The OneBeat Podcast

Daniela Serna

Episode Summary

Episode 3 of the OneBeat Podcast takes us to Colombia, where we have the pleasure of talking to Daniela Serna - feminist, activist, cultural producer and founding member of the celebrated band LADAMA. Dani takes us on her musical journey from being a shy girl with a bell, to traveling to the pacific coast of Colombia and immersing herself in the music of that region. In this journey, she finds her own voice as a musician, and as a woman, and then creates spaces for others to do the same.

Episode Notes

In this third episode of the OneBeat Podcast we travel to Bogotá, Colombia and speak to the powerhouse musician and feminist activist Daniela Serna. Daniela is a percussionist, cultural producer and founding member of the celebrated pan-Latin band LADAMA. Dani takes us on her musical journey from being a shy girl with a bell, to traveling to the pacific coast of Colombia and immersing herself in the music of that region, and now being an activist and spokesperson for underrepresented musical communities in her country, particularly Afro-Colombian women. In this journey, she finds her own voice as a musician, and as a woman, and then creates spaces for others to do the same. We talk about the festival and podcast she founded - Totona Power - and the magic and feminist power infused in the word totona - which is Venezuelan slang for vagina. We also talk to celebrated music journalist and writer Betto Arcos, who gives some background on the incredible cultural wealth of Colombian music. 

Produced and Edited by Kyla-Rose Smith + Charlotte Gartenberg

Production Assistant: Nyokabi Kariũki

Mixed by Zubin Hensler

Executive Producers: Jeremy Thal, Elena Moon Park, and Kyla-Rose Smith


Daniela Serna 

Betto Arcos

A full playlist of music featured on this episode can be found here

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, & produced by Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation.

Episode Transcription

Music Interlude: “No Te Olvido” (Instrumental) by OneBeat Colombia

Daniela: I do get a lot, you know, this phrase of. Oh, you play like a man. And I used to perceive that, you know, like -- normal thing, but now it's like, that's not, that's not normal and that's not right. I play like a woman, you know

Kyla: People have tried to tell Daniela Serna what she can and can’t play, what she and other women can and can’t do. She’s not listening. In fact quite the opposite. She’s creating empowering spaces and joyous fight songs. and she’s doing it with the sexiness and swagger of a woman who is unapologetically taking up space. Her career so far is a testament to music’s ability to make community...and she’s just getting started. Today we head to Bogota, Colombia  and hear this percussionist’s journey to playing her own rhythm and helping others do the same.

Welcome to the OneBeat Podcast. 

Intro music 

Kyla: Welcome back to the OneBeat Podcast. I’m Kyla- Rose Smith. 

Elena: and I am Elena Moon Park.

Kyla: Today we are talking to Daniela Serna - feminist, activist, cultural producer, percussionist, songwriter and founding member of the critically acclaimed female led band LADAMA. 

Elena: Yes - Daniela is such a powerhouse! In this interview we hear about her journey from being a shy girl playing a bell to becoming an outspoken feminist leader, someone who is not only touring the world with her own music but is actively creating spaces for other young girls and women to become leaders themselves. 

Kyla: I met Dani when we were both OneBeat fellows in 2014, and even then she had this irrepressible energy. I was so inspired by this conversation particularly her clarity of vision as a musical organizer. I mean, she pretty much single handedly organized a music festival in Colombia. The theme: vagina power.  She has this incredible instinct for how to raise her voice and help others do the same and all of this through a deep and rooted love of Colombian music.

So let's dive in, but first here’s a Porro Maracatu off LADAMA’s debut album. 

Music Interlude: “Porro Maracatu” by LADAMA

Kyla: I’m very happy to welcome Daniela Serna to the OneBeat Podcast. Dani - hello thank you so much for joining us

Daniela: Thank you so much, Kyla. It's a pleasure. 

Kyla: So Dani let’s start with your path to becoming a musician? When did you start playing percussion? 

Daniela: Well, it began with me being really shy when I was a little girl, like five, six years old. And my dad was really interested in giving me an alternative space to distract and engage with others. So I began my music education in a very alternative school called Nueva Cultura (New Culture).

And the beautiful thing is that the program was all based in oral traditions from. South America, Latin America in general. And I became from being really shy to be quite outgoing. So I'm very grateful for music truly to help me express my emotions without fear. And yeah, it was a beautiful, beautiful school. 

Kyla: And was there a moment where you really chose percussion as your instrument? 

Daniela: The first one that I was driven and passion to just keep playing was Bongo, Bongo and Campana. It's one specific part from salsa music. That was when I, saw like my percussion light, like when I received the call, I was playing campana, bell. I was receiving a lot of feedback from my teachers, like, oh my God, your bell sounds like, like powerful. So when I did it, of course it shines. and it's so simple, you know, it was like, [makes the sound of the rhythm]. But at the same time it meant a lot as me as a part of the band. And I was also feeling more confident about myself because this process that I talked to you about me being shy and then being outgoing, it wasn't like in one or two years, like it was a transition of like, five, six, seven years. So at that point of the bell, I was twelve, thirteen. I was feeling like not the most prettiest girl or, you know, just not really confident of my body, you know, these kind of things that I, now I am, and I can just talk about it. But as a 13 year old girl is like, no. So I guess, yeah, the campana always gave me that trust that I needed in myself.

Kyla: It’s such a great story - such a clear moment of realization. And speaking of that were there any particular teachers that played a role in your early musical life? 

Daniela: Actually the first percussion female teacher that that was, let's say two years after the bell situation when I was 15. Now I know like she's a lesbian, you know, but back in these days, you know, she was very masculine and she was wearing like a short haircut and she was, you know, bold and she wasn't the typical kind of woman I was used to seeing teaching me music and now I see like, oh, that was such a great example for me to have that kind of role model. And I, I'm privileged because I've never felt judged of yeah, just criticized for being a woman in percussion. I do get a lot, you know, this phrase of, oh, you play like a man, and I used to perceive that, you know, like normal thing, but now it's like, that's not, that's not normal and that's not right. I play like a woman, you know?

Kyla: To better understand the musical tradition and context that Daniella emerged from as a musician I spoke with Betto Arcos

Betto: I'm a music writer, a music journalist. more than anything. I'm a radio journalist. writing, covering interviewing musicians from all over the map emphasis on Latin American music. As a Latin American, uh, growing up in Mexico, Colombian music was everywhere.

It was the soundtrack. because of the popularity of its infectious, contagious music. In fact, I'll admit to you right now I learned to dance. With Colombia, not with salsa. And it was because of this very strong presence of Colombia music that came to us from Colombia.

Music Underscore: “Judith” by Lucho Perez & La Sonora Costeña

throughout the decades, uh, their music has been so, so present in the lives of, uh, of Latin Americans, 

Now specifically, I'm talking about the music of the Caribbean coast of  Colombia, It may seem like a small country. It's roughly the size of Texas or a little bit  bigger than that, it's a country that has seven music regions and every region has dozens of rhythms and genres  and music styles. And so as a country, I think of Colombia as the powerhouse of Latin American music. 

If you look at Colombia and consider just in terms of the population, uh, it's roughly a third of it is of African descent. A third of it is of indigenous and a third of it is Spanish. The same could be said of the music.There is a third sort of, of it. That's African. A third of it has got the indigenous and the third of the Spanish European influence. People that they've been calling it a couple of years ago, they were calling it the land of a thousand rhythms. It's not a, it's not a stretch to say that actually, you know?

Kyla: Ok so back to Dani. So Dani, I know you play percussion from Colombia’s pretty vast musical traditions, was there a particular moment that put you on the path from being an amateur musician to pursuing a professional career? 

[sounds of the Tambor Alegre]

Daniela: There was a workshop…..He is like my first master and reference of the Tambor Alegre. Of a person that's actually,  like is his heritage that, uh, you know, hits, uh, an Afro Colombian and his mother was a, Bullerengue singer you know, Bullerengue is actually part of his daily life

Music interlude: "Oye Tomas, chalupa” by Emilsen Pacheco

He went to my university and there was this workshop - Bullerengue.  I was not familiarized with what they actually meant. So I get into a class, the workshop. He was explaining the grooves. So he explained Fandango. I remember because its six, eight, two  - you know, like we have that in every single place in the world.

And I saw his hands and I was trying to just repeat what he was doing. And I was like, okay, I got this groove I can do it. So he asked who wants to come and, you know, actually. Experience the workshop. I, let me tell you things was okay, I'll go. So as soon as I sit down in the Tambor and I the first thing  I told him was, I don't know how to play Tambor. 

[sounds of drumming]

And I put the hand in, he was “shut up you do look at your hand”, like, you know, that was another great moment. Confidence for me. So I did the thing and he starts to sing and we jam one song and he was like, great.

Music Interlude: “Bullerengue para un Ángel” by Orito Cantora & Jenn del Tambó 

Kyla: After hearing this story about meeting Pacheco for the first time, I wanted to know more about the origins of Bullerengue so I asked Betto.

Betto: What I do know is that indeed It is music associated with women. From the beginning. Uh, there are only a few, a handful of men that, that perform this music, but this is music's really associated with women because it's music that's played along the river, the Rio Magdalena in the North side of the country. And it's associated with the, uh, as they say, the, the labors the works, the women's jobs, if you will. This is music that really is born out of this necessity, of women to communicate through rhythm. 

The main figures of Bullerengue are not men. Petrona Martinez, uh….Ceferina Banquez, Etelvina Maldonado. These are the three major figures of Bullerengue.

Music Underscore: “A rro rró” by Petrona Martínez 

It really has, I think something to say about the empowerment that women have in this particular region of, uh, of the country where it was a necessity for them to, to claim something of their own. And it was music that they needed. They created to accompany themselves in, you know, toiling  the fields, in the, in the home. I think it speaks to, uh, how music becomes this sort of, uh, in, in the larger picture of Colombian music. Has been this sort of balm. 

Music continues

Kyla: So after this workshop with Pacheco you began to study with him. Can you tell me about that, and does he live in Bogota like you? 

Daniela: He lives in San Juan de Uraba. That’s his small town. He has a beautiful family and his leader of Tradicion - that's the name of his band. And in his community, of course, he's a leader because. These communities are so poor and so forgotten olvidadas por el gobierno. So having him as a legend of  Bullerengue as he is, it's important for his town for San Juan. Yeah. He's just a great, great person and composer. The way I learn with him like the, how do you say “immersion” in with him in Bullerengue life with him 

When you decide to go to his house to Emilson’s  house you can spend one month or more with him if you want in his house. And he's going to just give you a room and his family is going to be really like. Beautiful host for you because he's a fisherman. So he's going to go out in the morning to bring the fish and then you're going to cook and you're gonna eat it at lunch, but all day long, he's going to be singing and writing songs. In the morning. Um, so there's no water to take a shower. There's no water, there's no water. Then he goes to the fish and he comes back and he's like, Oh, there was so many fishes, so many fish, so many fish.It's like all the time, that way. but his gifted is not like this for all Bullerengueros.

Kyla: This really speaks to the history of Bullerengue as a music of daily life and empowerment. Did you get that sense from him?

Daniela:  He's such an activist without even thinking about it. He has a strong opinion about, you know, how system works in this country. Coming from a community where they have richness in their culture, but the government and us as Colombians, we have stolen them, basically dignity, 

Kyla: It seems like the combining of music and understanding the systems that affect your daily life is also an important part of your music now. When did you find this artistic voice? 

Daniela: We had this debate inside Ladama. The first day we had a interview with a woman in Barcelona asking us, are you guys feminist? Yes, no, no. Yes. Uh, that was four years ago. So afterwards we keep talking about it and Maria Fernando Gonzales. She confronted me and she was telling me this same thing you're saying to me, but she was not forcing me, but she was kind of pushing me like you play drum, you know, like you sit down, you play an instrument, you're a strong woman. How could you not be a feminist? How could you not say you're a feminist given the history you have, um, They instrument you play and now I get it.

And now I understand. 

Kyla: Yes-  just by being a woman who plays the drums….

Daniela: I do feel empowerment through the tambor and I've seen it through other girls, women that learn with me. I have students, men and women, but with some of the women. They come to me and they talk to me about this, about how, you know, they're beyond understanding or being  an investigator of the rhythms they're like, and having these releasing and I'm having this liberation.

So it is powerful and beautiful that us as women have these opportunity to play congas and drums and understand that it's actually a tool of the emancipation. 

Kyla: And you have been working to create these spaces of emancipation as you say for woman - especially through Totona Power Festival. 

Daniela: that was my idea to have a platform to give more visibility to women in music, I guess, but lately also to understand how we need to fight ourselves for equal spaces in festivals. And the idea began because while we were in Venezuela, we learn the beautiful word “totona,” which means vagina, and it’s so cute because nobody in Colombia will ever understand that, that's not part of our slang, but anyone in Venezuela will do.

Kyla: But do you have slang for vagina in Colombia? 

Daniela: Si uh, Well you say cuca, so you say cuquita when you're a little girl. You say churumbela in the Pacific coast is like uh, Nidia Gongora, and this is a great song, guys. The whole song is singing, algo me pica, me pica la churumbela. Como se dice picar? Scratch? Itchy? [Laughs]. 

Music Interlude: "La churumbela canalón de timbiquí" by Nidia Gongora 

Daniela: it's a hilarious song, but it's so good because, you know, did you sing about your churumbela or your cuca? And it's totally fine. It's not the end of the world. 

Music continues

Daniela: So, I felt the love with the Totona  idea. Um, and that's what I did to Totona Power Fest. I post on Facebook. Saying a musical goddesses that want to play. I was like receiving 60. Comments. I was like, Oh my God, there's a lot. And half of them were musicians that you already know, but half of them were like, Oh my God, there's so many songwriters singers, women play in different instruments. So that was beautiful to discover things without. Expecting that why we need to fight for spaces, because if you see  biggest festival in South America, that happened in Bogota, stereo picnic, which would it be like Celebrate Brooklyn or something? There's like [5% or 7% of the lineup is going to be female bands. There's a lot to learn in music industry to understand how the industry can just embrace our net being closely if unrespectful with women. I think it's very necessary to have these feminist spaces, not only our first year with a lot of women because of it's beautiful.

We have a lot of women -- no we need to have a discussion and debate about it and understand why it's important to create spaces for women and what you see. Um, not only women, uh, how many African Colombian women you have in festival. The percentage is just lower. Ah, how many trans women do you have? Even lower and so on and so on. What matters is that we celebrate and embrace women in music through empowering ourselves would say, vagina that used to be such a taboo in Colombia.

Excerpt from LADAMA TED talk

Kyla: That was LADAMA at speaking at their TED talk in 2018. You just heard Maria Gonzalez talk about how the band met at OneBeat in 2014. Dani -  The band's name  is your names. Lara, Daniela, Maria.  It's also a fusion of all the places and traditions that you come - Venezuela, Brazil + Colombia. How did you come up with the name? 

Daniela: We were playing with words. We're just doing poems and words in the car and playing through the plane and then okay. The name of the project. Says some names.  I'm not going scream the way we scream that day when we were like, Oh my God, like, we want to make a project to impact girls in vulnerable communities and we can use la dama. It was just perfect. We didn't even think. That much around that idea, but with everything we've been going through and everything we have learned and us understanding feminism through music and through communities, 

Kyla: But la dama also has a meaning in spanish right? 

Daniela: Ladama as you would say in English, a lady, it's a very elegant way to refer a women in a Spanish.  It's definitely a resignification to go, just beyond the idea for lady, because when you talk about this lady la dama, that it's so elegant, it's like a….

Kyla: [interjects] Porcelain 

Daniela: Yeah, like you're made of porcelain and this idea of women. Oh, you're going to break. If you, you know, go beyond your limits

Music Interlude: “Confesion” by LADAMA

Kyla: I really like the idea of the woman, the lady being delicate and fragile, but hidden inside her is this strength and power. Are these, some of ideas that you bring to your workshops with young women and girls across Latin America? 

Daniela: There's definitely an impact that we didn't see the first months we were touring where girls actually perceived that thing. You're talking about Kyla, where they feel strong and they feel free to be whatever they want to be. You know, because I was about to say the same. You can be a woman and you can be fine.

You can be elegant, you can be fragile and it's beautiful, but it's more than that. It's just the fact that women. Are not just one thing. So I guess in a way, yes, because we have, uh, experience and interviews, we used to make after workshops from the girls about how they felt stronger or inspiring, just. For seeing us playing the instruments we play, but that's not how we approach the workshop.

That's not something we actually say to them. It's more like a result of the practice itself

Music Interlude: “Night Traveler” by LADAMA

Kyla: It seems like this marriage of activism and music has only grown for you as an artist?

Daniela: this is something I've been building since OneBeat. I've been building this idea, thanks to Ladama, thanks to Totona Power. And in every song that I been writing recently is the fact that you truly can activate yourself and make little impacts in your daily life, the way you talk, the way you express and how you can be. Propositive. 

Kyla: Yeah, proactive. Doing more than complaining, actually making something happen.

Daniela: Si, you can complain and it's okay to, to be critic and say, Hey, this is wrong. And this is wrong. Uh, women's rights are being abused in Colombia, trans rights, immigrants, rights compass. He knows rights, Afro Colombian community's rights, indigenous rights, but then we have to create alternatives also, or support the alternatives we have among ourselves to actually make the positive impact. So, I guess music it's been before my generation and going back to bullerengue or cumbia or the music that I loved the most, these are, this is resistance and resilience music. Born in a violent and oppressive context, but we don’t talk about that. And now you see and you compare 2020 how much has Colombia changed . actually not at all. We as consumers do have a responsibility to understand what kind of music we listen to and what do we support with the songs we listen to because at the end music is just like a map, a radiography of what’s happening in your country and in your society at the time. So I just feel a lot of responsibility with my songs to express reality. 

Music interlude: “Cada Uno” by LADAMA

Kyla: Thank you for tuning into The OneBeat Podcast. This episode was produced and edited by Kyla-Rose Smith and Charlotte Gartenberg with essential help from Elena Moon Park, Jeremy Thal and  Nyokabi Kariuki. Special thanks to Betto Arcos. Throughout this episode you have heard the music of LADAMA, you can find them on all streaming platforms. We also heard music from Emilson Pacheco, Nidia Gongora, Petrona Martinez, Orito Cantora + Jenn del Tambo. You can find a full playlist on our website. Next month we travel to Malaysia to  talk with experimental composer, digital artist, and theremin player Nchor Guan. Please listen to us anywhere you get your podcasts - and please rate, review, subscribe and share. Follow us at 1Beatmusic. That’s the number 1….beatmusic.

The views + opinions expressed by our guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ECA, Bang On A Can, Found Sound Nation, or any of its employees.

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in collaboration with Bang On A Can’s Found Sound Nation.