Africa’s Lost City

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We took some pictures with the JJ Del Perreo Picó and went back outside.

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The percussionist and the animador with Fabian in the middle:

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The DJ Mixer:

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Digital Percussion by DJ Cobra:

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Chopped and Soukoussed:

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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.

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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:

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And his collection of vinyl records:

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We also checked out his collection of classic paintings of Picó art:

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Which included a kind of wall of fame of classic Picós from Cartagena and Baranquilla:

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Including one of El Guajiro, who’s home and family (including daughter Kenia!) we visited next:

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Finally we made it to El Isleño, a modern Picó with a classic style:

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And modern equipment like Technics turntables, a multi channel mixer, and CDJs:

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It even had a built in amp, and equalizer set-up:

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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!

19 Comments


  1. lengua
    Sep 01, 2010

    Excellent!!
    Been following Africolombia for a long time, good to see his home in a close up article.
    Next on the bucket list:
    Build a classic Lengua Picó
    Saludos Boima


  2. wayneandwax
    Sep 01, 2010

    nice work, boima! this is a wonderful, vivid post, and the photos are amazing. thanks for putting it together. it’s great to get a glimpse of the contemporary champeta scene and hear your take on it.

    love the skinny jeans / jerkeando dimension. (incidentally, did you actually hear any jerk beats / see jerk moves? or are you just extrapolating from the sartorial styles? i haven’t actually seen/heard colombian jerk yet.)

    finally, if you haven’t yet read it, you should def check out deborah pacini hernandez’s article about picós and champeta; it fleshes out a lot of the early history and cultural context and affirms much of what you were feeling, i think.
    http://wayneandwax.com/pdfs/DPC_diaspora.pdf

  3. thanks so much for this post. i just got back to nyc from a week in cartagena a few days ago and this is really well-written, heartfelt, and nicely timed to read. it helps put a lot of the music i heard in colombia and brought back with me in a more historically clear context. excellent.

  4. [...] African Diaspora – Sound System – Picós – Champeta Posted on Septiembre 2, 2010 by africolombia| Dejar un comentario Cordial Saludos a todos los visitantes. durante el mes pasado resibí la visita en mi humilde Casa de un Gran amigo DJ de Africa (Sierra Leona) Boima Tucker y Tamara (Bolivia) ellos gentilmente pasarón entre Cartagena, Barranquilla y Santa Marta de Vacaciones durante su estadia en Curramba, tuve el honor de acompañarlos a conocer un poco de nuestra Cultura Picoteril (Sound Systems – Los Picós) pueden ver el articulo Fotografias de los Diferentes Picos sound System y la descripción paso a paso de las visitas que realizamos que para ver pulse click aqui  http://ghettobassquake.com/africas-lost-city [...]


  5. Biotet
    Sep 02, 2010

    Wicked post and wicked blog! Keep up the outstanding work. I’m very grateful for this blog, peep it on the daily! All the best from New Orleans, La.


  6. fernando viloria
    Sep 02, 2010

    es impresionante y da nostalgia…pero mas que nostalgia alegria particular mente a mi que he crecido en este ambiente…felicitaciones por esa tarea de tomar recorrer las calles buscar toda esa informacion tan valiosa en verdad los felicito y espero que no sea la primeras ni la ultima por que faltaron bastantes maquinas por adicionar..gracias por el aporte que le hacen a esta cultura tan criticada por la sociedad


  7. boima
    Sep 03, 2010

    Thanks for all the positive feedback.

    Fernando-Me alegre mucho oir tus sentimientos. Que pena no todos pueden entender lo bueno de una cultura tan linda.

    THT-Sounds like you really enjoyed your time in Cartagena. Maybe we passed each other on the streets of the old city!

    Mr. Lengua-Building a Picó is definitely on my to do list now as well!

    Wayne-I didn’t hear any jerk while I was there, but the style of dancing and clothes seemed like you could hold them up as an example for global youth culture. The dancing really reminded me more of tectonic with the arm motions. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some jerk lingering in the area because of the Passa Passa scene growing in Cartagena. There is definitely a 1 degree of separation from jerk via Panama and Jamaica. On a side note, I wonder if the popularity of the word Passa Passa caught on so well in the Spanish speaking Caribbean is because of the linguistic connections, or even if that helped jerk get picked up in Jamaica.


  8. Fabian Altahona Romero
    Sep 03, 2010

    Fernando – estoy de acuerdo con tigo, esta cultura es muy criticada por la sociedad, las personas de afuera aprecian mas la cultura Picoteril que nuestra sociedad, faltarón varias maquinas, desafortunadamente la epoca de lluvia y el poco tiempo, pero en el futuro será mejor.

    Boima – Agradecimientos para usted y Tamara por pasar por nuestra tierra y mostrar a el mundo tu experiencia y nuestra Cultura, Saludos le envia Sydney Reyes y Toda su Familia y Pintao y todos los dueños de Picos que Visitaste.


  9. Benji
    Sep 04, 2010

    YUM!!!!!

    I cannot wait to make it to Barranquilla. I remember finding some tracks that sounded just like coupé décalé – in Spanish. But it seems modern champeta and coupe decale are cousins, not brothers? Or did you hear an influx of contemporary music from Africa?


  10. boima
    Sep 14, 2010

    You’d definitely love it Benji, but I think you’re right they are cousins, because Ndombolo came up, and I played some Coupe Decale for some cats, and they said that they only want the old stuff! The 80′s rules the scene!!!


  11. elcanyonazo
    Sep 30, 2010

    awesome, i love upclose photos of different DJ set-ups /// welcome back to usa


  12. Andres Felipe
    Oct 31, 2010

    Where can I hear the music or mixes from these Artists you mention in this post… DJ Pintao or DJ Cobra or Fabian. Ayuda por fa!

  13. [...] Africa's Lost City | Ghetto Bassquake 1 Sep 2010. I assumed that the place was packed because the doorman acted like he was guarding the gates of the lost city of gold. Africa's Lost City | Ghetto Bassquake [...]

  14. [...] is DJ Oro11 of Bersa Discos fame) who recently posted an extensive digger’s travelogue on his firsthand experience of the Colombian champeta scene—a whole network of competitive picós (soundsystems) who base their style on vintage afropop. [...]


  15. angie
    Jan 05, 2011

    che me enamore del chico de rastas


  16. Josh Gozar
    Dec 30, 2011

    Loved this article as soon as you posted it – had a chance to get out to Bquilla a few months ago and meet up with Fabian. Wanted to share what I came up with out there – http://www.jackmag.com.co/articles/barranquillas-sound-system-culture/ – with some more photos here – http://www.flickr.com/photos/pressuredrop88/sets/72157628055973557/. Thanks for all the inspiration and posts over the years – good stuff. And tell DJ Eko I say hi!


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    Feb 14, 2013

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  18. Dorcas
    Mar 02, 2013

    You really generated quite a few wonderful points inside
    ur blog post, “Africa’s Lost City | Ghetto Bassquake” xtrade .
    I am going to you should be coming to ur web page in the near future.
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  19. [...] must have been bubbling under the surface the last time I came, because they seemed so drastic. On my first visit to Colombia’s Atlantic coast, I was on a mission to hear of Afro-Colombian sounds produced and consumed in their local context. [...]

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