Its smell is widely known, but only here, in an Afro village in the Ecuadorian highlands, do the leaves on the fruit trees rattle. They are instruments, Isidro remarks, and he brings the green leaf to his mouth, clasped in his calloused farmer’s hands.
What follows sounds like magic. A high, melodious sound floats across the avocado field where he sits rehearsing. Isidro Minda is a member of the century-old “banda mocha”, an atypical Andean group on the verge of extinction.
Originally from Chalguayacu, in the province of Imbabura, they are eleven amateur musicians trained exclusively in the tradition. Five play puros – hollow, elongated calabashes – three play tree leaves and the rest play more established instruments such as the bass drum, tambourine and güiro.
The group got its name from the expression “mochar,” which in Ecuador means “to cut or to tear away. This is what Minda does with lemon, tangerine or guava leaves and her companions with calabashes to transform them into instruments.
Minda, 66, with curly, ashy hair, walks through the bushes of his small farm. He wears faded camouflage that makes him look like a war veteran. He smells greenery here and there. He picks a lemon leaf and rehearses his next presentation.
“It has to be sweet. They don’t want to look too harsh,” he explains in an interview with AFP.
Since the age of 25, he has learned to extract sounds from nature. In his mouth, the leaves sound like a clarinet. When he is done playing, he keeps a few leaves in a bag of water so they don’t wilt and he can play them another day.
The Mocha group will soon play at the patronal feast of Chalguayacu, a village of some 2,000 inhabitants where two sound worlds met: that of the Andean world and that of the slaves brought from Africa, explains ethnomusicologist Juan Mullo.
“The being vibrates, the body vibrates. The instrument is the body in the Mocha group,” he adds.
– No heirs –
Minda, Segundo Yépez and Tomás Carabalí present themselves as the “hojeros”, the Afro musicians capable of making the very thin blades of the trees sound.
One by one, they arrive in the central square of Chalguayacu to the sound of the bass drum. It is not yet dawn, and the eleven are already preparing once again for Sunday’s performance before the people.
While vibrating with the cigar, Abdón Vásquez, 78 years old, reaffirms it: he wants to die playing the same way he started to do it three decades ago.
Although it enjoys some external recognition, the Mocha group is on the verge of extinction, the musicians lament.
The flautist and cymbal player have already died without leaving heirs, and among the young people of this village in the arid Chota Valley, it is difficult to find anyone willing to continue practicing their sounds.
Their aspirations, they say, are more towards military or police life, but mostly towards soccer. Enthusiasm for soccer has grown with the golden generation of Chota players who led Ecuador to its first World Cup in 2002. Music, on the other hand, remains synonymous with poverty.
“It makes me sad that our culture is being lost because everyone in the band is dying,” says Julián García, who had to switch from the leaf to the calabash after losing his front teeth.
With no successor in sight, his friend Isidro lets slip an anecdote that sums up the group’s fears. One of his grandsons showed interest, but he emigrated to Quito and that was it.
– A bath of glory
With “luck” the group can charge up to $800 per show. Profits aren’t really his thing, although he has had his bath of fame.
In 2014, they traveled to Cuba with official support to perform. On the island of Buena Vista Social Club, the project that brought Cuban music veterans out of obscurity, Isidro and the others were applauded.
“Outside of our country, (this is) the greatest happiness I have (…) Cuban brothers have remained with their mouths open,” Abdón says proudly.
The nostalgia dissipates with the arrival of the patronal feast in which they play their bombas, albazos and pasacalles, all typical genres of the Ecuadorian Andes.
They have no heirs, but they have many followers.