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Diego Obregon: innovation and tradition flow from Colombia to queens.

It was another dog day in August 2009 when we joined Diego Obregon for an interview at his Woodhaven, Queens, apartment. Diego kindly agreed to meet us at his home so that he could play a few tunes from his native Colombia, along with his vocalist Johanna Casteneda. There in the basement, over the hum of the air conditioner, the sounds from his marimba (wood xylophone) were magical--all at once playful and effervescent--and with Johanna singing the traditional tune "Mi Canoita," the sounds from Colombia's Pacific coast spilled out over hot pavement.

The joyfulness of Diego's marimba performance belies his immigrant experience in New York and the economic challenges he left behind in Colombia. Born in the town of Guapi in 1971, Diego grew up in a family of ten children. Guapi is located in Cauca state on the Pacific coast, within Colombia's vast rain-forest region. Cauca residents are the descendants of enslaved Africans, kidnapped by the Spanish from the modern-day countries of Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Congo. From 1580 to 1810, the Spanish imprisoned thousands of Africans, bringing them to Cartagena, Colombia, which served as the primary disembarking point in South America.

Hundreds of rivers run through this area, providing this Afro-Colombian community with the means to travel, fish, and farm the territory between the Pacific coast and the Andes. Not only does water play a central role in the community's ability to subsist, it is also of great influence in local culture. According to Diego, many of the Afro-Colombian folktales and songs from this region deal with water transit and the many gifts that rivers provide.


One of the most important pastimes in Cauca is the currulao, a community get-together that involves playing and dancing to marimba music at the "marimba house," where master artists store their instruments. While Diego grew up listening to currulao music, he is the only member of his family to pursue a professional career in traditional music. Several of his brothers play guitar and percussion recreationally, but Diego describes himself as the only sibling to pursue the arts in earnest.

As a youngster, Diego also played guitar, but he describes being drawn to the marimba por casualidad, by chance. While hanging out with his buddies one day, all of them in their late teens and making plans to pick up some girls at school, he heard the sound of the marimba coming from a classroom. A workshop was being taught that day by maestro Silvino Mina, and Diego was immediately drawn in. After Diego sat in rapt attention for the entire workshop, the instructor asked him if he was interested in joining them. Mina was a renowned marimba player in the region who was interested in passing the tradition on to the younger generation. Under Mina's mentorship, Diego soon picked up the cununo, a wooden drum shaped like a conga, but more conical and closed on the bottom. In short order, Diego mastered the other percussive instruments associated with currulao marimba music and joined his mentor's folk group from Guapi.

Becoming a Marimba Maker

Diego's fascination with the marimba continued for years as a member of Mina's group. He did not, however, have the money to purchase an instrument of his own. Since he was thoroughly familiar with his teacher's instrument and his father was a carpenter, Diego decided that he had the skills to try to build a marimba himself. He was living in the town of La Tola, Narino, when he began experimenting. His neighbors thought he was crazy as he chopped down the palm he needed to carve the marimba keys.

There are different species of palm. The marimba requires the thorny trunk of the chonta duro, or hard palm, which is also known for its exotic fruit. As an experienced guitarist, Diego transferred his knowledge of sound into creating a marimba, painstakingly shaving the wood down to an appropriate thickness to create an accurate tuning that mirrored the sound of his guitar. After twelve long hours of carving, he had made only eight of the twenty-four keys he needed. To make the resonators, Diego carved the same bamboo used to make guasa (bamboo shakers filled with seeds), adjusting each according to the size of the key. His craftsmanship was guided by his experiences performing and listening to currulao music. Once Diego had built his first marimba, he began teaching himself to play!


To grasp Diego's genius fully, we need to know a little more about Colombia's marimba tradition. The marimba of Colombia and northwest Ecuador has its roots in Africa, but is unique to South America. Diego primarily builds diatonic marimbas: single-row keyboard instruments with keys representing the white keys on the piano, although they are not tuned to a Western scale. Chromatic marimbas have double-row keyboards, which provide the tones of the black as well as white piano keys.

While the marimberos (marimba players) drive the melody in currulao music, they are accompanied by four drummers, a lead singer, and a chorus of female singers who play the guasa simultaneously. Together the group plays highly syncopated rhythms as the lead singer calls and the chorus responds. Large bass drums called bombos and the cununos are played in pairs. The bombo arrullador (singing bombo) marks the rhythm, while the bombo golpeador (striking bombo) improvises. Similarly, a cununo macho (male cununo) plays off and over the cununo hembra (female cununo), which holds the base rhythm. Typically three cantadoras (singers) harmonize as they play the guasa, which provides an additional counterpoint to the other instruments. The singers will either accompany the marimba or hold the melody, depending on the style of music.

Setting Up Shop

After a year in La Tola, Diego moved to Cali, Colombia, where he drew on his growing musical expertise to set up shop as a marimba maker. Experimenting with various tuning techniques, he made marimbas to order, taking time to design unique instruments to suit the talents and expertise of individual artists. Today, he is one of the best known marimba makers in Colombia. Many of his clients were fellow musicians who played the music of the Pacific coast, but as his reputation grew, people came from as far as Spain to buy his instruments. Depending on the size of marimba, the price could be as much as $500 U.S. dollars.

Diego brought the unique regional sounds of Guapi to Cali and was one of the first marimberos to settle there. Before 1998, few people had seen or heard currulao music outside of the isolated Afro-Colombian Pacific coast communities. Diego recalled performing at the first Festival de la Marimba in Cali in 1998, when he played a chromatic marimba--something particularly unusual. The chromatic marimba allowed him to play without switching keys, whereas with the diatonic marimba, the player must literally change the wood keys to change the key of the instrument or use a second marimba that is tuned to another key.

Diego also performed at the 1999 festival. In the past decade, the Festival de la Marimba has grown into a three-day event, with more than twenty groups performing in various age ranges and multiple categories for everything from "best unpublished song" to "marimba king." Diego is thrilled to have watched both the festival and the tradition of currulao music grow and thrive.


Moving Abroad

While still in Cali, Diego performed with such groups as Raices Negras, Los Bogas del Pacifico, and Grupo Colombia Viva, which allowed Diego to travel to Holland, where he lived for over a year. Although his life as a musician in Colombia was rewarding emotionally, the economic limitations of the field forced Diego to emigrate to the United States in 2004. The following year he recorded the Smithsonian Folkways CD Arriba Suena Marimba! with Grupo Naidy.

In 2006, Diego founded Grupo Chonta, named after the famous palm used to make his marimbas. Diego readily admits to being a perfectionist, as he is composer, arranger, marimbero, and occasional vocalist for the group. Nonetheless, the musical tradition gives him the support of Johanna Casteneda, who provides lead and backup vocals while she plays the guasa. Liliana Count and Eleonora Bianchini round out the cantadoras, and Sergio Borrero and Camilo Rodriguez provide percussion.

Diego occasionally experiments with a more orchestrated sound, bringing in Albert Leusink on trumpet, Julio Botti and Xavier Perez on saxophone, Andres Rotmistrovsky on bass, and Franco Pinna on drums to create a fuller sound. Diego and Johanna love the richness of the larger ensemble, but find it harder to get gigs with an eleven-person group. It is also challenging to gather the large group to work on their CD. But Diego creatively worked around that issue, building a studio in his apartment and teaching himself the audio processing platform Pro Tools. He often sets up the recording board, runs in the studio to play his part, and runs out again to check the track.

Diego's compositions are rooted in the sound of traditional currulao music, but his need to innovate and present something uniquely his own drives his work. When performing traditional tunes he often changes the lyrics to something fresh that speaks to him at the moment. He does not want Grupo Chonta to sound like other groups and notes with pride that their repertoire is rich with his original music. Drawing on the great storytelling tradition of his hometown, Diego weaves a narrative about his personal experiences or philosophy of life that draws the listener in. As the lead singer in his group, Johanna recalled hearing Diego's tale of his real-life encounter with a ghost. She and the other listeners were completely engrossed in his story.

When he is not performing or working, Diego has a few students here in New York. He continues making marimbas, relying on friends to bring the chonta from Colombia. With his home studio in place, Diego keeps in touch with his wife and three children by Skype. They often leave their home computer on all day, so when Diego arrives home from his job at a local cemetery, he can connect again with his family, at least virtually. He is the only member of his family in New York, and he turns to his music to fill the loneliness and loss that he feels. Yet listening to Diego's marimba, you can hear his optimism.

Diego Obregon and Grupo Chonta perform most Saturdays at the Terraza 7 Train Cafe in Elmhurst, Queens. To listen to Diego's music or for more information, visit

Folklorist Gabrielle Hamilton is project director for CTMD's newest Community Cultural Initiative in the Colombian community. Naomi Sturm is a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Columbia University and an intern at CTMD. The Center for Traditional Music and Dance welcomes Colombian artists and cultural activists, as well as interns, to join its new program. For more information, please contact Gabrielle at (212) 571-1555 ext. 27 or
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Author:Hamilton, Gabrielle; Sturm, Naomi
Publication:Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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