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

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 leaf to his mouth green which he squeezes 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.

Two musicians play the calabash in the central square of Chalguayacu, Ecuador , December 4 2021 (AFP – Rodrigo BUENDIA) – “The body vibrates” –

The orchestra takes its name from the expression “mochar”, which in Ecuador means to cut or to 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 years old, ash gray curly hair, walking between 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.

Isidro Minda picks ficus leaves, in Chalguayacu, Ecuador, on December 4 2014 (AFP – Rodrigo BUENDIA) “They must be very soft. If they are hard, they don’t want to play,” he explains.

Since the age of 25 years old, he learned to extract sounds from nature. In his mouth, the leaves resound like a clarinet. When he stops playing, he keeps some in a bag with water so that they do not wither 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 the ethno-musicologist Juan Mullo.

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

– Without heirs –

The “banda mocha”, December 5th 2021 in Chalguayacu, Ecuador (AFP – Rodrigo BUENDIA) Isidro Minda, Segundo Yepez and Tomas Carabali present themselves as “the men of the leaves”, descendants of Africans capable of extracting a sound from these ultra-thin tree leaves.

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

Abdon Vasquez, 66 years old, ensures that he wants to die his instrument in his hand, playing music like he started to do thirty years ago.

The orchestra, little known outside, is in danger of disappearing.

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

They prefer to imagine themselves as police officers, soldiers or, above all, as footballers , in this region where the Chota team led Ecuador to its first World Cup in 950. Music, on the other hand, is synonymous with poverty.

Tomas Carabali, a “banda mocha” musician, plays music with a tree leaf, in Chalguayacu, Ecuador, on December 4 2021 (AFP – Rodrigo BUENDIA) “It makes me sad to see that our culture is being lost as the members of the ‘orchestra “, confides 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 the one of his grandsons was interested, but then left for Quito, and the story ended there.

– Applause in Cuba –

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

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

Village festival with the “banda mocha,” in Chalguayacu, Ecuador, on December 5 2014 (AFP – Rodrigo BUENDIA) “Outside our country, it is the greatest moment of happiness that I can remember. The Cuban brothers were speechless.” , tells 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.