Songs for My Country: María José Najas ’24 Lifts Up Her Voice for Ecuador

María José Najas

María José Najas ’24 had been making music her whole life. But the pandemic spurred a passion project. A Pomona College RAISE grant for summer research led to her first album, “Serenata: Homenaje al Pasillo Ecuatoriano,” which is available on all streaming platforms. Recorded in her home country of Ecuador, Najas sang pasillos, interpreting the traditional Latin American genre into her own contemporary style.

With her eight tracks, Najas’ hope was to bridge the knowledge gap younger generations have when it comes to Ecuadorian history, she says.

“I think with globalization and so much information that comes from the outside, many people, the Ecuadorian youth, but youth in general, many times forget about these small parts of culture,” says Najas.

Though it was native to her culture, Najas had her own knowledge gap and decided she needed to do plenty of research on the genre before recording.

Pasillo, which means “small step,” refers to the waltz, a vestige of European colonialization.

“The higher classes would host these parties where they would dance the waltz, which is in three-fourths time signature. And eventually, this got to the people, the lower classes. And they started making songs in three-fourths and appropriating that measure and that system into their own song, their own style. And what was nice is that these were usually instrumental. But then eventually when people started making songs out of them, they started adding words. And for many of the pasillos that we know today, the lyrics were not made for the music, but were actually poems.”

Pasillos were most commonly sung as serenades. A duet or a trio would go to women's balconies and sing them, Najas explains, which is why her album is called “Serenata”—her offering to the world’s balcony.

“It's a tribute to that story about how it came to be and how it was usually represented. And mine is like a virtual serenata. You can access my song and I can be serenading with these songs from my country to anyone in the world, not necessarily Ecuador.”

Her grandparents’ love for pasillos was her inspiration as was her national pride instilled by her parents, especially her mother.

“My mom has always encouraged us to be proud of where we come from. Just be proud of our culture, of our people, of our traditions. I think many times in a small country, a developing country, a lot of people have a lot of bad things to say. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I wish I lived somewhere else. There's this that's wrong.’ My mom always tried to teach us to look at the good things and be proud of the good things.”

Her RAISE project, advised by Gibb Schreffler, Pomona College associate professor of music and ethnomusicology, was the perfect opportunity to marry pasillos with that abiding pride. Najas had been singing and playing piano her entire life and she is the music director for Claremont Shades, The Claremont Colleges a cappella group. But now was the time to go pro, she thought. The album, recorded under the name Majo Najas, has been received overwhelmingly well, she says, by young and old alike. Because of what her project represents, she has received a lot of media attention in Ecuador and has been able to share her project through newspapers, magazines and TV news.

But more than just the experience of making music, mixing, mastering and even marketing, what this project did for Najas was flesh out her identity not only as an Ecuadorian, but also as a global citizen.

“Yes, it's Ecuadorian music, but it's also contemporary, and it represents who I am because it has the roots, it has the essence, but then it also has different elements from everywhere else, which represents my tastes in music, the different styles I enjoy that are not necessarily Ecuadorian. It's a good mix of where I come from, but also where I'm going and who I'm sharing it with.”

Appropriately, her favorite song on the album is titled, “Ecuador.” Among the lyrics:

“Long live my country, long live the pasillo…”

For Najas it’s like saying, “This is my country, and this is the music and let’s celebrate that.”