Magín Díaz, the Latin Grammy Winner Who Doesn't Remember When He Was Born
Shortly before his death on November 28, we visited Magín Diáz at his home in Gamero, in the Bolívar Department of Colombia. He was the oldest artist to win one of the most important awards in Latin American music.
Photo by Luis Fernando Jaimes
Editor's Note: Magín Díaz's album El Orisha De La Rosa won a Latin Grammy for Best Recording Package. It was also nominated for Best Folk Album. Shortly after the ceremony, which was held in Las Vegas on November 16, Díaz was admitted to Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center because of medical complications that prevented his safe return home to Colombia. On the evening of November 28, surrounded by his youngest son Domingo Díaz, his manager Daniel Echeverry, and his team of nurses, he died in peace. A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey en Español, and was written before Díaz travelled to the US to accept his award. Leer el artículo original aquí.
Magín Díaz, the "Rose Orisha," has no idea that he's famous, nor does he know when in the hell it occurred to him to name his heartbreak with a flower, singing it over and over again. He doesn't know whether he composed "Rosa" when he was 13 or when he was 20. His most recent version of the story, says Eliana, his daughter-in-law, is that he began to sing lyrics that surged forth from his imagination when he was 14. You have to believe him.
Before Díaz, these passionate verses were made famous in various renditions by the voices of renowned bullerengue—a type of music typical of the Caribbean region of Colombia—singers like Irene Martínez, Totó la Momposina, and Carlos Vives. Through the song's catchy melody and its flirtatious lyrics, we got to know the beautiful Rosa through her various interpreters, but it took everyone quite awhile to discover the original author of the song and the person within whom burned the fire of love.
It was only a couple years ago, when Daniel Bustos Echeverry became his manager, that the world was presented with Luis Magín Díaz García, an old guy who was almost 94 years old at the time. Echeverry found him sitting beneath the leafiest of trees behind the local church in the village of Mahates, Bolívar: a town of 1,200 residents, located an hour and 10 minutes from Cartagena, a port city the Caribbean coastline of Colombia. It's the home of the Orisha—which, with its origins in Yoruba culture and folklore, is a mystic force or deity that brings life to something (in Díaz's case, it's the song "Rosa")—along with an entire generation of bullerengue singers. Echeverry found the Orisha rocking back and forth on his wooden throne beneath the tree where, surely, the news of his first Latin Grammy nomination reached him, even though he didn't understand what it meant.
Unlike the industry's most famous musicians, the ones with whom he'll rub elbows once he gets to Las Vegas, Díaz has never received royalties on his compositions. His life as an accidental musician eclipsed his rights as a singer; it was only in 1995 that he began to claim what was rightfully his, when SAYCO, Colombia's Society of Authors and Composers (the Sociedad de Autores y Compositores de Colombia, in Spanish), began to pay him. Roughly 54 years had passed after he'd begun to write songs that, some say, he had started composing when he was as young as 20.
But in 2015, the good times ended. Germán "Mello" Soto, Díaz's nephew and financial administrator, made him sign a paper indicating that it was Soto who would be in charge of Díaz’s pension, at which point everything went south. Soto’s happiness lasted only two months: The music took precedence again when Echeverry not only convinced the composers' association to restore Díaz's rights, but also to give him a minimum monthly salary as the creator of one of the most recorded and listened to songs of Colombian folkloric value.
Díaz doesn't lack family members and associates like Soto who try to take advantage of the fame of the tall, elderly man who makes moves to dance when he stands up, and asks for a soda from anyone who tries to connect with him without doing so through his representative or his son, Mingo. There's no shortage of people who try to charge a fee to take people to see the most famous living bullerengue singer.
There was no shortage of people who wanted to stop Echeverry when he initiated the project of recording the singer's album, despite the protests of those around him. It wasn't easy to understand that a stranger would take Díaz from his town and transform him into the "Rose Orisha" on the stages of the towns and cities of the coast. They couldn't tolerate the idea that Díaz, who was never able to live off of singing and composing, was suddenly a profitable artist at the age of 95.
"How old are you?" I asked.
"Ooof, hell," he replied.
Luis Magín Díaz García, son of Domingo and Felipa, brother of Davina, Jimena and Guillermo; the father of Feliciana, Ximena, Guillermo, Amílkar and Domingo Daniel, rubbed his head at the question. It was almost noon on the second Sunday of November. The heat started to settle in on the town, offering less and less respite, and at his age—95, or 96, or 97 years—he could barely tolerate it.
"97," he finally said, settling on a number.
"What day were you born?"
"Dammit! I don't remember."
His ID says it was December 30, 1922, but his daughter-in-law, Eliana, the wife of his youngest descendant, Domingo "Mingo" Daniel, asserts that he'll turn 97 on December 28. Either way, Magín Díaz is already the oldest among the artists nominated for a Latin Grammy, which he'll receive on Thursday, November 16, in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
"Do you know what the Grammys are?" I asked.
"The trip that you're going to take..."
"I'm good for the trip. I don't like sadness and I'm sad because I'm sick. I'm in pain, ay! My leg hurts. And an itch…" he trailed off.
"How long have you been like that?"
"Uff, I don't have money for medicine. Buying the little pill…"
The midday sun had done a number on him, vaporizing the lucidity that remained in the Rose Orisha. That's the name of his most recent album too, the one nominated for the most important awards in Latin music, in the categories of Best Recording Package and Best Folk Album, and which was reviewed by Billboard in a piece whose headline sums up the accomplishment of the composer: "How the Afro-Colombian Artist Magín Díaz Went From Anonymity to Latin Grammy-Nominated at 95 Years Old."
Before this album, there was another one: Magín Díaz and the Gamerano Sextet, a double CD with traditional versions of the songs on one CD and remixes on the other, which the Chilean producer Mauricio Anaya, of the label Konn Recordings, insisted on recording once he learned about Díaz’s story via Guillermo Valencia, a musician born in Palenquito in the Bolívar department of Colombia. That was back in 2015 and the singer was already 94 years old… or 93 or 92.
Díaz hadn't recorded before because he was a "walker," as he himself calls it and as does his niece, Rosaura, the daughter of his youngest sister, and who today is in charge of accompanying him to the doctor's office, to "peck at him." She's the one who says that Díaz isn't sick. Just a few weeks earlier, doctors had conducted a medical check-up to determine whether his Las Vegas trip was or wasn't a good idea: Everything was perfect. Rosaura also narrates Díaz's inevitable musical trajectory, though he'd never take it seriously enough to make a living from it. That's why he was never a constant presence in the groups to which he belonged—not in the Billo's Caracas Boys, nor in his town's famous musical group, Los Soneros de Gamero. He made a living from the corn field he had in his town, and when life told him it was better to wake up on the other side, he did so as a farm manager in Venezuela. It was there that the fell in love three times, where his children were born, and where he left all his women—the most famous of which was the one he never actually had.
"For whom did you compose 'Rosa?'"
"I was in love, kid."
"In love with whom?"
"With the ladies."
"Where was Rosa from?"
"A Gamerana," he confirmed.
"When did you write the song?"
"Uh, hell. I was 20 years old."
There's not a lot of certainty about the origins of Rosa, the woman honored in the famous folk song. Díaz says she's from Gamero; Rosaura, his niece, asserts that she was from Valledupar. What's inarguable is that she flew the coop and that every time he sings the song, he cries for her.
"The girl didn't like him because he was black and she despised him," his niece recalled. "He was always behind. She was light-skinned, with beautiful, thick hair, and she said, 'Ah! Smoky black guy,' and she danced, but she didn't want anything to do with him. He kind of called her on it. He said, 'I'm going to compose a song called 'Rosa.'' And he composed it and he sang it, but not even with all of that did Rosa pay a bit of attention to him. She left. That's when he started to be with women, a lot of women."
They all left him. But the one who marked him the most isn't even the one whose name he calls so much while he sings. The one who had the greatest impact on his life was Felipa, his mother. She was, as were many women from that area of Bolívar, a bullerengue singer by nature.
Those were the lullabies they used to sing Díaz to sleep, while he watched how his father, Domingo, became the chief of the "Dance of the Blacks," a folk dance that was common in the town: The one for which they put on the song "La rama e’ tamarindo" on powerful speakers that Gameranans make room for on their porches, as groups or boys and girls rush over to dance. Díaz himself became the chief of the dance, leading groups of participants through the streets, dancers whose naturally black faces were painted even blacker.
"Today and every day for the past three years he has woken up. Every day he was breathing, it's been the same: A miracle. He's very old now and he could die at any moment. Death hovered over the project of recording the album, and that's why it was something positive. The pressure of death is what leads us to not postpone anything," said Echeverry, a Philosophy student who fought until he convinced Díaz's son to give him the authority to make decisions and deal with the family so that the idea of Orisha de la Rosa could materialize, with the artist recording his second album at the age of 95. So that he could become Díaz’s manager. And that's how it went.
He traveled to Gamero numerous times between 2014 and 2015, always with two wireless microphones, and they began rehearsing the songs that would end up being recorded for the album. He sat Díaz down and asked him to sing all the songs that he could remember, one by one, a routine that ended up involving the composer's friends, who helped him remember the verses.
They took that repertoire and Díaz's memories, which were recorded over the course of a year, to the studios at the Ponificia Javeriana University in Bogotá. Editing the final version of El Orisha de la Rosa took nine days. Each day, a different artist showed up—maybe Mayte Montero or Petrona Martínez, or the Tabalá Sextet—to record their part. Of the verses of those songs that were selected from the full range of Díaz’s compositions, they picked the ones that they felt most connected them to him. Other notable Colombian artists, like Carlos Vives or Totó la Momposina or Monsieur Periné, came to the studio because of other obligations, but they received the files in order to digitally join their voices with Díaz's.
The 18 songs that were recorded over those nine days in Bogotá charted Magín Díaz’s path to fame. His name had begun to resonate ever since that Echeverry had, for the first time, put his inspiration on a CD. But never to the extent that it was gaining traction now, when it would take the singer to Las Vegas, like the newly discovered, twice-nominated Grammy singer that he is.
Díaz will be joined by his faithful Mingo, his youngest son, and Echeverry. The trip was made possible after numerous comings and goings, requests, and paperwork in order for the oldest bullerengue singer alive today to rub elbows with the likes of Alejandro Sanz or Residente in the worldwide entertainment capital.
"Win or lose, he already made history," Echeverry said. "We made the leap in three years, and now they don't just know Magín in Gamero, in the department of Bolívar, and nationally, but internationally as well. Magín's life has changed." The manager is largely responsible for the fact that the singer and composer with the most pure national music in Colombia was going to step onto the red carpet on the most important night in Latin American music, alongside the artists who sang "Despacito" and who've been a hit on the global charts—even if the protagonist of this story will never know it.
"Are you going to travel there?" I asked.
"Where are Mingo and Daniel taking you?"
"Wherever they want... I got on an airplane when I was a kid," he commented.
"When are you traveling?"
"They told me in a week or so, but I'm not really sure."
"Where are you going?"
"I don't remember. A city. I don't know, dammit."
"And what are you going to do there?"
"To have fun, to sing, and have people get to know me," he replied.
"And [what happens] if you win, Magín?"
He didn't reply.