Bullerengue singer, Nelda Piña, is one of the women who have contributed to the transcendence of folk music. Her 30 year long career proves it is possible to keep the tradition and be part of the new music wave. She belongs to two musical groups “Nelda Piña y sus Tambores” where she sings bullerengue and cumbia and “Nelda Piña y la Boa” which mixes traditional music and other rhythms. She says her biggest dream is to create a seedbed for young people and children from Gamero (Bolívar) who are interested in music.
Nelda Piña was born in Gamero (Bolívar) in 1947. She has been in the music industry since she was 40, but at 14 she started working as a nanny in Cartagena, Santa Marta and Barranquilla in order to support her seven siblings since she was the oldest. Her parents were farmers: “we worked with rice and we were paid something. I don´t feel ashamed, it makes me proud, because university of life gives you many difficulties but it also teaches you how to defend yourself”.
As other traditional or folk singers, Nelda didn’t expect to make a living out of music, nor did she dreamed of being in festivals, but at the age 17 she got the first comment about her singing when she was working as a maid in a Santa Marta hotel where an orchestra was staying. The hotel manager came to her and told her she could dedicate to music: “Mrs. Carmen told me: I’ve heard you humming in the rooms while you’re cleaning and you have a good voice. If you want, I can talk to the director so you go with him and learn to sing and make money, you fool. I took that as a joke because I’m a farmer and we didn’t even have energy in my town. I didn’t take it seriously, I laughed and told her: no, niña Carmen, I can’t sing”.
Music has been part of her culture since she was a child and she would listen to bullerengue groups. Nelda says maybe traditional music is in her veins, because her mother was the niece of folk singer Irene Martínez, who’s also from Gamero. 20 years later, the comment she received that had gotten stuck in her head and her contact with folk singers from her town made her show singer Emilia Herrera’s sister some lyrics she had written for “La Niña Emilia”. Although she didn’t accept them because she only sang songs she composed or already knew since she never learned to read or write, her manager found Nelda’s voice interesting and asked her to dedicate to music.
That was how her music journey started, with some fear, she says, because of her lack of experience. She created the band “Nelda Piña y sus Tambores” with the musicians form Irene Martínez group. Nelda made her first public performance in Santa Rosa de Bolívar, after that, she was hired to perform in political meetings, which led her to be known in local media. She then recorded an 8 songs LP with “señor Felito” and 14 other bullerengue, cumbia and vallenato songs.
Her musical career was getting better when she suddenly had to stop after splitting with her husband after 28 years of marriage. She decided to provide for her children through other jobs: “I said, I have to put music on a side, and I’m going to fight for my children, which was really hard since I didn’t have the economic sustainability to help my oldest son who was studying at Universidad del Norte”.
Nelda Piña y la Boa
After raising her children, Nelda had kept on performing, but not in a regular basis. It was her connection with a band named “La Boa” which made her get back to music. One day, Luis Carlos, a young man, came to her house and asked her to travel to Bogotá to perform in a concert and music workshops: “you know how those cachacos dare to research no matter if they don’t have any money. He came to Gamero and started asking who sang and people would mention me”. Luis Carlos took care of tickets and hotel arrangements so she could go to Fusagasugá with Petrona Martínez drummer and got her in contact with La Boa’s percussionist. They were fascinated by her and decided to create “Nelda Piña y La Boa”.
It’s been 3 years since she’s been with the band which is formed by 10 musicians who mix champeta, rock, jazz, cumbia among other genres. Nelda says she enjoys being in a band with so many different sounds than the ones she was used to and with people younger than her, “when they ask me how I put up with those young people I say, ask them How they put up with me”.
Working in the music industry is a matter of persistence. Nelda says the profits are not a lot, due to the high costs of recording but they are enough to pay for trips arrangements. She has been to Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Mexico and she will perform this next months in Spain, Germany, Italy and France.
At 70 years old, Nelda Piña suffers from a serious illness that she says is forgotten when she’s on stage while she keeps a great smile. She seems shy, but as anyone from the Caribbean Region she likes to talk and thinks of her as someone with a humble heart but a strong personality, which comes out when she’s on stage.