas in the country. These high capital investments were possible due to the high prices of oil during the first five years of presidency of Evo Morales. Yasimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), the national oil extraction and producing agency, has been trying to increase its extraction of oil and expand into refining some types of oils to later export to neighboring countries like Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. The most successful investment in transportation infrastructure has been the “teleferico” (cable car) system in the capital city La Paz. This infrastructure, which is the largest urban cable car in the world, connects more than 2 million people from two adjacent cities, La Paz and El Alto, and ascends to more than 16,500 feet. Previously a great number of people spent more than one third of their incomes and 2–3 hours commuting using various public transportation methods; with the teleferico commuters have cut their traveling time to 20 minutes from one city to the other. The system can transport 18,000 people per hour over 11 kilometers. The government has plans to develop more transportation infrastructures like metro trains for Santa Cruz and Cochabamba and other major cities.

The Morales administration has used extensively policies of cash transfers from profits from the teleferico, YPFB, and other government income to fund pensions for the elderly, school funds for children, breakfast funds, and the “Doble Aguinaldo.” Through this egalitarian approach the Bolivian government works extensively to close the inequality gap between the wealthy and the poor and achieve the most equal wellbeing and economic welfare among its citizens. With some programs the government has achieved great efficiencies like providing funds for children and the elderly. However, the system fails when it tries to apply this egalitarian approach to the entire Bolivian population. The private sector has been hurt because of the “Doble Aguinaldo,” which forces private business to pay a double bonus at the end of the year to all its employees. This translates to a triple salary payment for the month of December. Many businesses went bankrupt due to this egalitarian policy under Bolivia’s new economic model. As in any transfer policy, resources have to be taken from somewhere to be given to others. The Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model has great potential to reduce inequality in the country by making everyone almost equal in wealth and wellbeing, but is it the right path for an economic model that can sustain generations to come and solve 21st century economic global challenges?

To conclude, Minister Arce Catacora pointed out that Bolivia can develop to become one of the major energy players in Latin America through the industrialization of fossil fuels, exports of lithium, and the development of hydroelectric plans and renewable energy. Bolivia needs to capitalize its competitive advantage in its abundancy of energy resources and leverage them to create economic stability for years to come.

Minister Arce Catacora made a compelling case on his new economic system to many scholars and students at the University of Chicago but much more needs to be studied on the Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model to call it a successful reform. Bolivia has been able to reshape itself and come out of an era of decades of political instability, extreme poverty, and inequality. Scholarship and research from the University of Chicago can shed light of the merits and challenges of this new economic system. Thanks in part to the Center for Latin American Studies and the Harris School of Public Policy, the school has opened its doors to become the most diverse University in terms of ideas, discussions, and constructive debate.


Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.