“As women, we need to fight for all of us”: 2014 OneBeat Alumna Daniela Serna on finding her Totona Power

Found Sound Nation’s Nyokabi Kariuki talks to the first round recipients of OneBeat’s Accelerator Grant

“Oye Mujer” Recording sessions at Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro, 2019 | Photo by Flora Pimentel

Daniela Serna is a 2014 OneBeat Fellow. The Bogotá-based composer, percussionist, activist and sound artist is a part of Latin alternative band LADAMA, birthed at OneBeat. Their latest album, Oye Mujer, has been met with rave reviews. With the OneBeat Accelerator Grant, Daniela will be spearheading the Totona Power Podcast, a feminist space for conversation and reflection, focusing on the perspectives and stories of Afro-Colombian and Palenque women and featuring sound design by a network of women-identifying producers.

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Nyokabi: Your latest album, Oye Mujer, has received all these amazing reviews — I recently listened to NPR Alt.Latino’s podcast episode where you and your bandmates talk to Felix Contreras about the album’s journey. How are you feeling about its reception?

Daniela: It was great. We’re a lucky band because we’ve been together since we met in 2014 at OneBeat, and then started to tour in 2016 for four years, so we already have a group of people that are already interested in our music and in who we are, and they get the message of these records, and they get to understand how it was an evolution in terms of sound compared to our first album. It’s been great — the reception of people, of the fan base and media as well. We get the most amazing reviews in Brazil, because some of the songs on the record are in Portuguese. We were featured in Vogue Brazil — of course they talked about the record, but it was more about us as a band. I was kind of surprised to get that attention from that kind of media.

LADAMA perform on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert

Nyokabi: Wow. Congratulations. One of the things that I love about the record is that your sounds come together beautifully as a unit, but each of you also have really unique voices as individuals. I see this individual strength shine through in other projects, aside from LADAMA, that each of you do. How did you, Daniela, first realize that music was your calling?

Daniela: It’s beautiful, the way you put it as ‘a calling’. I’ve never said it that way, but it is a calling, it’s a mission we have in life. Since I was a kid, even without playing — just listening to music was, and it’s still, the best feeling ever. It was the most free that I felt. So I guess when you find that sensation, there’s nothing else that can beat that feeling.

In my country, if you go to music school, you find this academic, eurocentric focus. But my music school was alternative, kind of ‘hippie-driven’, so it was focused on Latin American music. I started when I was six years old, and grew up playing cumbia and other Latin American genres from different countries. When I was 15 years old, I discovered the tambor alegre (‘happy drum’), which is my main instrument and the one that I have on tour with LADAMA. It’s a Caribbean instrument, and I fell in love with those rhythms and with that region of my country. So since I was a kid, music was my main mission, and then especially after my life changing experience at OneBeat in 2014, I understood my calling as a woman on the drum and as a feminist and how my presence on the stage can impact other young girls’ futures. And since then, I have been doing that, and I enjoy it!

Daniela performing at WOMAD Festival, UK

Nyokabi: The Totona Power Podcast is the project that was recently awarded the OneBeat Accelerator Grant, which is a new branch of the Totona Power Fest. Can you tell us about the festival, where you got the name ‘Totona’, and how this all led to the podcast?

Daniela: The big umbrella is the Totona Power Fest that I created back in 2018. Thanks to my touring life with LADAMA, I had the privilege to access feminism because two or three years ago in Colombia, it wasn’t a big deal. We did that first tour in each of our countries, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and the United States. In Latin America, we mostly speak Spanish, but if you go to each country, there are some different words, and each country in South America has several words for vagina. Here in Colombia, they’re like 5 to 10 different words. But in Venezuela, I learned their word for vagina is ‘totona’, and as a Spanish speaker, it was a curious word, very cute. I was kind of obsessed with the idea of ‘totona power’, it was sort of a mantra. Like, ‘oh, this woman, she’s totona-powered.’

We went to Malmö, Sweden as part of a festival called Urkult. 50% of the lineup was female and I asked people about it, and they told me it’s a national law that every single arts event in the country, not only music, has to have 50% women. When you see that there’s actually countries with ‘gender justice’, so to speak, that was an explosion to me to understand that this is possible, we can create these kinds of spaces. And that’s when I decided I want to have a Totona Power Fest. My dad used to have a small seafood restaurant of only four tables in a basement — nothing fancy, nothing expensive, quite regular. I used to have musical gatherings and jams in that space all the time already, so then I decided, now I’m going to do it for real, and it’s going to have a lineup of only women. And I don’t care what you play, if it’s classical or punk or cumbia. I posted on Facebook, ‘musical goddesses, who wants to play?’ There were about 70 comments, and I was surprised — it means there’s need. Some of them were my friends, but I didn’t know most of the others. Then, I had the help of 10 or 15 friends that were like, ‘I like your idea. I’m going to help you. I like your idea. I’m going to take the microphones. I like your idea. I’m going to help you sell the tickets.’

I was interviewing the artist’s like, ‘what do you think of this space? Have you seen these kinds of spaces for only women? Are you used to working with women? And it was surprising because most of their answers were ‘no, it’s my first time. I’ve never been in a festival where the producers and all workers are women. I haven’t worked with women because you know, this is a state of mind of, it’s hard to work with another girl’. But that was two years ago, and I can say to you that it has changed a lot, and there’s a lot of feminist initiatives right now in music. But that’s how the festival was done, in the craziest way. And, now since the quarantine began, I came back to actually live in Colombia — this is the longest I’ve been living in my country —

Nyokabi: Oh, where were you living before?

Daniela: With LADAMA [laughs]. We were lucky to be on tour for almost eight months of the year, so coming back to Colombia was just to rest and to say hello to my circle of loved ones. But because I came back due to the pandemic, I was like, ‘okay, I need to have a new project’, so I found a great partner, a new friend. Her name is Estefania Villa Diaz. She’s a sociologist and cultural manager, producer of events. We started talking about music. She was part of a very similar program to OneBeat for Afro-Colombian creators of any profession, storytellers, photographers, called SolidariLabs AfroColombia. So we had that in common. Then we started talking about feminism and we had that in common too. She was part of the audience at my Totona Power Festival, and she was like, I want to keep working on this. Do we want to make a festival in pandemic times? I don’t think so. It’s not enough for what we want to question.

Our goal with the podcast was to share the perspective of Afro-Colombian and Palenque women for this first season, but say if we have the opportunity to have a second and third season, we would love to focus in each of the niches that we have in music, like the LGBTQ community for another season. There’s different communities of minorities in the music industry that are not in the spotlight. So that’s why we came up with the podcast idea. The festival is the big umbrella and it’s still in the project and we have a new arm, the podcast, that gives us the opportunity to talk, and to open the space for those women that we believe should be talking and sharing their experiences. Our main goal with the podcast is to help audiences to understand and see these women, not only as musicians and as artists, but to admire them as social leaders.

Nyokabi: What’s the content of the podcast? Whose stories are you sharing?

Daniela: The first chapter is an introduction and chapter of us explaining why we want to do this. There was an article in a major paper, and the title was, ‘Is the music industry in debt to women?’ And I was like, ‘oh, this is interesting.’ What they said in the article, was that women have a good presence in [the genre of] Bullerengue, for example, compared to women in electronic music or Vallenato (which is our country music). But that’s only one perspective because yes, there are records of famous Bullerengue singers, but that doesn’t mean that all Bullerengueras are part of the dynamic of the music industry. Are agents or managers offering them the opportunity to make records, videos, of touring inside Colombia, is that happening? It’s not. This is how superficial our relationship is with oral traditions. I have stories of bad managers that take advantage of the musical elders; they go there, they record them, they put a record out but the elders have no perspective that they’re making this amount of money with their songs. And there has not been a space in music to talk about it, like an interview. So with that article, I realised people in Colombia know nothing about Bullerengue. The article had spelled it “Bullarengue”. It was maybe a printing mistake, but any journalist in Colombia should know that it’s “Bullerengue”, so that’s evidence of the lack of knowledge that we have of Afro-Colombian music, and in general, oral traditions like indigenous music or all those music styles that we have in the five different regions that my country has.

For the podcast, we’re going to interview three women: Pabla Flóres González, Keila Regina Miranda Pérez, and Inés Granja. Pabla Flóres sings Bullerengue, which is like the blues — that sorrowful kind of music style. Pabla is from a small town called María La Baja. She’s not only a great vocalist and great composer, but she has a school with teenagers where she’s teaching and sharing the ancestral knowledge she has of Bullerengue, because she’s daughter of a great Bullerenguera — it’s a legacy, so it’s an honor to interview her.

The next one is Keila Regina Miranda Perez, the lead singer of a band called Kombilesa Mi. They live in San Basilio de Palenque, the first free town in the Americas. The band actually went to Lincoln Center last year to play. You know, like they have in that the attention and people are like, you know, you’re going to be the next thing, which I believe they are. They have their own language, which is a mix of Spanish, French, Portuguese, a couple of the African languages. It was important to share with our audiences, not only the stereotype Afro-Colombian women that play only oral traditions, but to show other different sides and different perspectives of that experience as a woman in Colombian music industry.

The first two women are from the Caribbean coast, but the last one is Inés Granja, a señora, a matrona, from Timbiquí on the Pacific coast, playing another music style with marimba called Currulao. She’s also multifaceted: she’s not only a singer and a songwriter, but she’s a community leader. She’s teaching kids and passing on the oral heritage. So these three interviews are going to be the first season of the podcast.

Nyokabi: And you’re going to be approaching the interviews from three perspectives: music, body, and territory. What do these perspectives mean individually and where do they intersect?

Daniela: We do the interviews in that order, where the first group of questions are based around music: how did you grow up with music? How do you think, how do you compose as a musician, as an artist? Then, we go through ‘body’, asking them, ‘what is your totona power? Can you flirt with yourself?’ This idea of self love is so important for us as feminists in the podcast. The ‘body’ part also addresses the question of ‘how do you see the future of young girls in your community? Do they have challenges or obstacles and how do they pass through how they get over those challenges?’

Then last is territory, where we speak about the role in their communities and why it’s important to embrace our territories. They talk about identity; there is no culture without territory. And then, in our country, violence is still alive in those small, rural communities. So that’s when we start to talk about, ‘have you been affected by the conflict?’ Because there’s something in Colombia with oral traditional music: people romanticise the music, and that creates a smoke curtain that doesn’t let you see how the territory and community is affected by the war conflict — the black and indigenous communities in this country are the most affected. It’s not enough just to enjoy the music, it’s important to have this space to talk about what happens. They need to talk, they need to have the microphone and people need to just listen because that’s what’s missing from our industry.

“It’s not enough just to enjoy the music, it’s important to have this space to talk about what happens. They need to talk, they need to have the microphone and people need to just listen because that’s what’s missing from our industry.”

For example, Pabla Flóres told us that one day her neighbor was killed — it’s just there, in front of you. But also, something interesting with Keila Pérez, was when we sent her the questions, she actually sent me a sad face to the conflict questions. That’s completely understandable. It’s a different perspective, she doesn’t need to talk about it. We can focus on Palenque or Lengua Palenquera instead. It’s just the fact that she can share with the rest of her community her totona power. As women, we need to fight for our right for spaces in music, but we need to fight for all of us. We need intersectionality.

Nyokabi: You mentioned your partner in this project is Estefania Villa Diaz, who is a sociologist & cultural manager. How does her perspective as a sociologist inform the podcast?

Daniela: It’s a great combination because I have my experience as an artist, but she’s the one that is great at organizing the ideas. She’s from Bogotá, and she did research on the Pacific coast, for about 10 years (kind of like I did on the Caribbean coast). We share experience of oppression as women, but as a black woman, she has experienced discrimination of race and discrimination of gender. Estefania’s experience has helped me to understand the deeper relevance of why it’s so important for their communities to stand together as an act of resistance. When you understand the roots of Bullerengue, it was the resistance of the enslaved; it was the only space they had to express their feelings and it’s so strong that centuries later, we still have that music and we still celebrate that music.

It’s beautiful to have her on the podcast, she drives me because this is my passion and it’s her passion too. It’s the thing with women that if we put our strengths together, it’s going to have a bigger effect. We learn from each other.

LADAMA performing at {insert name}. Credit
LADAMA in Athens, Ohio | Photo by Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage

“It’s the thing with women that if we put our strengths together, it’s going to have a bigger effect. We learn from each other.”

Nyokabi: And who do you want to this podcast to reach?

Daniela: We have three kinds of audiences. The first one is people in music business, not only artists, but managers, journalists, all the people in the music ecosystem. And not only women, but everyone. Men should have conscious awareness of these issues too. Not only artists, but storytellers, managers, journalists, all the people in the music ecosystem. The second audience is, is of course, everyone that listens to music in Colombia, even if you listen to hip hop or electronic or punk. We would love for them to be interested in our content. And thirdly, we want to reach feminists, not only in the music industry, but all the feminist collectives that are fighting for legal rights, such as abortion, street harassment and other things that are going on right now. We want to be a reference of music and feminism, because there are some other podcasts on music, but what we have done is set the bar of that perspective of music, body and territory.

Nyokabi: In addition to the episodes being a feminist space for conversation, in the behind the scenes, you announced an open call for women-identifying producers to be a part of the process. Can you talk about the open call and what the winners’ contributions will be?

Daniela: To include the ‘territory’ aspect has been kind of interesting because the first stage of the project, is an open call for Colombian women to create sonic landscapes. You don’t need to be a producer — if you, as a woman, feel the call of using yourself on and record what’s in your surrounding space, apply. It’s been successful, we’re reaching more people. We will choose the three of our favorite landscapes, and the winners will create new landscapes using audio from where the interviewees are from — María La Baja, Timbiquí, etc. That will be used to complement the podcast episodes, to help audiences to travel to that place, and reflect what we talk about with the territories.

Nyokabi: I love the idea of travelling to places through sound. Which brings me to OneBeat, where you met and made music with 24 other musicians from all over the world. What are some of the things that stick with you from your time as a OneBeat Fellow — obviously your band LADAMA, but let’s start with other things that stick with you from that experience.

Daniela: Everything, every single little thing was precious. The opportunity, the adrenalin of creativity. I’m a percussionist, so I’m that one fellow at OneBeat that everyone is like, can you play with me for this song? [laughs]. The cultural exchange opportunity. My english back in 2014 was good, but it wasn’t as good at it as it is right now, so that’s also something that I appreciate a lot.

Daniela at OneBeat 2014, Mariachi Plaza, Los Angeles | Photo by Hannah Devereux

We had a really good tour. We were first in Montalvo, beautiful woods. Then San Francisco, and my first show was in LA, and I got to see the Hollywood sign. Then we went to the Grand Canyon. Then we went to Arizona too, in an experimental town called Arcosanti — I’d love to come back to that place because he was beautiful. It was a desert. At night, seeing the sky with the stars, that was a pretty special place to be with people from everywhere in the world. And at the end, we went to New Mexico to Albuquerque. The closing show was in Railyards, an abandoned train station. and it had visual artists doing different performances, and our group doing performances. It was a huge crowd. Being in Albuquerque, was a great ending to help me see the Latinx side of the United States. New Mexico was like Mexico! The food, the landscape. Each state has different ways to communicate, and I would say New Mexico was kind, the people were kind.

Nyokabi: And how did LADAMA start at OneBeat? Were the four of you just like, ‘oh, we should start a band’?

Daniela: In Montalvo, Mafer Bandola and I were talking on Facebook late at night, like, ‘I wanna see you, now.’ So we went to the common area, and immediately, we were friends. We started writing songs together, because that’s natural at OneBeat. Sara Lucas was quite interested in all of us, and she wanted to learn Spanish, so one day, Sara, Mafer and I started to write a song. Sara didn’t speak Spanish, Mafer didn’t speak English. So I was the bridge. There was a full moon and Mafer, who’s also a poet, started to talk about the moon: ‘la luna es mi hombro’, (‘the moon is my shoulder’) — basically the idea that as a women, solitude could be beautiful and positive. That’s the first song we did together. And that became part of the first record called, Confesión (Confession).

Mafer is this force of activism. She had lived in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and in her neighbourhood, Cruz Blanca, teen pregnancies are quite common. So she had the vision that, if those girls get to see us playing our instruments, we can impact their lives. Me, Lara Klaus, and Sara all agreed with her that that issue also needed to be addressed in all of our countries (Colombia, Brazil, and the United States). So we didn’t even talk about having a band at first, we actually talked about giving free concerts and free workshops in those communities. At the end of the tour, we were on the bus with Mafer talking about the name of the project. We tried putting the first two letters of our names together: DA-MA-LA, MA-LA-DA, then LA-DA-MA — we screamed at LADAMA (la dama, ‘the lady’). And that’s how we began.

Nyokabi: Hearing about the formation of LADAMA, and about your ‘Totona Power’ projects, it seems that you are a natural at forming strong support networks with the women around you. Do you have any advice for other women in the industry on how to start and maintain similar communities or collectives with each other?

Daniela: First, Thank you! From the podcast, I’ve learned that it’s important to have different perspectives, different professionals, not only musicians, but trying to get a partnership with women that are from another profession. Of course you have to have something in common, a shared interest, but keep creating partnerships with the women in your environment — photographers, videographers, etc. Keep making those partnerships, I think that’s important.

Also, having more love amongst ourselves. One of the things that I learned from feminism is to fall in love with women in the best way. I admire every single woman that I meet; all of us have something to offer, truly. Activate that chip of loving other women, and try to create something with them.

I’ve also learned a lot from Mafer (from LADAMA). She’s really a visionary, she is always sure of everything that has happened to us — she’s not going to be like, ‘Oh, this is surprising’. She says, ‘I knew. This is what we deserve.’ You have to allow yourself to dream of bigger ideas.

“One of the things I learned from feminism is to fall in love with women in the best way.”

Nyokabi: I like what you’re saying, allow yourself to have those dreams, you deserve to be in those spaces. As a woman in the industry myself, I’m more than familiar with imposter syndrome, where you feel like you’re not worth certain opportunities or you feel like you’re not as good.

Daniela: What you said, ‘being worthy’, yes. I think it’s important to reflect on why that happened to us as women, even if we’re from different countries, is the same reason, no? Is that the structure and society and patriarchy has educated us so well to not see opportunity that we should have.

Nyokabi: Very true. And, while your podcast is in Spanish, will you potentially be releasing transcripts in English and other languages at some point as well? And when does it come out?

Daniela: Actually, because of OneBeat, I want to share a little bit of the content of what these women are saying, like at least one episode or one mixtape of what each of them said and put it together in a video with English subtitles. October 15th is the starting point to release the first chapter on our platforms. And afterwards, we’ll release the chapters probably every two weeks or three.

Listen to the first chapter of Totona Power Podcast on Spotify and Apple Music!

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in collaboration with the groundbreaking New York-based music organization Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation that employs collaborative original music as a potent new form of cultural diplomacy.

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Found Sound Nation is a collective that designs collaborative music projects. www.foundsoundnation.org

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Found Sound Nation is a collective that designs collaborative music projects. www.foundsoundnation.org

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