America is woefully lacking in mythology. That isn’t, arguably, the most pressing issue facing the country - but when compared to all of our southern neighbours, stretching from the top of Mexico down to Cape Horn, our knowledge and awareness of folklore is pitiful. This is a bittersweet reality; if you were suddenly struck with the desire to hike along the paths of your local woodland or mountain, there would be little to fear besides nature itself - although that may include bears, leopards or snakes (perhaps all three…) the thought that you might come across some seven-eyed, fire-breathing, flesh-loving beast probably wouldn’t cross your mind. It could be that the only mythological creature you have heard of is Santa Claus - whether you believe in him or not - and stumbling across Santa Claus would involve much more bliss and magical beauty than death and mutilation. The story is different for the many people of Latin America, where local legend plays a central role in day-to-day living. And where myth comes, music follows. The varied and truly astounding world of mythology that has developed across every village, jungle and nation of Latin America has bred some of the more heartfelt, and at times bizarre, music of the modern world. From the local folklore that passed from family to family over many centuries, songs were inevitably created, sung, and recounted incessantly to children and adults alike: the dangers and wonders of the local environment gain a new meaning when all sorts of creatures and spirits wander the landscape.
The most extraordinary legend I’ve come across has to be that of Pombero. Sometimes known as Karaí Pyhare - ‘Lord of the Night’ - Pombero’s legend extends across Paraguay into parts of Argentina and Brazil, and he is easily recognisable by his penchant for cigars, rum and sometimes wearing a tall, straw sombrero. From that alone I wouldn’t have been very scared at all, however it gets much worse. Pombero is immensely hairy, short and ugly - like a Hobbit in many ways, but not as friendly. He roams the forests, moving in complete silence and living in abandoned houses, stealing eggs, chickens, honey and letting loose penned cattle. He has nastier attributes, which I won’t go into. Suffice to say, Pombero is a pretty strong deterrent for people to go about wandering in the woods. He also has an ardent sympathy for birds, so doesn’t take kindly to children shooting rocks in the air with their slingshots. It’s easy enough to imagine this mythical creature having developed from the Guaraní tribesmen who would rather their kids didn’t go ambling through the woods at night harming birds, and since Pombero’s inception, generations of children and adults alike are wary of his presence. It’s common for grown men and women to leave gifts of rum and tobacco for Pombero so that he will not meddle too much in their lives and may even watch over the valuables of a family; to get on the wrong side of Pombero is considered deeply unlucky and dangerous. So it comes as no surprise that traditional Paraguayan songs about Pombero are nothing out of the ordinary. The Asunción-based rock band Kchiporros, one of the most famous in Paraguay and Latin America, wrote a hugely popular song called ‘Señor Pombero’ which, I’ve been told by various Paraguayan friends, strikes an unexpectedly sincere note with many people. For those who believe in Pombero, it brings recognition and understanding of a creature which they staunchly believe in and are afraid of. And for those who think Pombero is some ridiculous jungle myth - perhaps it makes them think twice about walking alone at night. The lines, “Para calmar las penas / Caña, tabaco y miel / Bajo la luuuna llena / Para calmar las penas / Bajo la luna / Whoo Whoo Whoo Whoo” which translates as “To calm the sorrows / Cane, tobacco and honey / Under the full moon / To calm the sorrows / Under the moon / Whoo Whoo Whoo Whoo” make clear that the tradition of leaving gifts for Pombero is not to be laughed at, because if these believers didn’t leave gifts… who knows if Pombero wouldn’t just go berserk out of anger.
There are dozens of other Gods in Guaraní mythology - Moñái, the God of open fields or Luison, the God of death, for example - and thousands across all other regions of Latin America, all of which have songs written about them - not so many, it seems, are available on iTunes or Spotify. But the number of modern adaptations of traditional myth-song is constantly growing across Latin America and has become something similar to what the United States saw with folk-song in the early 1900s. While the indigineous tribes of North America undoubtedly had their own mythology, gods and traditions, they have all since been scrambled with each other or simply forgotten. This is a tragedy on many levels - far beyond music alone - but a big part of that loss is song itself. Latin Americans have gotten it right, I believe, and continue to prove that mythology is not something to be ridiculed, but cherished and immortalized in music.
Fortunately, Tower Records has Latin American vinyl of all kinds: rock & roll, cumbia, reggaetone, mythical and much more on the website. Check out our favorites Latin albums on TowerRecords.com.