In August 1980 a Centre opened up in Sydney, which was extremely influential and drafted new proposals for musical work in Australia. That centre was the “Latin American Cultural Centre” "La Peña".
The 70s and 80s were periods of political turbulence in Latin America and many refugees came to Australia as a consequence of the right wing dictatorships of many countries, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador to name some.
The founder members 1 brought with them their personal cultural experiences and the “Peñas” of Chile, the “Casa Latino Americana” from Buenos Aires “La Peña” from Berkley, California and even Sydney’s La Boite influenced the centre.
“La Peña- which is the traditional dance or gathering where politics and music meet in Latin America- was formed to fight against the stereotype of the poncho and the sombrero, and to reflect the cultural roots and the political context of Latin American theatre, dancing and song”. Si, si señor, this is Bondi. By Ruth Hessey, SMH Metro, February 10, 1989.
Their objectives were to project culturally in Australia, to provide a meeting place for those interested in the culture and to open a space for artists to express themselves.
The opening night announced songwriter Jose Barroso, and La Peña members; composer guitarist Luis Grimaldi and the popular band “Papalote”, but the enthusiastic audience that packed the premises could also enjoy the music of Bolivian band “Los Quechuas”.
The 12 founder members acquired 11 shares and rented the premises of 429 King St, Newtown, opening the 3rd of August 1980. The organisation strove to promote multiculturalism, tolerance and generate a positive environment for Sydney’s Cultural Community, organizing many activities including Sunday Concerts and Music Workshops (no government funding was involved and all work was done on a voluntarily basis including the teaching and performing of La Peña’s members).
In those workshops the students learned ‘hands on’ Latin American repertoire in instruments such as; bombos, quenas, zampoñas, guitars, charangos, etc (some students brought their saxophones or mandolins as well). Traditional songs from the Andes, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Cuba and other countries were taught even though some instruments weren’t used in all those countries. The percussion workshops on Thursday nights introduced many Australians to the sounds and rhythms of Latin percussion, teaching bongos, tumbadoras, bombo, etc.
“But out of La Peña lots of people emerged playing Latin American music. A lot of Australian composers started using Latin Rhythms in their work.” Olympia Karanges in Latin Passions by Peter Holm, SMH Metro, February 23, 1990.
A year later they moved to new premises in 585 “B” also in King St and became a key place for information and solidarity with Latin American and Third World issues. La Peña was facilitating the Hall, providing organization, training musicians, publishing songs in the Spanish Media, and by bringing musicians together it was also facilitating the debate on culture and politics. It was at that time, the only organisation trying to project the idea of a united Latin America, promoting the cultures of the different countries through performances and concerts and the only consistent multicultural or internationalist venue in Sydney in the 80s.
When analysing the artistic programming of the early period of the organisation we can appreciate their commitment to a contemporary idea of cross-culturalism. The programming was very inclusive, crossing ethnic, cultural, musical, gender and generational boundaries. Perhaps a unique feature was that the organisation wasn’t necessarily following government policies or getting funding and was driven manly by first generation Latin Americans (Latin America is in itself very multicultural).
La Peña, in the early years, had an internationalist concept of culture and solidarity, and the concept of artists as workers of culture, so their practice was to try to de-mystify the arts, break cultural stereotypes and have a strong commitment to education, development and training.
“Elbows, empanadas and chocolate cake crowd the checkered table cloths while Salvador Allende and Che Guevara share the walls (…) Shadowy figures abandon their bit of elbow space and creep in front of the stage to listen to the flute players, percussionists and guitarists bring to life the music of South America.” Dive into Latin at la Peña, by Kerry Brown SMH Metro, October 14, 1983.
Many of the musical groups were incorporating contemporary arrangements and instrumentations, singing about contemporary issues and often rejecting any type of national costumes.
The practice of internationalism was expressed by exchanging musical knowledge, teaching and by the composition of the groups that emerged from the centre. Musicians from groups such as Chimigüin, Mesteña, Huarma Kuyay, Chichitote and others were students from the workshops and expressed the diversity that La Peña was encouraging.
The groups Chimigüin and later Chichitote followed Papalote’s steps and started touring schools with a Music Show, which, with developments and changes, is still toured in 2001.
“Papalote were founder members of the Sydney Latin American Cultural Centre, la Peña, they have organised and developed workshops on Latin American Music since 1980”. Spice the night with Salsa by Kalinga Seneviratne, SMH Metro, September 15, 1989.
The Monday music workshops became like an institution in themselves, they generated musicians for many groups, for Latin American, Cross-cultural experiences or the Australian Folk and Jazz scenes. The pedagogy was a practice of the theories of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. It was a collective way of education where everybody in the group could contribute to the learning process, and the idea was to rescue the unique musical knowledge that many of the students possessed.
“The music workshops are one of the big ongoing activities. Hundreds of people have been through them. There’s been a lot of people who’ve been able to learn instruments there because it’s so easy going, and there is the pleasure of playing with a lot of people”. Dive into Latin at la Peña, by Kerry Brown SMH Metro, 14 Oct 1983.
La Peña in the early eighties was offering also the same Jazz courses of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music striving to upgrade musicianship and making this mainstream institution more accessible not only to the community but also to NESB musicians. There were also workshops organised with visiting Latin American groups and soloists such as Cuban bands Septiembre 5, Los Noveles, Uruguayan duo Larbanois y Carrero and songwriter Daniel Viglietti (a key figure of the New Song Movement in Latin America).
The “Festival del Sol” was initiated by the Bolivian Musician Sammy Sabag to celebrate the traditional homage of the Incas to honour the Sun God at the beginning of spring, in Australia the objective was to unify the cultural movement and to recognise the performance of individuals or organisations in support of multiculturalism. The first people to receive the order of the Poncho and Sombrero were Gough Whitlam and Al Grasby and in 1981, Sammy handed the festival to La Peña as a show of respect for their work.
On the 6th. of December 1986 a group of musicians presented the first activity of the Australian New Song movement in La Peña. They were Arcatao, Barroso Bros., Canto Libre, Hugo Leal, Agnes Huhn, Papalote, Celina Centurion and Lucho Silva. They were open to a wide range of aesthetic conceptions and styles, and were recognising the movement as Australian (with Latin American roots), and wanted to generate a forum to discuss cultural issues.
La Peña inspired similar experiences in ether places in Australia, Brisbane also had a Peña and Perth developed Kulcha. The documentaries, ‘Tropical Beat’, ‘Pilgrim notes’, ‘Things I call mine’ and ‘South of the Border’ (which dealt with music and politics in Latin America) interviewed musicians or had as advisers members of La Peña.
On the 14th of September of 1997 a group of friends of La Peña organised a function in the “Casa Latino Americana” in Marrickville to celebrate the 17th anniversary of the organisation and to raise funds for the Argentine Human Rights Group “Madres de Plaza de Mayo”.
La Peña had in the 80’s an innovative proposal for a cultural infrastructure; it was promoting local expressions, cultural development and fundamentally expressing diversity.
La Peña was challenging the conventional concept of theatre space; it was encouraging experimentation, critical thought and was essentially an area of boundary crossing (ethnic, stylistically, disciplinary, generational, etc.)
This interactive cosmos was independent of the rigid boundaries of the music ‘status quo’ and the rational behind the centre was guided not by economics, but by social, cultural, artistic and even ecological criteria.
- La Peña was providing workshops creating employment and development, it was encouraging cultural communication and most importantly it was attempting to create and develop an educated audience.
- It catered for children, providing music workshops and having a child care centre during the Sunday concerts.
- The centre provided exhibitions and performances of music, theatre, dance, etc for adults and children, projection of videos, films, conferences, Audio/visuals, etc.
- It facilitated the establishment of stable music groups like Papalote, Chimigüin, Mesteña, Warma Kuyay, Mary Jane Field, Luis Grimaldi, Antara, Chichitote, etc
- This centre also had a Library and a Resource Centre (RACLA) and was also used as a rehearsal space
But this centre could have been part of a general “Cultural Strategy” to promote cultural interaction, a sense of participation and to promote an alternative to boredom and depression, causes of many social problems that affect our society and especially our youth.
Today people from all walks of life continually comment on the void created by La Peña’s disappearance, the social and cultural benefits went far beyond it’s political work. This vibrant space, a catalyst to many a budding artist of all fields, a meeting place where people of all ages were welcome exuded warmth, solidarity, acceptance, motivated people to participate, perform organize and above all feel they belonged to something striving to topple boundaries and extracting their best qualities.
- 1. The founding members of La Peña were; Sonia Bohn, David Santana, Patricia Boero, Liliana Ibieta, John Brotherton, Olympia Karanges, Justo Diaz, Mario Rojas, Raul Bassa, Silvia Ordoñez and Luis and Janet Grimaldi.