La Banda de Mi Hogar
artist Humberto Vélez
As a Participant Observer with and in La Banda de Mi Hogar
Humberto Vélez’s La Banda de Mi Hogar is a work of public art and collaboration. Together with the Banda del Hogar’s musicians, majorettes, parents and patrons, who participated in several public performances, the artist managed without pretense to subtly expose Panama’s pervasive local prejudice. While most agree that Panama is a city marked by diverse and competing ethnic and cultural traditions, few manage to challenge the strict hierarchical conventions prescribing what can be shown by whom, when, and where.
The Banda del Hogar is a brass and percussion marching band made up of mostly black musicians and majorettes, of all ages, who are affiliated with the Sánchez family-operated vocational school. Though widely popular and even played on the radio, the Banda del Hogar—as the rest of the numerous marching bands—is only invited to parade publicly once a year on Independence Day. Breaking tradition, Vélez and the band marched numerous times on non-holidays, modeling their homemade uniforms and banners in public squares and on busy streets moving to the vital sounds of their Caribbean-based rhythms, which are so different from the American military style marching bands that are most common in Panama.
After speaking with the artist and viewing video documentation of La Banda de Mi Hogar’s second performance on Bridge of the Americas, the work’s critical potential started to become apparent. Bridge of the Americas was built by the United States to connect two land masses separated by the Panama Canal and it now forms an integral part of the Interamerican Highway connecting North and South America. With no alternative route, drivers and passengers who encountered Vélez’s performance had to wait. Foreigners might have considered the parade to be a mere interruption of automobile traffic, but natives knew this to be an interruption of the rigid cultural norms that predominate in Panama City.
While I often speak to curators and artists about their involvement in an exhibition, Vélez encouraged me to meet the band to get a more informed view of the work. I agreed without knowing that Vélez would telephone Señora Sánchez to ask if I might audition to be a majorette. Admittedly, I was curious and never expected to keep up with these very young marching musical talents, so I showed up for the audition outside Sánchez’s beauty salon to learn a few routines. Expecting my young instructor to laugh at my novice North-of-the-border-moves, I was shocked when a second phone call was made to schedule my costume fitting for the following day. Then Señora Sánchez ordered another rehearsal to prepare me to be “Major Majorette” in La Banda de Mi Hogar‘s final performance on the last day of ciudadMUTLIPLEcity.
After several nights of restless sleep, I awoke early Sunday and took a taxi to the Sánchez’s salon. Suppressing girlish laughs while concentrating on the unprecedented challenge of making me like one of them, the teenage beauty school students/majorettes did my hair and make-up, helped me into a costume and boots several sizes too small, and pinned my white colonial hat with yellow bows and flowers. We boarded a sweltering Red Devil* bus crowded with musicians and headed for the formerly US occupied “Canal Zone.” After the bus and band were spuriously denied access to the scheduled parade site, despite official permits authorizing entry, Vélez and the exhibition organizers decided to move to the central square in San Felipe. Back in the historic area that I had visited on my first day in Panama City, surrounded by the once ornate design of former bank buildings and hotels, alongside Yoan Capote’s trash dumpsters, I concentrated on maneuvering my large tasseled baton in time with the majorette’s hips, and the band master’s horn directing cymbals, tubas, clarinets, and drummers to play their version of Gonna Fly Now, also known as The Rocky Theme.
After days of inspecting ciudadMULTIPLEcity’s art works and sites—each which revealed details about Panama City’s complex identity—as part of the band, I became fully immersed in local culture. My understanding of how this exhibition reformed my engagement with art in the public sphere is dominated by the unusual experience of having set out to view and report on an exhibition of contemporary art (as I have done for more than a decade) and ending up participating in and even becoming part of the work exhibited. Generally I do not take part in art works; I don’t fancy myself a talented performer; and I don’t like to be watched. In the end, Humberto Vélez changed all that. By being in and with La Banda de Mi Hogar I learned more about the place than about the works, an experience which art alone rarely affords a critic.
Cay Sophie Rabinowitz
* The so-called "Red Devils" are the Panamanian public-transport buses, known for their extravagant colors and their speeding.