By Jeremiah Reardon
The drummer bangs her sticks together, counting time. Her Las Pioneras del Austro bandmates on brass, wind and percussion instruments join in with a blast! Another musical event for this pioneering girls and women’s band is underway at Cuenca’s Parque San Blas in celebration of the Spanish settlement of Cuenca on Doce de Abril, 1557.
I join in the dancing at the invitation of an indigenous woman. We clap along in rhythm to the beat while taking a few steps forward then back. As many as twenty others of the fifty gathered for the event also dance with their partners. Vendors tucked along one wall clap, too. My spirited partner wears a red skirt with a finely embroidered finish. Her shiny black hair tied in a ponytail sparkles in the sunlight as she dips and twirls. I appreciate this opportunity to experience with her the spell cast on the crowd by Las Pioneras. Our dance ends only after ten rousing minutes of whoops and cheers in response to the varying tempo of the music.
My friend Steve Waxmann wearing a Panama hat is also on the dance floor with a partner. Along with a few young women standing in the rear of the Casa de La Provincia courtyard, we’re the only gringos.
Alexandra Orellana is the all-women’s band director and trombonist. On this occasion her husband Jorge Puchaicela on trumpet with a male buddy on sax augment the big band sound.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in March our Ecuadorian neighbors treated my wife Belinda and me to lunch at Ooh La La Café in honor of Belinda’s birthday. Steve Waxmann along with Sarita Flautista, former volunteer instructors of music at Dolores J. Torres elementary school, introduced us to three musicians of Las Pioneras and their manager. “They’re an all-women’s band and play all kinds of music: popular, mariachi, you name it. But they need help getting gigs,” Sarita said. “Can you help them?”
A grassroots program supporting young women and helping them on their path to become professional performing musicians, Las Pioneras formed in June 2018 based on undergraduate research carried out at the University of Cuenca on women in village bands, or bandas del pueblo. The academic project showed how women in musical bands faced inequality and discrimination. While men played wind and brass in the rear, the shorter girls and women would play percussion in the front line. In their working life as band musicians, Las Pioneras’ bandmates got to know each other and decided to get together to talk about their lives and music.
Sexual biases are still common in the musical world. The budding success enjoyed by Las Pioneras trumps the success of those who challenge it. They are visible champions for Cuenca girls and women. Band Director Alexandra said, “We are tired of being paid less, of being mocked or intimidated when we played in co-ed bands; therefore, we decided to form a band only of women.” Initially, there were five companeras: two saxophones, a trumpet, a trombone, and a bass drummer. They needed more girls and women to form the group; therefore, they put out a call for female musicians.
Las Pioneras had been forming before its first rehearsals, and soon centered its efforts on providing a space for girls and women to show their talent. As the days passed, the group continued to grow until it had twelve members, ranging in age from ten-year-old Emilia to one who is forty-five years old. As the leader of the group, Alexandra asked her husband Jorge to guide its musical arrangements and help with horn technique.
The group set themselves goals: to mark a new musical style, to make the band their source of economic income and to demonstrate to the public that women can play woodwind, brass as well as percussion instruments. In Cuenca, as in all of Ecuador, women are considered too weak to play horn instruments such as trumpet, sax and trombone. The essence of Las Pioneras’ sound shows a different reality.
In his February 2022 Diario El Mercurio article, Andres Vladimir Mazza publicized the band’s appearance at the Village Band Festival sponsored by Juan Eljuri Appliance Stores. He interviewed the band’s director and trumpet player, Alexandra, who stated, “We get together based on the inequality and discrimination of the village bands as purely masculine spaces. I looked for the girls who were discriminated against in the bands so that we could form our own.”
Bass drummer Noemi Perez told him, “They tell you that you can’t play and they make fun of you or see you as something strange. It’s disappointing sometimes, but there is also the public that respects you, that applauds you, that knows we can do it.”
Alto sax player Soledad Segarra added, “We have always put strength into it to get ahead and not fail. Discrimination is present, but we continue because we trust ourselves and the group.”
To prepare for Las Pioneras’ first presentation required determination and struggle, especially for married members because their families did not understand the work and rehearsal requirements. In the month of November 2018, they participated in the contest of village bands organized by Amistad Club, a union of Azuay journalists. The women won third place. In their short history as a group they also earned second place in the 2020 Village Band Festival, and third place in the festival’s February 2022 competition. Also, they took first place in San Cristóbal’s Parish Festival in 2020.
Though the pandemic clipped their wings, strength and love helped surpass this obstacle. With no place for rehearsals, the women started meeting at each members’ homes, rotating each month. A goal this year for Las Pioneras is the formation of an orchestra band. Also, they’re looking for an affordable space in El Centro to store their instruments and rehearse. Some of the musicians travel two hours to get to rehearsal.
The enterprising women have a Facebook page. Banda Show “Las Pioneras del Austro” | Facebook. Viewers of the band’s Youtube videos over three years have commented positively. Olga wrote, “Congratulations!” accentuated with hand clap emojis. Carlos said: “With great pleasure, I subscribe and thumbs up for our BEAUTIFUL ECUADORIAN MUSIC.” And Mozagillo opined, “The most complete band.”
Belinda and I continue to put out the word for Las Pioneras to our friends. And with the government’s loosening of Covid restrictions for live performances, these hardworking girls and women will have more opportunities to entertain appreciative audiences. Whether it’s marching in formation on city streets or playing for parties, Las Pioneras del Austro will represent some of the best of musical talent in Cuenca, as attested to by its enthusiastic reception today at Casa de La Provincia. To contact the band for a gig, call 098-822-8430. WhatsApp is: +593 98 822 8430. Or email: email@example.com.