Galapagos dance and music, a new culture rising from regional and global influences

Galapagos dancers stepping across a new frontier Photos by Joseph B. Treaster

Flutes, guitars, trumpets, And blue-footed boobies

SANTA CRUZ, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador – The peppy sounds of folkloric trumpets and drums and saxophones blared from the sidewalk café on Darwin Avenue, the main street of the town of Puerto Ayora. Young men and women in billowing blouses and dresses, woven hats and colorful scarves, twirled past couples at little, hard-wood dinner tables. An outline of a frigate bird angled across the skirt of one of the dancers.

The dancers were all members of the Centro de Danza Galapagos, a cultural center started four years ago on Santa Cruz, the most populous island in the Galapagos. Viviana Varela, a classically trained ballet dancer, who grew up on the mainland of Ecuador, which governs the islands, is the founder and director of the center.

She noticed years ago that people who immigrated to the dry, hard volcanic islands from mainland Ecuador brought the culture and tradition of their regions with them, but that after nearly 200 years no distinctive Galapagos arts tradition had emerged.  She, herself, had moved to the islands with her husband, Fausto Pita, a taxi driver, from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, more than 20 years ago. It was cold and rainy in Quito and her husband had heard that there was good money in shuttling tourists around the islands.

In the Galapagos, Varela found herself. She didn’t need any woolen clothes and she began to work to foster a Galapagos culture. She opened a cultural center on San Cristobal. And that went well.

But four years ago she and her husband divorced. She  moved to Santa Cruz to take a job in an elementary school, Escuela San Francisco, teaching dance and other subjects and she started the Centro de Danza Galapagos.  She had 14 students in her first dance group in Santa Cruz. Now she has 70 students. The youngest is three years old, the eldest, 40.

“We are creating a mix of all the different cultures,” Varela said, and stirring in “influences from the islands themselves.”

Like Varelas’s dance, the music in the Galapagos has been evolving from a blend of sounds from elsewhere. Jonathan Zielke is a guitar teacher at Escuela San Francisco, a few blocks from Darwin Avenue in the main town. He grew up in Germany and trained at the John Lennon School of Music in Berlin. On Santa Cruz, he says, he hears the mystical sounds of the Andes melding with the soft, sometimes driving beat of Brazilian samba, and the laid-back rhythms of Jamaican reggae. He hears Latin reggaeton, American pop and global rock.

“You can hear alternative rock on the same stage as bolero, salsa and samba, complimenting and influencing each-other,” Zielke said. Galapagos musicians, Zielke said, play guitar, ukulele, violin, flute, trumpet, bongo and conga drums, and the charango, a small guitar-like instrument from the Andes.

For her performance at the restaurant on Darwin Avenue, a little place called the Rock, Varela selected a piece of Afro-Ecuadoran music from the Chota Valley, north of her old home in Quito. It is a kind of music known as bomba that scholars say seems to have come out of central Africa and fused with the flutes and percussion of the Andes and the strings of the colonialists from Spain, more or less in the way that Varela is working to evolve a Galapagos pace, a Galapagos sound in the islands. The bomba bands are big. They might have 18 or 20 players. They sometimes wear matching slacks and jackets and line up in rows on country stages with their horns and strings and scrapers and cow bells and rhythm sticks and, perhaps most of all, their drums. The bands look like people’s bands and they seem just right for Varela. That night the music came from Banda Santa Marianita del Olivo and that same music is accompanying this article.

Varela, a short, trim and energetic woman, wants the dance and the music that rises from the Galapagos to convey the spirit of the Galapagos. She says she has become enchanted with the blue-footed booby, a Galapagos bird with a distinctive, foot-tapping, body-swaying dance and a monogamous family life. She has adapted some of the boobies’ movements into her dance and she says she’s gotten dance ideas from the lumbering Galapagos albatross and the finches that Charles Darwin studied. She says she’s been inspired, too, by the school of body-expression dancing, in which performers tell a story through their movements and facial expressions.

Varela costumes reflect the influence of the Galapagos animals and of the weaves and patterns of Ecuador’s coastal lowlands, its swath of the Amazon and its Andean Mountains. On some of their outfits of wide skirts and loose blouses her dancers have sewn outlines of tortoises and iguanas and blue-footed boobies and the jet-black frigate bird.

At the Escuela San Francisco, Varela teaches dance to the entire student body of about 1,300. When Varela arrived, there was very little learning about the arts at Escuela San Francisco.  But then Freddie Rojas became head of the Escuela San Francisco. He was interested in the arts, and thought that painting, music and dance were important in the development of the whole person, friends say.

“He has helped the arts thrive in Galapagos,” said Varela, “Children will eventually decide the future of our culture. It is very important that we give them arts classes for our culture to grow.”

The Ecuadorian government has begun to support Rojas’s creation of an arts curriculum. Zielke, 20, is in the Galapagos as a volunteer under the auspices of the Casa de la Cultura, a government organization, founded in the 1940s by Benjamin Carrión, an Ecuadoran writer, diplomat and cultural promoter, to support culture and the arts throughout Ecuador. The headquarters is in Quito.

Varela would love to have the backing of foundations and the government. But so far she’s had to get by on the tuition she charges her 70 students, $20 a month for some, $30 for others, and nothing for the least affluent.

“I want everyone, no matter how much money they have, to have the opportunity to dance,” Varela said.

She said she has tried to get the restaurants along Darwin Avenue to subsidize her center in exchange for performances. But, so far, only one restaurant, the Rock, a lively place with a bright neon sign in the shape of a martini glass, is working with her.

She is pressing on. “It makes me happy,” Varela said, “to know that despite not having much support, I can still share the joy of dance with so many children.” #

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