What is that Monkey Doing Behind the Rowboat?
It may be that Latin America is the last great reservoir of innocent art. Or at least, one could happily arrive at that conclusion after watching a video on YouTube, “En tus tierras bailaré” (“In Your Lands Someday I’ll Dance”) that has gone way over the million-hit mark. It features three of the hottest video stars in the Andes: La Tigresa del Oriente (The Tigress of the East), Little Wendy Sulca, and Delfín Hasta el Fin, a name I declare myself incompetent to translate, though “All the Way with the Dauphin” is a start. La Tigresa, Little Wendy, and the Delfín were brought together virtually for this video, and among its many marvels is a joyful, if not proficient, use of technology.
In the prologue the Delfín, who likes to begin his socially-conscious music videos with similar scenes, is shown relaxing in his living room, watching the news. In this case, the faces on the screen express their doubts about Israel as a tourist destination. “There could be bombs in the street,” one woman says. “It scares me.” The Delfín springs to his feet in outrage at this distortion: “This cannot be!” he cries, and the Andean disco/huayno beat kicks in. “Israel, Israel,” the singers chant in the chorus,
How pretty Israel is!
In your lands one day I’ll dance.
Once viewers have finished admiring the costumes (The detailing on the Delfín’s fly, the Tigresa’s metallic bodysuit), the changing backdrops (an Andean village with wandering camels, an underwater scuba-diver waving at the camera), the ebullient dancing, and so much more, an inevitable question arises: who are these people?
La Tigresa comes from the Eastern, or Amazonian, part of Peru, a Wild West sort of territory memorably described by Mario Vargas Llosa in Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. Her official biography tells us that she made her living as a hairdresser and make-up artist until she discovered herself as a singer. She is sixty-five. Little Wendy Sulca is from the other side of the Peruvian Andes: she was born in one of the surging barrios of poor highland immigrants that surround the city of Lima. She made her first hit video, “La Tetita,” when she was only eight, her biography claims. Even then, I feel, her charm must have encased a heart of steel. And the Delfín himself, whose signature dance step is announced ecstatically in minute 1:36 of the video, (Y ahora…el pasito del Delfín!) is from Ecuador. He is not only a singer, but a composer and producer as well. And what has Israel got to do with any of them? Only the fact that someone (in the Israeli Tourism Board, perhaps?) had the brilliant idea of hiring all three for a promotional video.
Susan Sontag wrote that an essential element of Camp is seriousness that fails, and also that Camp is high-spirited and unpretentious. Certainly “En tus tierras bailaré” includes these elements. But Third World innocent art is also something more and something different from Camp: more often than not it is a perfect embodiment, or imagining, of the society it comes from. Anyone who has spent a little time in the open-air markets on the outskirts of Lima or Quito, with their ramshackle array of used car parts and buttons, embroidered toilet seat covers and chipped tin cups, will recognize the wildly enterprising spirit of the video’s producers. Those who have traveled by car in those cities (or tried to cross the street) might feel that there is some of La Tigresa’s bombs-away cheerfulness in Limeños’ driving style. And anyone who has ever agonized over issues of cultural authenticity and the impingement of modern commercial values on ethnic traditions will be flummoxed at first by the juxtaposition of Wendy’s stately sequined skirts with the wiggling sequined buttocks of La Tigresa’s backup dancers.
In the end, though, what holds us most about an artifact like “In your lands someday I’ll dance” is its mystery, because the question “who are these people?” is, in truth, impossible for us to answer, although the attempt is endlessly fascinating. Their self-confidence and optimism we can only envy, and yet they have lives we can barely imagine (how much did the rural violence provoked by Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas influence Wendy’s parents’ decision to migrate to the capital?); they make choices that to us seem inscrutable (what is that monkey doing behind the rowboat?). But millions of people admire these singers. What the video shows us is the chaotic transformation of a culture that has always had an infinite and joyful capacity for self-invention. This is not outsider but insider art of the deepest sort, forged in a hot-hot crucible, and it is we who stand on the outside, peering wistfully at the screen.
June 9, 2010, 11:38 a.m.