In Ecuador, when music escapes from the leaves of fruit trees

(AFP) – In an almost magical scene, a shrill and melodious sound floats above the field of avocado trees. In Chalguayacu, a locality in the Andes in northern Ecuador, the leaves of fruit trees turn into musical instruments.

Isidro Minda sits down to rehearse, brings the green leaf to his mouth, which he clutches between his callused farmer’s hands. He is one of the musicians of the “banda mocha”, a hundred-year-old and atypical formation, today threatened with extinction.

Originally from Chalguayacu, an Afro-Andean village in the province of Imbabura, where a large community of African slaves lives, they are eleven amateur musicians trained according to tradition. Five of them play with long hollow gourds, three with tree leaves, the others with more conventional instruments such as the drum.

– “The body vibrates” –

The orchestra takes its name from the expression “mochar”, which in Ecuador means to cut or tear. What Isidro Minda does with lemon, mandarin or guava leaves, and his companions with gourds, to transform them into musical instruments.

Isidro Minda, 66, with ash-gray curly hair, walks among the shrubs of his small estate. He wears a faded camouflage vest that makes him look like a veteran. He feels the leaves here and there, chooses a lemon leaf and repeats his next composition.

“They have to be very soft. If they are hard, they don’t want to play,” he explains.

Since the age of 25, he has learned to extract sounds from nature. In his mouth, the leaves resound like a clarinet. When he stops playing, he keeps a few in a bag with water so they don’t wilt and can be used another day.

The “banda mocha” will soon animate the patronal feast of Chalguayacu, a village of 2,000 inhabitants where two sound universes meet, that of Andean culture and that of slaves from Africa, comments ethno-musicologist Juan Mullo.

“The being vibrates, the body vibrates. For the ‘banda mocha’, the instrument is the body”, he explains.

– Without heirs –

Isidro Minda, Segundo Yepez and Tomas Carabali present themselves as “leaf men”, descendants of Africans capable of extracting sound from these ultra-thin tree leaves.

One by one, to the sound of the drum, they arrive in the central square of Chalguayacu. It is not yet daylight and the eleven men are already preparing for the Sunday performance in front of the villagers.

Abdon Vasquez, 78, says he wants to die with his instrument in his hand, playing music as he started doing thirty years ago.

The orchestra, little known outside, risks disappearing.

The flutist and the cymbal player are already dead without leaving any heirs. And in this village located in the arid valley of Chota, it is difficult to find young people who would like to carry on the tradition.

They prefer to imagine themselves as police officers, soldiers or, above all, footballers, in this region where the Chota team led Ecuador to its first World Cup in 2002. Music, on the other hand, is synonymous with poverty.

“It makes me sad to see that our culture is being lost as the members of the orchestra die,” says Julian Garcia, who had to give up the calabash leaf after losing his front teeth.

Without a successor, his friend Isidro sums up the musicians’ fears: he says that one of his grandsons was interested, but that he then left for Quito, and that the story ended there.

– Applause in Cuba –

On good days, the orchestra can earn up to $ 800 for a show. Even if they don’t do it for money.

In 2014, they made the trip to Cuba, thanks to a public subsidy, where they gave a much applauded show.

“Outside our country, it is the greatest moment of happiness that I can remember. The Cuban brothers were speechless,” says Abdon Vasquez.

Soon, the patronal feast will sweep away this wind of nostalgia, to the accents of traditional music from the Ecuadorian Andes. If the orchestra has no heirs, they still have an audience.