Dreams of Chonta follows Afro-Colombian musician Diego Obregón, a husband and father navigating the terrains of taking care of his family overseas and pursuing his dream in New York City. Heartache might be hard to diagnose at first glance; Diego’s gentle nature conducting the bouncy highs of the marimba does well to disguise any sign of sadness on a night out. However, it had been years since he had seen his family in person, only exacerbated by immigration barriers. To capture the essence of a man’s adversities is not easy on camera, but director Monica Cohen adeptly balances the documentary momentum and the musical touches that bring this story to life in a way that feels like we want to meet Diego, too. Ahead of its virtual screening at BLIFF, Cohen delightfully dissects the vast array of Colombian music and the importance of Diego that only a person of passion could.
BOSTON HASSLE: How did you meet Diego?
MONICA COHEN: I’m from Bogotá, so I was active in the Colombian music scene in New York City when I lived there. I was invited to a bar in Jackson Heights by a friend of mine to listen to vallenato, which is a type of music played on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. Colombia is based by two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. I was very acquainted with vallenato — I’ve heard it so many times in my life, I dance to it, and it’s popular among people from my generation. When I went to this bar and met my friends, we had drinks. In this group, my friend was playing the piano and Diego was playing electric bass.
I didn’t think much at that moment, but I really liked the place so a month later, I decided to go back. At that time, Diego was playing with his own group, playing currulao, the music from the Pacific coast. I was completely blown away, for many reasons. He was playing la marimba de chonta. It’s an instrument of African descent that I’d heard of, but I wasn’t familiar with this type of music and culture even though I was from Colombia. It struck me that I didn’t know much about this music from my own country and that I had to go all the way to New York City to be exposed to it. Diego was also incredibly nice and so I started asking around about this guy. When I met him, he was playing the bass really well, but now he’s playing the marimba!?
People would go, “You need to know this guy. He is the music ambassador of the Pacific coast of Colombia, right here in New York. There’s no one else besides him.” Plus, he’s an incredible musician. He not only plays the bass and the marimba, but he can play all kinds of percussion instruments and the guitar. They also mentioned that this guy had a little basement in Queens where he started his own recording studio and was recording his first album at 41. He left his three kids and wife back in Colombia, he was undocumented, and he’d had a minimum-wage job since he was 17. I was looking for a story at the time and I thought, “Wow, what a contrast. This man, against all odds, left this region of Colombia to become the ambassador.”
Also, what a contrast that he comes back from the dead. During the day, he worked at a cemetery and then came to life at night in this little basement in Queens where he’s trying to put his legacy in his music. I thought that this is a great story. After meeting Diego, I thought that this was going to be a year or two. It turned out to be ten years following him, his amazing family, and this story about immigration, music, culture, and love.
BH: Wow, so it’s been a decade?
MC: About 12 years ago.
BH: That’s amazing. How often did you have to fly to Colombia?
MC: I traveled three times. The first time was Cali, where his family lives now. That was my first encounter with the culture and with his family. After that, I traveled other two times. I traveled to Guapi, a very small town right on the Pacific coast where he’s from. Then I followed up after a few years, just to see how the family was doing and how his kids have grown. I was surprised to know that his kids followed his path and became incredible musicians. They have this hip hop Pacific music kind of band.
The third trip was when Diego was able to come back after twelve years of living in the U.S. I like to say that he repurposed his dream. He really wanted to make it in America, like most immigrants. Although he accomplished so much, he struggled because he missed his family so much. Being an undocumented immigrant who cannot travel, he never left the country. Because of his paper status, he couldn’t travel if he was asked to tour with his music. Him deciding to go back to Colombia to be close with his family and spend the last years of his life was a great decision.
Unfortunately, Diego passed last June. He didn’t get to see the film, and that’s one of my biggest regrets — I finished the film in January of last year and wanted to travel to Colombia to have a private screening with him and his family, but because of the pandemic, I couldn’t do it. Then a few months later, he was gone.
BH: Diego seemed like such a gentle man. I thought one of the saddest things in the documentary was when he said, in the beginning, that living alone is a real karma. His children mentioned that he was a man of few words. Was it hard for him to provide his feelings and dialogue throughout the process?
MC: There are two parts to this answer. Yes, he was a man of few words — it took many hours of just hanging out together for him to get to a point where he could express those feelings and open up. He would express emotions and love in so many other ways, like through his music or cooking for you at his house. But for a documentary, sometimes you need the person to talk and to articulate. You’ll see throughout the documentary that there are many other voices that fill the information gap that Diego doesn’t so that you can get the full story.
The other thing was that being a white woman from the capital of Colombia created communication barriers that were beyond our relationship. We come from very different backgrounds, and sometimes those boundaries would be completely blurred where we’d start talking. And then all of a sudden, a wall will be built between us and I’d have to start rebuilding the trust all over again. I never took it personally, especially once I understood our cultural backgrounds and how different they were. He probably thought, “This girl from Colombia doesn’t understand about how hard life has been.” I understood and accepted that. His family was the complete opposite. They opened their doors and welcomed me as another member of the family. Deanna invited me to her house, and because there wasn’t enough space, let me sleep in her bed with her. Food wasn’t a problem; they would say, “We’ll add more water to the soup.” I had so much to learn about how humble and open they were.
With the sentence you mentioned earlier, I think it rings especially true for immigrants that come from countries with a community-oriented culture, whether you’re in Guapi or Cali. Private and public spaces are very fluid, and your doors are always open for social encounters. It was especially hard for Diego in an environment like New York where the spaces are very cramped, but also that people are much more reserved about their private spaces. I can attest to that — Americans are a colder species than in Guapi and Kali — and that can make you feel very lonely.
BH: Pablo, the founder of the Colombian Music Festival, mentioned that Diego was a total New Yorker. I think he meant in a sense that Diego was able to face his struggles and plow through the as much as he could. Was there anything that Diego did like about New York?
MC: He enjoyed the musical encounters that he was able to have in New York that you cannot have anywhere else. There were so many styles and talented musicians from all over the world gathering in this one city. He was completely mesmerized, and I think that was one thing that kept him connected to the city. But he also had a different philosophy where he took things day by day. When you would ask him what he was planning for the next year or where he sees himself, he never had a straightforward answer. His rhythm was slow. It took him years to finish his first album. One of his friends in the movie said that you could come into his house and it feels like you’d enter a different dimension because time would slow down like you’re not in New York City anymore. He had that mentality that New York City couldn’t penetrate, which I admired because I was stressed out a lot.
BH: Can you explain the venue that he was playing? It looks like he was playing on the upper level, but the venue looks tiny.
MC: A very small venue. The owner decided to create the second level because it had a high ceiling. It was like a floating stage, and then there was a seating area at the same level, which he created after. You can see the stage and the feet of the players from below. To the left of the stage, there was a little booth where the real sound system was. The place was very small, but it was important — and still is — for Colombian musicians. If you were a Colombian musician in New York City, you had to play at [the venue] Terraza 7 at some point. Jackson Heights had a very big Colombian community for a long time, but it’s not true anymore. It’s still a place to go eat Colombian food and listen to Colombian music, but there’s another community in New Jersey that has gotten bigger.
BH: Do you get to travel to New York a lot?
MC: I try to. I miss it so much. We moved to Boston six years ago when my husband started teaching at Berklee College and we had our first daughter. But New York has a big space in my heart. You cannot get bored. It’s never enough.
BH: Having a music background and attending Berklee, did you feel like it was hard to make this documentary as music-inclined but not music-dedicated? Like, did the tempo of Diego inspire certain moods or scenes?
MC: Speaking about Berklee — I did graduate from Berklee, and it was great to have Diego teach there. Outside of the U.S., everyone knows about Berklee, so it was big for Colombians to see someone like Diego there. Our conversations would flow because I had that music background and I’d understand what Diego was trying to say.
But yes, it did inspire some visuals. The instrument, la marimba de chonta, translates to “piano of the jungle.” People would describe it as the sound of flowing water you’d hear in the jungle, which is why there are recurring scenes that include water. Instead of playing a song that lasts five to six minutes, musicians would start playing and it’s like, “We don’t know when it’s going to end.” Normally, it’s played by two people and then a pattern emerges, like a mantra. All of a sudden, you’re in water. There’s a swing in every music. That swing in this kind resembles the flow of water, where it’s slow and then a sort of gurgle noise. When you see this big bodies of water, you think of immigration and crossing over these bodies to other countries.
BH: I’m glad you brought this up. I felt like the only way I could describe how the marimba sounded was bouncy.
MC: Now that we’re talking about the marimba, I can also explain what chonta means! It’s the type of wood that’s used to make the marimba. The palm grows in the Pacific coast. It’s a dark, strong wood but is sorta hollow. When I called this Dreams of Chonta, I thought of Diego as someone who is strong and resilient.
Dreams of Chonta will be virtually screened at this year’s BLIFF starting on Friday, September 24 at 6PM, followed by a Q&A with Cohen. For more information and to purchase tickets, check out the ArtsEmerson website!