In a striving-to-be-perfect Latino jazz band rehearsal, guitarists Brianna (Carol Spring), Tim (Jerry Daniel) and Alex (Miguel Amaguaña) strum furiously and sound terrible. Brianna and Tim gang up on Alex, telling him he needs to switch to drums for the group’s survival. “We need rhythm– something to keep us together,” Brianna says.
GALA’s newest children’s production Tum Tica, is named for the sound of a drum roll (say “tum tica” over and over). Alex discovers that not only his performance is out-of-tune, but also his narrow-mindedness makes him off-key. Playwright Cecilia Cackley, in this refreshing new play, takes on the challenge of showing us we are all interdependent– we need each other to survive and thrive– similar to the theme in last year’s kid hit, Fabulous Mayas, that found universality in Mayan folklore.
Tum Tica, directed by Tom Mallan, zeroes in on the down home reality of dislocation and isolation that foreigners and immigrants confront. But what’s fun about this piece is how five expressive actors do double duty as puppeteers, skillfully manipulating life size puppets of famous Latin performers. Their transitions are seamless. Their enthusiasm, contagious, accentuated by a set consisting of three rotating flats, decorated with abstract patterns of expressive color.
This bilingual play is performed mostly in English. Abuelo (Roberto Calemares), the grandfather, who represents the older generation that still speaks Spanish, plans a vacation to his native Colombia. He’s taking his nephew, Alex, the younger generation who only speaks English. Abuelo sings in Spanish, that translated means: “Things always change/the people come and go,/and although years pass,/there will always be my home.” Then, he sings an explanation in English to his nephew, who doesn’t understand: “I know it’s not easy/to travel somewhere new/I wish you could come with us,/They’re your family too.” In this way, Cackley’s dialogue and lyrics, flow uninterrupted without surtitles.
Along the way, Cackley makes light-hearted points about how learning a foreign language from a book or a classroom can be boring; whereas in real life, it’s an exciting adventure. Miguel Amaguaña, in portraying Alex, successfully conveys a bewildered character in despair. At first, Alex believes his Latin American relatives will think he’s a stupid “loser” because he’s so different after growing up in Chicago. He doesn’t know Spanish nor how to play the drums. So once, in Colombia, he isolates himself in his room with his laptop, until he gets language help from his cousin, Natalia,(Karin Tovar), and his aunt, Tia Laura (Carol Spring).
Eventually, Alex develops into a buoyant self-assured guy on his way to becoming bilingual. He catches on to how to perform on a wide variety of drums, and percussion from a street musician, Francisco, (Jerry Daniel), who hangs out in the Plaza Bolivar. And music becomes the universal language, opening Alex’s mind to understanding Spanish and hopefully saving his jazz band back home.
But what’s noteworthy is the courageous way Cackley dissects the differences in sounds in Latin American musical instruments and creates an erudite play delightful for kids and adults. Timbales, conga drums, tamboras, and bombos, poised to be played in the upstage area, embody a vast array of sound. The timbales, single-headed, shallow-depth, metal drums emit a higher pitch than the deeper, staved, barreled Congas. And the street musician, Francisco, tells Alex how timbales were made famous by the Latino “King of Latin Music,” Tito Puente.
At this point, Puente makes an appearance as a puppet playing the timbales. Puente was “…one of the kings of salsa–what they call the New York version of all those dance styles from the islands, Cuba, Puerto Rico,” Francisco says. And to dramatize the experience, a puppet of the world-renowned Cuban-American salsa singer, Celia Cruz, appears and dances as the puppet of Puente pounds out a Cuban beat on the timbales.
Sounds are also different among the pan pipes and flutes on display. Many varieties of pan pipes or mouth organs, for “mountain music,” were blown for hundreds of years in the Andes Mountains by native peoples. The highland Aymara or Quechua made their pan pipes, consisting of five or more pipes, called siku (see-ku), or antara, from the bamboo-like reeds in famous Lake Titicaca, between Peru and Bolivia. The siku, that emits a haunting sound, shares the name for pan pipes called zampoña, imported from Spain by Spanish conquistadores.
¡TUM TICA!: A Story of Music and Family
Closes October 25, 2014
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
1 hour, no intermission
And one by one, different instruments from the percussive family come alive for Alex in the plazas of Colombia: the maracas or rattles, the claves (hit sticks), a güiro, a hollow gourd with wedges, scraped on the side. Caribbean slaves who worked in the sugar cane fields brought in some. Others like the cajón evolved from shipping crates used as drums on loading docks. All contribute to the rich fusion of Latino music.
When cultures collide, new styles evolve. A fusion of African and European rhythms comes from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, like the cumbia beat, what Francisco calls “The musical backbone of Latin America!” Joropo, based on folk rhythm, or “music from the plains,” for a waltz, is distinctive from cumbia, as we hear music piped in, both styles accompanying courting dances.
“The music was here long before the border,” Francisco tells Alex. And mingling musical styles is in. For example: Shakira, (who sang at President Obama’s Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in 2009) is a famous Colombian, a Latina pop star, a personification of cultural fusion. Sadly, she is only mentioned once. It would have helped to hear more about her unique style.
But judging by the mesmerized opening day audience of fourth graders from Francis Scott Key Elementary in Arlington, and the youngsters who traveled two-and-a-half-hours in a bus from the County Christian School in Virginia, director Mallan’s staging of Cackley’s Tum Tica with puppets is magically effective. Overall, an over-the-top thoroughly enjoyable experience for both Spanish-speaking and English-fluent generations.
Tum Tica, a world premiere by Cecilia Cackley . Bilingual adaptation by Karin Tovar . Music by Cecilia Cackley and Diana Sáez . Puppets by Geena Davidson and sound design by Neil McFadden . Directed by Tom Mallan . Set design: Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden . Produced by the GALita in collaboration with Wit’s End Puppets . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.Wit’ End Puppets