It’s still kind of hard to wrap my head around what we experienced that rainy Saturday this past August when my girlfriend and I made our way to Baranquilla, Colombia. It was a brain scramble, a surreal experience, something that made my head feel like the kid in the picture above. The focus of our trip to Colombia was to unwind with little beach time at the end of a long bus-filled trek across the mountains of the Southern American Continent. Thankfully my traveling companion had enough grace and patience to bare with me while I took her on a little detour. It had been my dream for a few years to make it to the Caribbean Coast to meet first hand Colombia’s African music and culture.
As mentioned here before, Colombian African derived music, known as Champeta Criolla, has been getting more attention recently through international record labels such as Palenque Records, and compilations being released by reissue juggernauts such as Soundway Records. As interest increases, there’s more publicly available information on the history of the genre, but I was interested in seeing how Champeta lives and breathes today. Because of my West African background and interest and experience in DJ culture, I’ve always felt a solidarity with the coastal Afro-Colombian communities, and was excited about a little cultural and musical exchange. Before I arrived I contacted the best person I could think of, someone who has been doing a phenomenal job of bringing the Colombian perspective to the African Diasporic digital conversation, Baranquilla based Fabian Altahona of the Africolombia blog.
Before arriving, probably because of the pattern of vinyl consumption in the States and in Europe, I had the impression that there was perhaps a small group of music aficionados in Baranquilla that were quite enthusiastic about older African pop music. I thought that Champeta had more or less displaced interest in the African originals and I imagined a scene of folks gathering together at small dark bars on the side streets of some urban industrial center, to enjoy the roots of Champeta. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We arrived in Baranquilla from Cartagena after visiting San Basilio de Palenque, one of America’s and definitely Colombia’s oldest freed African community. We headed right to Fabian’s house who was a gracious host, and seemed excited to take us out to get to know the town and document some of the music culture in his city. After a quick chat and lunch we headed out to meet our first Picó.
This was Salsa de Puerto Rico, an old school style Picó that played vinyl records. There are a couple of generations of Picó now on the coast of Colombia. The newer ones range from a set of modern speaker cabinets stored in someone’s house, to giant stacks of cabinets with full stages, light shows, and according to my man Geko Jones, fireworks and fire hoses! The sound is different as well. The new generation I would describe as more digital with a three man team that includes the animador or MC, a drum machine percussionist, and a DJ, who much like a Coupe Decale DJ or Karizma does a lot of triggering, looping, quick mixing, with CDJs. The older generation has a much simpler set-up as you can see below. The mixer is the four dials in the front and usually two turntables (although this one had a boombox and a DVD player!) The vinyl and old vacuum tubes lend to a much cleaner, heavier bass, analog sound. It’s refreshing to see that these survive to today in some places, because there’s really nothing like the bass from vacuum tubes.
It started raining hard while we were there so we sat for awhile and talked to the Pico’s owner, Carmen Jimenez, who explained to me about this speaker set’s broken vacuum tubes, and how she needs more rooms to keep all her son’s vinyl records. I could tell she was really proud of her sons, Martin and Alfonso Leal, and their Picó. Listening to her, I really started to get a sense of how important the sound systems were to the entire community. I also learned that Fabian happened to be an important supplier of vinyl records and musical knowledge to this Picó and several other Baranquilla residents. I was surprised to find out that Fabian was more than just a vinyl collector, and that through creating the blog and interacting with many vinyl collecting DJ’s across the world he’s been able to help spread information on individual groups and artists that may have not been known before. The culture of Picós is very competitive and since the 60’s and 70’s Picoteros have been scratching off the names on the vinyl and putting their own names in Spanish that resemble a lyric, so that their rival wouldn’t be able to track down an exclusive record. The more rare a Picós selection, and the more exclusive popular songs they had, the more popular they were. There is even a culture of soundsystem clashing with rare African records, placas or dub plates, and an animador or deejay announcing the exclusiveness of a record, like in Jamaica. The downside to this is that a lot knowledge on the origins of the song including the names of the song, the artists, the language and the country of origin are lost, so Fabian is doing a great service not only locally, but globally in sharing the history of the music.
After the rain let up we headed downtown to look for some Colombian music. Unfortunately the rain started up again and all the shops closed downtown, but we did get to see what happens in Baranquilla when the street turns into a river, and pedestrians and traffic both have to cross.
Baranquilla is the Caribbean Coast’s industrial and manufacturing center, (there is no tourism save for during their huge Carnaval) so its Picó culture is influenced by the fact that it is the center of vinyl production in that part of the country. It turned all the soundsystem DJ’s into vinyl junkies, and it is this collector culture that adds to the weight that old African music holds in the city. The influx of African music on record started in Cartagena but around the late 80’s the flow of vinyl stopped coming in, and people shifted to concentrate more on locally produced Champeta Criolla. If I understand the story right, that’s when the shift in the center of the scene moved to Baranquilla, because that’s where the vinyl industry was.
Since we had no luck with the record shops downtown, Fabian made a call to his friend Pintao to see if he had any Champeta Criolla on record. He did, so we made our way to the Valle neighborhood, one of the centers of Baranquilla’s Palenquero population. San Basilio de Palenque itself is small, only about 3500 people, so there are many Palenquero neighborhoods in cities around Colombia and Venezuela of people who had emigrated out. Valle had the feeling of an immigrant community, and I guess that’s what it essentially was. Visiting peoples’ houses felt like going to my Sierra Leonean relatives’ houses in the U.S. Removed from the physical place but strongly connected to the culture, it is the diaspora of a diaspora.
This was at the house of Sidney Reyes, where his family was gathering to enjoy the Saturday evening. If you look close at the poster he’s holding up, it is a promotion for the Mbilia Bel & Lokassa concert happening at the Municipal stadium the next weekend. They almost succeeded in convincing me to stay an extra week for it.
The Palenqueros, and the strength of their culture are key influences in the formation of African identity in Northern Colombia. Every person I met that self-identified as having African heritage claims a connection and inspiration from San Basilio de Palenque. It is that African identification that is the key to understanding the popularity of African music and the formation of Champeta Criolla. Palenqueros speak the only Spanish creole language in South America, as well as retain cultural traditions from West and Central Africa that had formed independently of the Spanish for more than 400 years. It’s no wonder that when Soukous, Highlife and Benga records started showing up from merchant ships returning from Africa people suddenly identified with it.
As the sun went down, the rain head stopped, the heat had returned, and the neighborhoods were starting to come to life (the presidential inauguration curfew was lifted), it was time to go check out the Picós. Fabian and Pintao took us to check out a Picó called el Dragon.
The owner of El Dragon, Wilfred Guerrero, also has a bar Estadero Rico Son near Fabian’s house. We checked it out the next morning and Fabian says it is the number one bar to listen to classic African music in Baranquilla.
It was early, so nothing had really started yet inside, but the music was blasting loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, and people were gathering outside to warm up for the party. I had to laugh a little when I saw the 9 or 10 year old kids playing outside the building singing along to the songs in Lingala!
The next place we visited had a bigger crowd made up of mostly teenagers. Some of them were doing what I thought could have been Maquina Latina a dance I had heard about from Benoit at the Masala Blog. We waited awhile outside while Pintao tried to get us in to take some pictures. I assumed that the place was packed because the doorman acted like he was guarding the gates of the lost city of gold. Fabian told me that a lot of people stayed outside, because of the cover charge, but again outside the venue the air was electric and the music was super loud. When a big tune came on, the crowd started to work themselves into a frenzy of Maquina Jerking Champeteros. And I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the wonder of this world we live in that would have a crowd of fruity looped and skinny jeansed kids in the Americas, getting DOWN to 30 year old African Pop!
Inside was unbelievably loud and it turned out fairly empty, but the Picó was impressive, and the Picoteros were super skilled at doing their chopping-mixing-looping style of DJing.
We took some pictures with the JJ Del Perreo Picó and went back outside.
The percussionist and the animador with Fabian in the middle:
The DJ Mixer:
Digital Percussion by DJ Cobra:
Chopped and Soukoussed:
At that point we weren’t too far from our hotel so we walked back through the neighborhood that party was in. On the way we ran into a smaller Picó that was just setting up with a block party style family gathering going on around it. All of a sudden, after seeing multiple generations on a Saturday night getting outside to avoid the heat and humidity of a post tropical storm and listen to some good old Congolese Soukous, it all started to sink in.
That’s what this was all about, good times with family. As memories of my own childhood listening to the same sounds started to come back, I realized that I had finally found what I had been dreaming about since I became fascinated with Colombia, a shared cultural experience. Fabian was just as reminiscent as I was the whole night. He talked about his experiences being exposed to the music at a young age when his older brothers were involved with the Picós themselves. He spoke with the same dreamy enthusiasm about listening to this music growing up and how he felt it in his blood, descendant from a place he had never been but felt every time he heard those Soukous guitars. We headed back to the hotel to get some rest after an overwhelming day.
The next morning we woke up and went out to visit a few more Picós.
We went back to visit El Dragon and the beautiful old school Picó which he kept at his bar:
And his collection of vinyl records:
We also checked out his collection of classic paintings of Picó art:
Which included a kind of wall of fame of classic Picós from Cartagena and Baranquilla:
Including one of El Guajiro, who’s home and family (including daughter Kenia!) we visited next:
Finally we made it to El Isleño, a modern Picó with a classic style:
And modern equipment like Technics turntables, a multi channel mixer, and CDJs:
It even had a built in amp, and equalizer set-up:
After that and amongst a little hesitation, we finally made our way to the beach.
Thank you Baranquilla, I’ll be back one day… Waka Waka Hey Hey!