Summer 2022 / Portrait

The Fifth Element

by William Costa

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tuning in to the sound of change in Paraguay, where Guaraní hip-hop is rising.

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The late-morning sun pushes the temperature toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit as a drumbeat begins to shake the brightly painted walls and corrugated metal ceiling of the Santa Rosa Community Workshop. Moments later, the children sitting in a circle on the concrete floor are rocking their bodies to the rhythm. 

A young girl with a ponytail takes a deep breath and ecstatically proclaims, in Spanish, “I’m Milena, I’m from around here, and I like to rap!” in near-perfect time to the classic hip-hop beat. A loud cheer goes up from the rest of the smiling kids, ages 7 to 14. 

The smiles are mirrored on the face of the instructor standing in the middle of the circle. Miguel Ávalos, known by his stage name, Tekovete, is dressed in his trademark baggy green T-shirt, black jeans, and khaki bucket hat. 

He and the two other artists leading the session — a graffitist and a break-dancer — offer the children words of encouragement during this workshop on the elements of hip-hop culture. Three of the four artistic components — MCing, break dancing, and graffiti — are on the agenda today in the Santa Ana neighborhood of Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. Only DJing is absent.

“It’s important for you to feel like you’re with your family when you make hip-hop,” the 30-year-old MC says between cheers, as several more kids, dressed in brightly colored shorts and flip-flops, let rip with their names and favorite activities. “Try to express yourselves, to be free.”

What comes next is something that would have been almost unheard of even a few years ago.

“Does anyone want to rap in Guaraní?” Tekovete calls out. “Who understands Guaraní?” 

A shout goes up from the kids. More than a few of them in this impoverished neighborhood clearly know Guaraní, which originated with the Guaraní Indigenous peoples of the region. Along with Spanish, it’s an official language of Paraguay.

Yet while Spanish is the language of power — education, media, cultural industries — Guaraní has long been excluded from these areas. Instead, it’s been historically associated with rural and poor places, stigmatized and stereotyped as a language of orality, informality, and lack of education. 

In Paraguay, economic and social divisions often coincide with linguistic ones.

~~

“The spoken word is sacred for the Guaraní Indigenous peoples, and we have part of them in us.”

On a bright Saturday morning, I flag one of the aged, brightly painted buses that serve Asunción and its surrounding towns. “Ypané” appears on the front of the vehicle in large letters — Tekovete’s hometown, 17 miles from the capital. 

Sitting with the window open, I connect my headphones and listen to Tekovete’s new album, Aratiri (Lightning). His slogan, with which he leads most songs, rings out:

 

Hip Hop nde apysakuápe ha ne akãmbytépe

Hip Hop che rekove hetia’e pende apytépe.

 

(Hip-hop right in your ears and deep in your head, 

Hip-hop, my life is renewed with you all.) 


The album fuses classic hip-hop beats with intentional glitches. It’s full of texture and has a rough, artisanal feel. Driving sub-bass forms the foundation upon which Tekovete’s deep voice rhymes sharply defined syllables. His vocals have a real sense of urgency. They’re aggressive, yet at times melancholy — a quality accentuated by the heavy use of samples from old recordings of Paraguayan folk music. 

In Guaraní, Tekovete means something along the lines of “Life in All Its Fullness.” Today, the man who goes by that name is at the forefront of a cultural movement in Paraguay — one that’s making waves by producing influential hip-hop in this language of Indigenous origin. Aratiri, released at the end of 2021, has surged on Spotify — no small feat, given the dominance of Spanish-language music here.

 

 

I feel a vibration in my pocket as I receive a call from linguist Miguel Verón, of the Guaraní Language Academy. For years Verón has been studying the decline of Guaraní, which he says is “losing spaces. There’s an accelerated process of substitution of Guaraní by Spanish.”

It wasn’t always this way, he says. Centuries of “language loyalty” — pride in and preference for one language that’s threatened by another — coupled with Paraguay’s relative geographical, cultural, and economic isolation kept Guaraní strong. In fact, Spanish was barely spoken when the country gained its independence, in 1811.

Fast-forward 200 years, and the situation has changed radically. From 2012 to 2020, according to the Paraguayan National Statistics Institute, the number of Paraguayan homes in which both Guaraní and Spanish were used dropped from 46.3% to 34.4%. That coincided with a rise in the number of households using only Spanish, from 15.2% to 28.1%. Use of Guaraní alone remained at roughly 34% during this period.

In central Asunción today, many people speak almost no Guaraní. Only a few words are sprinkled into their Spanish, such as gua’u (“apparently”), jaha (“let’s go”), and ñembotavy (“one who pretends not to know something”). 

As the bus emerges from the city’s sprawl, however, and riders from smaller towns come aboard, I begin to hear more of Guaraní’s nasal vowels. The language likely was spoken even more often along this route in previous times — especially before the road to Ypané was paved, in 2008.

“The majority of parents who are bilingual in Guaraní and Spanish only speak to their children in Spanish,” says Verón, “the result of a linguistic ideology of Spanish unilingualism based on racist ideologies built around Guaraní.”

The stigmatization of Guaraní as a backward tongue solidified during the 35-year authoritarian dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. For much of his reign, from 1954 to 1989, the language was outlawed from the education system, and teachers used corporal punishment to keep kids from speaking it. 

“So much persecution, so many people who suffered for not speaking Spanish,” says Verón. “People my father’s age were hit for speaking Guaraní, and they didn’t know how to speak Spanish.” 

The state passed a law in 2010 to guarantee equal representation of Guaraní and Spanish in official institutions, but that hasn’t happened. Most government documents are still only produced in Spanish, and many public services continue to operate only in Spanish. 

“What newspapers in Paraguay publish in Guaraní?” asks Verón. “Where are the novels in Guaraní? I want to read the history of Paraguay in Guaraní; I can’t. I want to read the history of Guaraní in Guaraní; I can’t.”

In this light, the production of new music in Guaraní and the education of a future generation of Guaraní-speaking rappers feels like an act of resistance. 

~~

Back at the community center, I watch Tekovete crouch slightly and start using his hands to follow a rhythm, just as I’ve seen him do onstage. 

He starts rapping lines from his hit song “Haupéicha” (“And That’s How”). The percussive sounds of the strongly delivered Guaraní syllables fill the sonic space. 

My mind automatically inserts the string samples from traditional Paraguayan music that I’ve heard so often in the song’s recorded version: 


Añe’ẽta ñane retã paraguáipe oikóva.

Sa’i ñai la jaikóa jaikatuháicha,

Ha heta oĩ la omondáva oiko haguã la oikose lája.

Mboriahu mboriahúndi ojejukapáta ha umi ipirapiréva atu opuka,

oñembosarái ñande rehe.

 

(“I’m going to speak about what’s happening in our Paraguay. 

A few of us live within our means,

While so many steal so they can live with plenty.

Poor people kill other poor people while the rich laugh. 

They play games with us.”)

 

The socially charged lyrics hit hard here in Santa Ana, one of Asunción’s poorest neighborhoods, racked by drugs and gangs. The children listen, transfixed, while some of the adults in the hall nod in knowing approval. 

Looking out through the hall’s open door onto the dusty, unpaved street, I can’t help but think back to a previous, chillier visit.

~~

In the winter of 2019, I pulled on a sweatshirt as a fisherman ferried me through the deep, murky waters that filled these streets. 

The Paraguay River had flooded, and I was in Santa Ana to report on the deluge. Only a few, determined residents remained, waiting out the water on the second stories or roofs of their homes. Guaraní folk music blared through a handful of dry speakers. As we floated past, the roof-bound residents greeted the good-humored oarsman merrily, their speech peppered with the whoops of laughter that often appear rhythmically in the Amerindian language. 

Santa Ana forms part of Asunción’s Bañados, a series of impoverished neighborhoods built on low-lying land alongside the Paraguay River. The river’s cyclical floods — now being intensified by climate change — periodically force Bañados residents to relocate to precarious, improvised shelters in Asunción’s public squares. There they often face strong discrimination from the wealthier residents of the city. 

Back at the Santa Rosa Community Workshop, a faded, poster-size picture of Santa Rosa de Lima — a saint known for caring for the poor — now hangs above the door. It’s a fitting image for the center, whose walls are peeling and yard is overgrown. As the country’s health system crumbled during the pandemic and several high-profile corruption cases engulfed the government, Paraguay’s poorest suffered the most. Cultural activities at the community center ceased as the site became one of the countless ollas populares — communally run and funded kitchens — that sprang up across the country. 

“So many families were coming here to eat,” says Antonio “Pantu” González, a local musician in his 20s. 

(Alongside the hip-hoppers, he’s trying to breathe life back into the cultural center; he’ll be giving a batucada — a substyle of samba — drumming workshop to the same children a bit later.) 

In marginalized Santa Ana, the sound of defiance and empowerment is music. 

~~

Four-and-a-half thousand miles away in New York City, Curtis Sherrod, a first-generation hip-hopper from the Bronx, says he sees similarities between the movement he helped ignite and the rise of Tekovete and other Guaraní-speaking artists. 

“It wasn’t the aristocrats that made [hip-hop],” he says. “It wasn’t the white-collar people who made it. It wasn’t the royal class who made it. It was the have-nots who made it. It was the underserved who made it. And I guess that’s what’s going on right now in [Paraguay].”

Speaking on the phone, Sherrod is telling me about the transformative power and global reach of rap music. And he should know: Sherrod grew up around Kool Herc, the DJ credited with creating hip-hop music in the 1970s — a time when New York City’s African American and Caribbean American communities began to revolutionize music by sewing beats together through sampled records, and early hip-hop DJs such as Grandmaster Flash filled their lyrics with unflinching, street-level social commentary.

A charismatic and passionate speaker, Sherrod was an MC in the early rap group Nice & Nasty 3. In the decades since, he’s organized countless events through his Hip Hop Culture Center in Harlem. (The building itself recently closed, but the center continues to coordinate activities.)

Hip-hop, he explains, has always been entwined with resistance and revindication, and can serve as a tool for empowering marginalized communities. MCing is an artistic means of repurposing violent and oppressive experiences — “Every weapon that can be made to smite you … can become your biggest asset,” he says — and has the potential to preserve and strengthen cultures and identities, including dialects and languages.

As hip-hop has spread across the world, thanks to globalization and the internet, it’s been used as a megaphone by marginalized linguistic groups. In Cyprus, hip-hop has been produced in a stigmatized dialect of Greek. In Hungary, Romani people have created commercially successful rap in their own language. Across the Americas, hip-hop exists in many Indigenous languages, including Nahuatl, Mapudungun, and Quechua. 

From the Bronx to the Bañados, hip-hop beats and rhymes are far more than musical elements, says Sherrod. They’re both a lifeline and an amplifier for embattled cultures, identities, and languages.

~~

Back at the Santa Ana workshop, the sessions transition from rapping to breakdancing and eventually to snack time. Tekovete and several kids, seated around a long table, start to pound their fists and tap their spoons, making a ramshackle beat. Then they begin, once again, to rap in Guaraní. 

Through them, the often difficult — and sometimes hopeful — experiences and testimonies of the neighborhood come to life, expressed in the same melodic language heard on these streets.

~~

A little while later, Mabel Candia pours chocolate milk for the children. 

The kind-eyed, bespectacled social worker is a member of Casa Fem, the feminist organization that organized the workshop. She praises Tekovete and the other hip-hoppers’ sense of social commitment. 

“I’ve worked with different groups, with different people, but [the hip-hoppers] are just amazing,” she says. “They see this [opportunity to work with children] as a solution, an escape from the violence that people live on the streets.” 

What’s more, she says the children are using the same language they use in their daily lives. “That’s why we looked for people that speak and sing in Guaraní,” she says. “That’s why we chose to work with Tekovete.” 

Later we head to Casa Fem’s home base in downtown Asunción. On a low wall that borders the lawn, rough graffiti reading “Hip-Hop” sits next to the Guaraní words Mbarete (“strong”) and Moõ pio (“where”). Murals created by Noemí Ortega, a graffiti artist and Tekovete’s girlfriend, decorate the back wall of the building. One image is especially attention-grabbing: The rounded belly of a pregnant Indigenous woman forms part of a hilly landscape under a blue sky.

Paraguay’s Indigenous peoples and the enormous cultural wealth they preserve — rituals, knowledge of medicinal plants, and entire cosmovisions, among so many other things — are a major element in her work. They also appear regularly in Tekovete’s music, though he himself is not Indigenous Guaraní. 

Ortega says that her relationships with Guaraní people have prompted her and Tekovete to consider the heavy influence of Spanish in the “Paraguayan Guaraní” spoken by the country’s non-Indigenous population. In conversation, Guaraní is often mixed heavily with the European language — an amalgamation referred to as Jopara, or “mix” in Guaraní.

“I realized that our Guaraní has been so colonized,” Ortega says. She adds that her Indigenous friends and colleagues tell her, “You don’t speak Guaraní; you speak Paraguayan.”

“I want to read the history of Paraguay in Guaraní; I can’t. I want to read the history of Guaraní in Guaraní; I can’t.”

Reflecting on the hundreds of years of colonialism, violence, and discrimination the Guaraní peoples and their languages have suffered, Ortega says, “Guaraní is a symbol of resistance. It makes us feel part of something, makes us feel connected. I think it’s like that for the majority of Paraguayans, even today. Speaking to someone in Guaraní is not the same as speaking to them in Spanish. Spanish is still a foreign tongue for us — a language that we don’t entirely understand.” 

~~

I get off the bus in front of a big new supermarket in Ypané — y in Guaraní is pronounced like the guttural u in “put” — where I’ve arranged to meet Tekovete. He’s waiting with his motorcycle. After a warm handshake, we’re off along the cobbled streets.

We dodge potholes as we pass a neighborhood soccer game. Over his shoulder, Tekovete tells me about growing up in this neighborhood, where he still lives. 

“I had an amazing childhood,” he says. “We’d go in and run in that scrubland. There were lizards, monkeys, snakes … trees, mandarins, fruits, sugar cane, guava, mango — all of that. ” 

I can’t help thinking of his song “Aguyje” (“Thank You”):


Aguyje cada ko’e, añanduvove che ropepi oku’e

Por el sol que está yvate

El canto de los pájaros un nuevo amanecer

En el ñanandykua que me vio crecer

Heta mba’e ko’ápe ojehasa va’ekue

Desde que era mitã’i ha ko’ag̃aitepeve 

Superando las etapas que me toca vivir

Sangre de mi tierra guaraní

 

(I’m thankful every morning when I feel my eyelids move

For the sun up above

The birdsong, a new dawn

The scrubland where I grew up

Many things happened here

From when I was a kid right up until now

Making it through the stages that I’ve got to live

Blood of my Guaraní earth.)


We pull off a dirt road and arrive at the house Tekovete shares with Ortega. It sits on a tranquil plot just around the corner from his mother’s house and the small neighborhood store she runs out of it. 

Tekovete and Ortega have been building their single-story home little by little, as finances permit — a common process in Paraguay. Through the open front door, I see that newly plastered interiors are slowly being decorated. Verdant plants grow profusely near the front door.

Tekovete explains that years of steady work at his day job for a plastics company have allowed him to own his own home. Though he hopes to one day live from just the profits of his music, he recognizes that this is improbable in Paraguay.

We sit down in the shade of a tree in the spacious front yard, where the late-morning rays make their way through the foliage. Johnny Cutz, Tekovete’s friend and producer, pumps out eclectic music — jazz, rock, Paraguayan folk — through an open front window. 

Accessing hip-hop wasn’t easy when he grew up here, Tekovete says. “I didn’t know that any of it existed. There wasn’t anything here in Ypané, and my whole life was here. And then the internet came, and we could download songs, access information, see things.” 

Tekovete, like hip-hoppers the world over, emphasizes the search for an authentic, local approach to this truly global music, which erupted in Paraguay through the same phenomena — the Internet, cell phones, paved roads — that drive accelerating globalization in places like Ypané.

“[Many Paraguayan artists] don’t show our reality, our culture, struggles from our history, our music, our society,” Tekovete says, as he drinks a tereré, the ice-cold yerba-mate infusion that’s ubiquitous across Paraguay. “That’s the first point: It should be ours and authentic.” 

Sherrod too emphasized the importance of authenticity and self-knowledge. “You gotta find out in the universe who you are and what your particular universe is telling you, and then how to act accordingly. That’s the center of hip-hop right there,” he said. 

The awareness of one’s community, history, and roots, he added, is hip-hop’s fifth element.

The search for authenticity led Tekovete to José Asunción Flores, creator of the Guarania, an important musical style from the early 20th century. Asunción Flores, from a Bañados neighborhood himself, liked to say that his music captured the essence of Paraguay and its people. 

The influence of that genre — alongside the Paraguayan polka — is strong in the samples Johnny Cutz and Tekovete use in their music: Crackling recordings of violin melodies and old piano arpeggios accent the modern drums and vocals. 

Tekovete says that the Guaraní language has been equally key in this search for Paraguayan identity. 

Johnny Cutz, calm and contemplative in a blue Hawaiian shirt, agrees. “I’m grateful … to my grandmother for speaking to me only in Guaraní. I have friends who are sad to have grown up without Guaraní.”

Now the music he produces is making the language accessible to more people. Regular freestyle rap events in public squares are filled with young hip-hoppers employing some of their sharpest lines in the language. 

Guaraní hip-hop is flourishing elsewhere in South America too, notably among members of Guaraní-speaking Indigenous peoples in both Brazil and Argentina. Tekovete says he can’t wait to see a hip-hop movement in Paraguay led by Indigenous Guaraní.

Sitting in the shade of the tree under which he penned “Haupéicha,” Tekovete points toward the flowering plants in his yard. “Look, a hummingbird — mainumby. There it is. Some Indigenous peoples call it mainu’i. For them it’s the representation of god on Earth. The spoken word is sacred for the Guaraní Indigenous peoples, and we have part of them in us.”

~~

Back in central Asunción a month later, I’m sitting on a high stool at a concert venue called The Jam. I’ve arrived punctually — perhaps a mistake, as events here tend to get going at their own pace. 

Twenty minutes later, Tekovete and a large entourage arrive. He’s clearly geared up for this show, and when we speak, he reflects on his journey as a performer. 

“When I first started rapping [in Guaraní], it was weird,” he says. “Sometimes people just looked at me. I thought they didn’t like it because they just stared at me. Now people shout and go wild because they understand more Guaraní too. They know how to rap tunes in Guaraní — it’s crazy!”

Adri Rolón, an agronomy student who grew up around Asunción, sips beer as Maniatic, an MC and a producer, puts on hip-hop tracks for the waiting crowd. Rolón says she wasn’t taught Guaraní as a child, so she has only a limited knowledge of the language.

“Tekovete makes you identify with your culture — Paraguayan culture,” she says. “If you’re not a Guaraní speaker, he makes you feel an incentive to learn.” 

From the Bronx to the Bañados, hip-hop beats and rhymes are far more than musical elements … They’re both a lifeline and an amplifier.

Just then figures from the Paraguayan hip-hop scene pour onto the stage: Johnny Cutz stands alongside Maniatic at the decks, prolific MC Novique takes a microphone, three break-dancers from the Locotest Crew twirl, and graffiti artist Juan Kazhe begins to paint a mural of the word Aratiri, the album’s title. 

Tekovete enters the stage to loud cheers and whistles, adopting the half-squat and smooth movements that characterize his performances. He’s wearing a sombrero piri, or wide-brimmed straw hat used by agricultural workers in rural Paraguay — here a symbol that hip-hop’s fifth element, knowledge of self and community, has taken its place alongside the four already onstage. 

For several moments the beat — punctuated with bits of José Asunción Flores’s Guarania — floods the venue, and the crowd pushes forward in anticipation. The stage is a riot of movement. Then, right in the heart of Asunción — the center of Paraguayan power and decision-making that has excluded Guaraní speakers and their voices for so long — Tekovete fires out his familiar lines: 


Hip Hop nde apysakuápe ha ne akãmbytépe

Hip Hop che rekove hetia’e pende apytépe.


(
Hip-hop right in your ears and deep in your head, 

Hip-hop, my life is renewed with you all.) 


And the crowd raps along with him — without missing a beat.

 

Guaraní-Spanish song translation: Gabriel Villalba and Mirna Robles.
Cover image: JHG / Alamy.

William Costa

William Costa is a freelance journalist based in Asunción, Paraguay. His aim is to continue bringing underreported stories to international audiences through journalism that is thorough and respectful.

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