[2 August 2007]
I first heard of Delfín Quishpe while reading a blog operated by the Mexican literary magazine, Letras Libres. It was an interesting blog post about obscure Peruvian, Ecuadorian and Mexican music acts that had gained eyeballs and fame on YouTube. A photo of Ecuador’s Delfín Quishpe accompanied the post. It showed the singer wearing his trademark tasseled black-and-white leather cowboy suit. His costume was so extravagant it immediately caught my eye. He was singing into a microphone. His face was brown, his cheekbones high, his eyes set wide apart. An indigenous South American singer making it big on the Internet? I was intrigued.
I read the post (“In Praise of Delfín Quishpe”) and realized the writer, Antonio Ortuño, was blogging about these videos in order to confess to something like a guilty pleasure. He described Quishpe’s already-famous video “Torres Gemelas” (Twin Towers) as a “horrible” piece of kitschy and “macabre” melodrama based on the September 11 tragedy. The writer made fun of the overwrought lyrics and repetitive “electrocumbia” rhythms. He had nothing really good to say about it, except to call it “as hypnotic as a train wreck.”
So why was he blogging about Delfín Quishpe at all? The writer claimed that despite its flaws, Quishpe’s “Torres Gemelas” was absolutely fascinating. He mentioned it had received over one million views. Anyone with knowledge of YouTube culture will know that one million views of a video is a very respectable sum (to date the video has well over 1.5 million views). Some videos by established YouTube celebrities such as “brookers” and “geriatric 1927” do not get that many views. Whether the blogger’s disdain was justified or not, something about Quishpe’s video had obviously struck a chord.
In fact, the video has transformed Quishpe’s life. Quishpe was born in a mud and thatch hut in Ecuador’s rural countryside. He grew up speaking Quechua, and spent long hours farming and gathering firewood alongside his mother and father. Before the success of “Torres Gemelas”, Quishpe was composing flute-heavy, slightly atonal Andean music and stringing together gigs at village festivals in Ecuador’s rugged Chimborazo province.
Now it’s fair to call Quishpe an international star. This year he was invited to the prestigious Viña del Mar music festival in Chile, and was followed by adoring fans all over Santiago. He appeared on Chile’s most popular TV shows, flanked by statuesque, deep cleavaged hostesses that towered over his diminutive frame. Meanwhile, YouTubers put together dozens of video tributes— there area heavy metal, acoustic, classical, and “MC Hammer” versions of “Torres Gemelas”. Quishpe is back in Ecuador and planning an international tour, not ruling out Europe or the United States.
Maybe in the end Quishpe’s fame will end up being restricted to Ecuador. But it’s undeniable that his big break came courtesy of the Internet and YouTube. His story shows how user-generated media really has opened the door to artists from the unlikeliest corners of the world, allowing them to compete head-to-head against the Shakiras and Madonnas of pop culture.
But what was it about Quishpe’s video that made it so popular? I interviewed Quishpe over e-mail to find out what he thought. The answer might point to a more general theory about the type of content that is embraced on the Internet and particularly on user-generated media web sites like YouTube.
The video begins with Quishpe watching television the morning of September 11, 2001, presumably at his house in Ecuador. He sees the news footage of the planes crashing into the towers and stands up, his hands gripping the sides of his face, screaming: “No puede ser, noooooooooo ...!” (It can’t be, nooooooooo!)
He races to the phone. It turns out his love, his amorcito, who worked in the towers, has been claimed by the tragedy. The ensuing song is a lament dedicated to his departed lover, interspersed with footage of 9/11 and Quishpe in Ecuador grieving in his black and white cowboy suit. Often he is superimposed on images of the smoking towers.
When I asked Quishpe why he thought his video had gained so much popularity he wrote: “Because its subject is a sad reality we will never be able to forget.”
In other words, he attributes his video’s success to its topicality, its direct referencing of 9/11. Not only does it reinterpret the September 11 event from the point of view of a Latin American, but it also does so through the lens of immigration. There is a huge population of immigrant Ecuadorians in New York. It is a well-known fact that hundreds of Latin American immigrant workers, like Quishpe’s fictional girlfriend, died in the Twin Towers on the day of the attack.
In deciding to use September 11 as material, Quishpe broke a taboo: the same one US movie directors tested with recent Hollywood productions. In interviews in Chile, Quishpe was asked what he thought about the fact that some people had found his video offensive, a frivolous retelling of the 9/11 tragedy. One detail in particular seemed to irk people: at one point in the video, Quishpe’s cell phone number appears in a corner, while news footage of the attacks and the aftermath plays.
Quishpe explained: the cell number is there because the video was originally a promotional device designed to lead to gigs in Ecuador.
The video’s purpose, he said, was to honor those who lost their lives and highlight the fact that Latin Americans also felt the impact of the tragedy.
Whether the portrayal is insensitive or not (and I don’t think it is) or laughable or not, it is clear that Quishpe’s video would not have enjoyed as much success as it did if it had not had 9/11 as its backdrop. Many works of pop culture and art derive part of their force from their reinterpretation of major events in history. Similarly, other than cute animal photos and pornography, the content that enjoys the most popularity on the Internet often has a link to real-world events of generalized significance.
Quishpe’s song, which he describes as a hybrid of Andean, folkloric and tropical beats, is also catchy. It has a slightly off-kilter feel to it (the matching of vocals to rhythm is strained at times) but part of its infectiousness is based on this very same clumsiness. It’s simple to recall Quishpe’s style of singing on “Torres Gemelas” because he’s so obviously trying to retrofit less-than-ideal lyrics to the foundational rhythms of the song. A more polished musician would rework the lyrics so that they flowed better, but Quishpe leaves well enough alone.
The video is memorable for the same reason: it’s interestingly raggedy. It’s a haphazard and heterogeneous collection of footage from Ecuador, close-ups of Quishpe singing and waving his arms about, and images from the day of the terrorist attacks. Often, Quishpe is superimposed on aerial views of Manhattan and footage of the collapsing towers. I think in film schools they refer to the techniques used in this video as montage.
The video had a low budget. Quishpe says that in all, including recording time for the album from which the song is taken and production costs, “Torres Gemelas” cost roughly $5000 to make.
Judging by the comments on YouTube, some viewers obviously see the video as a kind of joke. They are attracted to it because of the amateurish elements like the cell number in the corner, or they are amused by Quishpe’s overdone gesturing and the incongruous mix of images (farm animals, an Ecuadorian beach, Manhattan in flames).
Whatever the reaction, it’s clear that Quishpe himself is earnest in the video. There’s no artifice, no layers of slick production separating the viewer from Quishpe’s intention, which was simply to tell a typically Latin American melodramatic love story, but with terrorism as the background.
Perhaps rather than see Quishpe as a joke one might look at his video as a prototype for the kind of content that is successful on YouTube and the Internet in general. This content tends to be earnest rather than slick, raggedy rather than seamless, topical rather than cutting-edge, genuine rather than professional, and simple rather than elaborate. These days, audiences consider themselves to be at least as sophisticated as the producers of the media they are consuming. Often, the online viewer, listener or reader has a web site, a video or audio stream or a blog of their own. Audiences are now expert at detecting put-ons, poseurs, smoke-and-mirror tricks, journalistic arrogance, overproduction, aesthetic snobberies. More and more, especially on the Internet, they are having none of it.
The lesson: keep it real. Quishpe, in his own way, has done just that. ¡Arriba Delfín!