Music Is Culture

Before leaving for Paraguay a friend who’s had some experience working abroad told me that I’d miss things I didn’t even like when I was in the States.

I was doubtful.

She was right.

For me, the thing is music. During my first few months I missed rap music. I had fewer than 20 rap songs in my music library before Paraguay. That’s changed, but I still wouldn’t call rap my jam. My longing for rap foreshadowed my realization that music is a huge part of my identity, which I wasn’t aware of before the music I’m used to wasn’t the norm anymore. I didn’t think much about music in the States. Ask my sister. She was not impressed to discover that after 4 years of college and then some I added maybe 30 songs to my iTunes from when I set it up at the end of high school until I hurried to get more music to bring to Paraguay.

In Paraguay, the most common music listened to is: bachata piru, polka, and cumbia. Also, some younger people and people who think they’re hip listen to raggeaton and a random selection of US pop songs. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that my generation and younger also listen to a lot of romantic music, Latin pop might be the genre, and some US rock. There’s also a Bob Marley following.

To put it another way, the diversity of music listened to in the US is not reflected in Paraguay. I’m sure you can find people listening to just about any group somewhere in Paraguay, but the simple fact is that what’s blasting at 4 o’clock in the morning or 7 p.m. on Sundays is bachata piru, polka, or cumbia.

For me, music is something you listen to while doing something else—unless you are playing an instrument or singing. I have playlists for cooking and cleaning, for writing, for lesson planning, and for exercising. Each activity requires a different mix of music and depending on how I feel that day I might need a new list. I can’t listen to the same song on repeat and there are very few songs that I’d like to hear more than once a day. Also, I like to have times of silence.

In Paraguay, listening to music is an activity. So much so, that people will say, “let’s listen to music.” They will then turn their stereos up way louder than I would, sit down, and proceed to listen to music. They might drink terere while listening to the music. There is one variation on this. For some Paraguayans, music is something you listen to from the moment you get up until the moment you go to bed. What this means is that you have loud music from the crack of dawn, Paraguayans get amazingly early every day, until bedtime.

I never thought music would be where I feel the most conflict integrating in Paraguay, but it is. I didn’t realize how music influenced my mood. Nor would I have thought that listening to bachata piru, polka, and cumbia would make me feel more out of place than the stares I get when I walk down the street sticking out like a sore thumb because of my clothes, the way I walk, my skin color, and the fact that I’m walking alone.

Is there a solution? I swap music with Paraguay youth who like American music. Maybe I’ll bring them and their friends further to the “dark side”…also known as US rock, pop, rap, R&B, and alternative. I put on a smile when I have to listen to cumbia all day and then go home and put on some Martin Sexton, Paul Simon, or Bruce Springsteen—not just because I like them, but because they are classics from my childhood. After I listen to a few of my songs I’m ready to go out again, I might even turn off my music and listen to my neighbors’ music for a while.