Russ Slater goes in search of tales of soundsystems and African vinyl shipments on Colombia’s Caribbean coast…
I scrape up a final mouthful of fish, rice and plantain at a shack-cum-restaurant manned by a delightfully jolly silver-haired lady, and sit back just in time to hear the soundsystem fire up. A group of young guys from the town had been assembling it for a while, placing two speakers on top of another two, with a tweeter nestled at the apex, to create a 6ftx8ft wall of sound that effectively cordoned off one corner of the town square.
All that was left was to erect a marquee to protect it from the ferocious sun and strap it in with some harnesses. Considering the volumes the soundsystem would soon be reaching, this was vital – as accidents can easily occur (and have done in the past). The first song I recognise is by M’bilia Bel, the so-called ‘Queen Of Congo’. Versions of African hits from the 70s and 80s follow with variations on highlife and soukous, as languages flit from one to another while a strong beat and unmistakable West African guitar remain. Later, the music will get more electronic, but for a few hours here in Colombia on a Sunday afternoon, it’s like being transported to Africa.
The above episode happened in San Basilio de Palenque, or just Palenque for short. It’s a town famous for two things: firstly, it’s the home town of former world boxing champ Antonio ‘Kid Pambelé’ Cervantes; secondly, it was the home of the first free community of runaway slaves in the entirety of the Americas. To this day, the townspeople speak Palenquero, a Creole language created from the Spanish, Portuguese and African languages that the original settlers spoke.
In recent years, this humble town of just 3,500 people has become a potent emblem of a side of Colombian life that, for a long time, went unnoticed, and was often discriminated against. We’re talking about the lives of the Afro-Colombians of the Caribbean coast who, with their gargantuan soundsystems, love and knowledge of African music and seeming necessity for music to soundtrack their daily lives, can lay claim to living in the capital of African music outside of Africa.
Years before the West cottoned on to the delights of African music and ‘world beat’ hit its stride in the 80s, Colombians were already getting down to the finest grooves that Nigeria and Congo had to offer. When slavery was abolished, the majority of slaves in Colombia ended up in important port cities such as Cartagena (an hour’s drive from Palenque) and Barranquilla, where they settled in ghettoes. With the arrival of record players in the 1950s, the descendants of these slaves began creating makeshift systems for backyard parties, connecting small speakers to their turntables and hanging them in trees to spread the sound.
Over time, these systems became more powerful as engineers worked out how to improve amplification, and the picó soundsystem came to life. Though no one knows exactly what the name means – it’s derived either from a ‘pickup’ truck, ‘picking up’ the needle on a turntable, or the name of a portable record player – the picó is the soundsystem that reverberates around Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
“The first picós were in the clubs. After that, they moved to neighbourhood parties in houses under the cover of palm trees and then to bigger outdoor parties, where there could be up to two picós,” remembers Sidney Reyes, a serious record collector and DJ for the Benkos 99.7 FM radio station dedicated to Afro-Colombian music. Using vacuum tubes rather than transistors, these soundsystems had a serious accent on the bass, akin to similar systems in Jamaica and West London. “The picós played música jíbara from Puerto Rico, soca and calypso [from the Caribbean], rock, salsa, vallenato, merengue and samba, but the preference is African music,” explains Reyes.
African music first came to Colombia in the early 70s, following a circuitous route from Congo. “The first records came to Colombia from [the country formerly known as] Zaire and the first of those was Hit Parade #1,” recalls Reyes. “Nestor Rosales was a pilot who worked in Zaire. He sent the album to his son Nelson Corrales in Barranquilla and he gave it to his son, who sold it to the picó El Sibanicú,” he says. “That was the first African record in Colombia.” The African records proved a hit among the locals and soon, many of the picó owners started to accrue them.
DJ Victor Conde was one of the first to bring African music to Cartagena, where his El Conde picó was a big success in the 70s and 80s. Here’s Conde to tell his story: “We started ‘música africana’ with a record called El Mambote [originally titled Mikolo Mileki Mingi, from the Congolese Orchestre Vévé, released in France in 1976] brought straight from Africa by an airline pilot; that was one of the first African records here in Cartagena. When I arrived in Palenque, it was as if a president had arrived, damn!
“One kilometre before getting into town, people would receive the picó; the kids would run after the truck, singing the songs I had to play that night. The picós had the power to break water jugs, blast open roofs, they would give you a toothache. It was strong my brother!
“One time, we were partying for four days straight in Palenque, and on the fifth day, Kid Pambelé arrived, so imagine – we had to party for two more days!”
“I grew up fanatical about the picós,” remembers singer Charles King, who grew up in Palenque. “For me, it was like a reunion of us Afro-Colombians with mother Africa.”
For the owners of the picós, the popularity of African music was a great opportunity. With these new sounds proving a hit, and the scarcity of the records making them unique, the owners started competing for exclusives. “Each had their own peculiarity in the exclusives that you could only hear in each one, and this became an important part for those growing up with African music at that time,”recalls King. So the owners would hand over decent money to anyone willing to import records. Once they had an exclusive, they would scratch off the label to stop anyone finding out the name. As a result of this, very little is known about some of the records that became big successes, with the locals giving them their own Spanish-language monikers.
An interesting example is Paul Simon’s I Know What I Know, which found its way to Colombia but became known as Los Sapitos (The Little Frogs) because of the “ooh” sounds that the backing vocalists made in the chorus.
Among those to hit it big in Colombia were many soukous artists from Congo, such as Lokassa Ya M’Bongo, Pépé Kallé, Rémy Sahlomon and Dr Nico, highlife and Afrobeat artists from Nigeria, including Prince Nico Mbarga, Oriental Brothers International Band and Oliver De Coque, Ivory Coast’s Ernesto Djédjé and other musicians from Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and further afield in Africa.
What made picós different to systems in Jamaica were their designs. Each soundsystem was fitted into a hand-crafted wooden unit, christened with an outlandish name and then painted in bright colours with cartoonish figures. For instance, the importance of Cuba and salsa can be seen in picós such as El Gran Che (The Great Che) and La Salsa De Puerto Rico, though more often than not, the name was all about bragging, as is clear in systems such as El Veterano Indestructible (The Indestructible Veteran) and El Negro Rumbero (The Black Party Lover).
Champeta Comes Alive
It wasn’t long before Colombian artists themselves started to imitate the Afro-Caribbean music they were hearing. Wganda Kenya, Afrosound, Estrellas Del Caribe and Abelardo Carbonó were all artists who took inspiration from the sounds of the picós, with a number of them covering Fela Kuti’s Shakara (a local favourite), making Colombia the first country outside of Africa where Afrobeat was recorded. Son Palenque, led by Justo Valdez, were an important group here as they were all from Palenque, used native Afro-Colombian drum rhythms and even sang in some African languages.
At first, these records were simply referred to as ‘música Africana’ (African music) by the locals, even if they were Caribbean, but by the mid 80s, a new name had emerged. New singers brought up on picó culture emerged, such as Viviano Torres, Charles King and Louis Towers. With few resources, they pioneered a more electronic-based style of soukous, recorded cheaply in small studios with just vocals and an electronic backing track.
Named champeta (after a type of knife used to gut fish by some of the market vendors who would attend the parties), this moniker soon became a bone of contention. The new title became shorthand for the violence that could erupt at picós. Colombia’s radio stations and record labels had always largely ignored Afro-Colombian music, seeing it as violent and vulgar, and this was another case of that prejudice. Though Afro-Colombians make up around 20% of Colombia’s population, they have consistently been one of the most marginalised ethnicities.
“The prejudice against the picós and our music is as permanent as the sun goes out every day,” says King. “The persecutions do not stop, with provocatory decrees [such as banning picó parties] due to accusations of violence and teenage pregnancy, because of the sensual way the people who like our music dance.” For him, and many others, it’s a sign of Colombia’s inequality. “We are a country with a century of internal war because of social indifference; the subject of teenage pregnancy is something almost natural on the part of the sexual awakening of people at an early age, and lack of teaching in the form of parents who have also been parents since their adolescence.”
Recognition At Last
Only recently has the image of champeta and música Africana begun to change, as new generations have discovered the music and culture of Afro-Colombia. New Colombian bands such as Bomba Estéreo, Systema Solar, Kombilesa Mi and Tribu Baharú have incorporated elements of champeta, and the picó culture into their identity. Lucas Silva is a producer and filmmaker who runs Palenque Records, a label devoted to releasing champeta music internationally. “In ’96, I went to Palenque and saw the champeta scene,” he says. “It [champeta] was completely unknown. In ’98/’99, no one was into Colombian music. They were into Buena Vista, Cuban music.” Since then, compilations released by Palenque Records, as well as Soundway Records, Soul Jazz Records, Analog Africa and Vampisoul, have all helped reignite interest in champeta, both old and new.
For Silva, who was brought up in Bogotá in the centre of Colombia, finding this music was more than just fortuitous, it was a discovery of a style he could never have dreamed of: “I felt that champeta opened up a new world of sounds and rhythms that had not been heard before. Frenetic, trance-inducing guitars, tribal, metaphysical harmonies, hip-breaking bass and drum breaks that could disarm anyone. In the roots of African music, it saw a millennial folklore, a polyrhythmic mother to jazz, funk and rock, a harmony of freedom and creativity with the cutting edge”, he says.
Afro-Colombians have finally begun to get their due as innovators within the fields of both Colombian and African music. Their culture continues to thrive: the picó is still an obsession in Palenque and the black neighbourhoods of Barranquilla and Cartagena. The music may favour newer digital sounds, but there can be no doubt that Colombia’s Caribbean coast continues to shine, reflecting its own unique take on African culture.