Colombia’s Most Controversial Music is Going Mainstream

In the barrios of Colombia's sun-drenched Caribbean coast, the musical phenomenon known as champeta is what gets people dancing. On a recent day, at the El Gran Che picó in the coastal city of Barranquilla, couples swiveled around the dancefloor as round after round of cold Club Colombia beers circulated. The picó, a musical symbol of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is a powerful sound system consisting of a console, amplifiers, and a vinyl collection. Like the outdoor sound systems common in other parts of the Caribbean, it is where entire neighborhoods congregate, with each picó exuding its individual personality via flashy airbrush artwork, bright lights, and bass-y thunder.

A police truck passed by, probably on patrol. Detractors of picó culture and champeta claim that the music is an excuse for vice, promoting drugs, alcohol, and brawls. Intense polemic surrounds champeta. Its overtly sexual lyrics and accompanying dance style have been blamed for promoting promiscuity and youth pregnancy. At least one politician suggested a ban.

Originating from Cartagena's Afro-descendant community, champeta combines the structure and characteristics of Latin music with African musical elements and instruments to create a hybrid musical language. In a society as culturally and socially stratified as Colombia, champeta has long been deeply divisive and controversial. But in recent years, following a global pattern of innovative youth culture driving mainstream trends and piquing corporate interests, it has shifted from the periphery and into the center.

“Champeta is the music of the communities on the margins of society,” said Walter Hernández, co-founder of the music and art collective Systema Solar and director of the community radio station Vokaribe 89.6 FM. The station is located in Barranquilla’s La Paz district, a neighborhood often associated with poverty and crime. Broadcasting from the Biblopaz library, Vokaribe plays local and regional music and, in the spirit of champeta, connects listeners to music from the rest of the world.

Sometimes we were called delinquents for having accepted African music. [But] African music transports us, although we do not understand the messages in their different languages,” said Reyes. “Colombian champeta is nothing more than fusion of African music sung in Spanish, or using African tracks.

The term champeta itself comes from the name of the knife that is used to gut and scale fish by fishmongers of Cartagena’s Bazurto market. The knife is also a symbol of violence and criminality, hence the pejorative term champetúo, used to refer to the inhabitants of the poorest, predominantly Afro-Colombian neighborhoods in Cartagena’s center.

“The main reason why champeta is stigmatized is because it is from a part of society that is excluded socially and economically,” said Hernández. “Champeta is exercised against racial discrimination and social class discrimination.”

His band, Systema Solar, derives its name from Ivorian reggae artist Alpha Blondy’s 12-piece band The Solar System. According to Hernández, Systema Solar’s hybrid music continues in the tradition of Afro-Caribbean music as a mode of resistance and struggle, going back as far as the 16th century when the cimarrón — or maroons, Africans who had escaped from slavery — formed independent settlements.

“We narrate the reality of Colombia,” he said. “By voicing issues through music, we can start to have important conversations.” Systema Solar’s song “Tumbamurallas,” an infectious track about the Colombian-Venezuelan crisis, was listed as one of the Village Voice’s top 50 protest songs in 2016.

African music, specifically Congolese music, first came to Colombia in the ’60s. “Nestor Corrales, a Colombian aviator who worked in [the country formerly known as] Zaire, brought the first discs to Colombia,” explained Sidney Reyes of Benkos 99.7 FM, a radio station founded four years ago to give members of the Afro-Colombian community a station of their own.

Soon, the records started coming in from everywhere and by the ’80s, music from across the continent was popular in Colombia. At the time, the picó El Conde, known as “the Bible of African music,” was the place to go for African music. Picó owners would rip the identifying label off vinyls so as to hide the identity of the artist and stake exclusive claim on hot new songs.

Alex Puerta, the host of a show on Vokaribe 89.6 FM and an expert in el mundo picótero, recalled the first time that the ’80s Congolese rhumba phenomenon “Nakei Nairobi” by the singer M'bilia Bel was played in Cartagena. “It was thirty years ago, at the El Conde picó. It was a huge hit even though we did not know what the words meant,” said Puerta.

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