Back from the Dead

Today’s the day that the t’anta wawas are out in force in Bolivia’s homes and cemeteries, being circulated among family, friends and mourners. Like a dear difunto, too, this blog is back from its hiatus – it was a PhD/rest of life knockout round (everyone who has ever done one knows what I’m talking about; the last six months when you may as well throw your phone away for all you see your friends, along with all your clothes, since you hardly ever leave the house or the library) and my life rested against the ropes, taking a few blows so as to come back and finish the PhD off in the final bout. I’ve not got a lot to tell you today, but resuscitation is a process rather than an event and you haven’t heard the last from this ñatita. Hasta later, as the bolivianos londinenses say.

Oh hey you guise

*shuffles feet and looks at the floor*

So, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted here since October. But don’t worry, this blog ain’t dead, it’s just asleep. I’ve got this thing called a PhD to finish, so I’ve been paying attention to that and to earning a living rather than scouring the Bolivian papers for items of interest. My thesis is due in in a matter of weeks and once it’s bound and sent to the examiners we’ll celebrate with a few chelas and a pique macho. Promise. See you on the other side.


Following Bolivian politics engenders something of a thick skin when it comes to political ridiculousness, but the Vice-Presidential candidacy of the former governor of Pando is still good for a walloping great WTF!?! I mean, the voting public has gone for some unlikely people over the years, but I’ve yet to hear of a successful electoral campaign that was run from jail.
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I was just having a go at translating bits of the new Bolivian constitution into English, as you do, when I was struck by the lengthy and impressive inclusion of all of Bolivia’s indigenous languages, totalling 37 – which, I gather from Ned Thomas of the Mercator Institute (interesting blog here), is about the same as the number of small or minority languages spoken across the whole of Europe.

Article 5. The official languages of the State are Spanish and all the languages of indigenous and peasant First Nations and peoples, which are: Aymara, Araona, Baure, Bésiro, Canichana, Cavineño, Cayubaba, Chácobo, Chimán, Ese, Ejja, Guaraní, Guarasu’we, Guarayu, Itonama, Leco, Machajuyai-Kallawaya, Machineri, Maropa, Mojeño-Trinitario, Mojeño-Ignaciano, Moré, Mosetén, Movima, Pacawara, Puquina, Quechua, Sirionó, Tacana, Tapiete, Toromona, Uru-Chipaya, Weenhayek, Yaminawa, Yuki, Yuracaré and Zamuco.


Pichikatero journalism

PJ O’Rourke joked in his book ‘Holidays in Hell’ that a certain hotel in Albania was highly rated by journalists for the fact that the cocaine on sale in its nightclub was no better or worse than in London or New York, and that the reception staff were amenable to disguising bar tabs as laundry bills for those on expense accounts. If only he wrote for the Guardian – more unlikely things have happened, come on – he could have put the blow on his expense account as well. It looks like Jonathan Franklin has.

Franklin’s article in the Grauniad adopts a scandalised tone to expose the world of cocaine lounges in La Paz, painting a picture of small salons of depravity filled with moneyed Euro-American tourists paying to get high. The title of the piece is ‘The world’s first cocaine lounge’, which you could say was the first indication that the hyperbole of the article doesn’t quite live up to reality. World’s first? What, really? Has Mr Franklin ever been backstage at a music or film industry awards do? Has he ever been to some of the wilder parties in Bogotá, or even L.A? Not that I have, mind, but it doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to deduce that discreet nightclubs where a line or two is available alongside your drinks as a main feature of the place is hardly a global novelty.

But let’s not let that get in the way of a pleasant moral-high-ground buzz. There’s a whole wrap of misinformation to get through, so let’s start chopping.
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So much to write about, and so little written! Compadrit@s, van a disculpar that I have left the t’anta wawa’s oven without a flame for so long. There was a housemove, and a concerted thesis-push involved. But there’s been plenty going on in Bolivia and even here in the UK where this last weekend, I had the pleasure of accompanying Bolivian ambassador to France, the legendary folksinger Luzmila Carpio, to a festival and conference in Wales. The El Sueño Existe festival has been held in Machynlleth, Powys every two years since 2005 and honours the life of Victor Jara, the Chilean popular singer executed in the coup of 1973. It brings together Welsh and Latin American musicians and leftists and all in all seemed a very enjoyable and thought-provoking jamboree, with some serious conference sessions counterweighing the musical celebrations. There was a lot of useful talk talked about minority language rights, revindication of colonised cultures, the right to culture and identity through language and even some more-than-verbal exchange through the medium of music. Dafydd Iwan of Welsh-nationalist party Plaid Cymru was in attendance and gave such a rousing performance of some of his self-penned Welsh-rights folksongs that I almost texted an SNP apparatchik friend advising him to teach Alex Salmond to sing – there’s something about the passion of song that transcends as well as augments political discussion. We also had an entertaining and inspiring visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology, a research and education institute that’s almost like a big clever sustainabilty theme park. Many thanks to the lovely people of Machynlleth for such a productive and peaceful stay.

Mientras tanto, in Bolivia election year is heating up! It looks like the opposition may crystallise its resistance around the candidacy of Victor Hugo Cárdenas, although at the moment the election is a 14-horse race, including the well-known figures of Samuel Doria Medina and (yawn) Manfred Reyes Villa, for whom apparently running for President is a habit he just can’t kick. There have also been some ugly incidences of the not-so-democratic opposition making itself known again in the form of letterbomb attacks against civilian targets. Well, if you can’t get elected, you can always attack the people who will, right? Violence is a loser’s game. More soon, my friends, more soon.

More sad news

Remember the awesome multilingual rappers from Wayna Tambo radio, Ukamau y Ke? Yes you do. They were the ones putting an Aymara spin on hip hop (pun fully intended).

I was saddened to find out today that Abraham Bohorquez, one of their key rappers, died recently after being run over on the road – although the causes of his death are still unclear. La Mala Palabra blog has a great post about his all-too-short life here. He was born and brought up in El Alto, but emigrated to Sao Paolo in search of work at the age of 11, and when labouring in the textile sweatshops there got hooked into the hip-hop scene of the favelas, where kids rapped in Portuguese about racism, struggle, work and life on the streets. He brought hip-hop back with him to El Alto and started off rapping at open mikes, becoming one of the first people to throw down rhymes in his native language, Aymara, and the group went on to garner significant acclaim and interest from all over the world – for example this NYT article . There’s even a piece that he himself wrote here. In his own words:

We can’t, and don’t want to, talk about the same things as American rappers -sex, cars, gold jewellery. We talk about our poverty, our people and our fight against imperialism. We want to wake up young Bolivians. Politics got too corrupt and it needs to be talked about in a fresh way so that young people are interested.

In the same article, he mentions opening up for Manu Chao in 2006. I was there, and I can tell you, they were great. Politically-attuned indigenous hip-hop is one of the freshest and most exciting indicators of a class of young, urban indigenous people proud of their roots but also engaging with other currents of culture from around the globe. It’s a sad day for hiphoppas in La Paz, El Alto and all around the world. QEPD.

Edited to add: after my last post here pondering the bad side to the Bolivian press and the way the government has chosen to deal with them, a colleague emailed me to point out that the newspapers aren’t always bad, but that the media includes TV and in Bolivia the TV is terrible, hysterical, counter-productive and racist. This turns out to be precisely the message of Ukamau y Ke’s latest track. Check it out, it’s really very good. What a horrible unfair shame to have lost such a sharp, talented young guy.