For decades confined to Colombia’s poor coastal regions and condemned by conservative politicians as violent and corrupting, the African-Latin fusion sound of champeta is finally cracking into the mainstream. April Clare Welsh speaks to Palenque Records founder Lucas Silva to discover the “visionary black music” of a marginalised population. Scroll to the end for a huge champeta playlist.

Sound systems are the radio stations of champeta. Forty years ago, brightly painted “picós”, as they are called in Spanish, could be found in every neighbourhood around Cartagena, the Colombian port city that birthed the percussion-heavy mix of African and Colombian musical styles known as champeta. These Jamaican-inspired handmade structures arrived in Colombia in the 1950s and became a fixture at fiestas, carnivals and family parties along the country’s Caribbean coast, home to much of the country’s Afro-Colombian population. For the next two decades, the selectors – known as picóteras – would spin music from a traditional Latin songbook of salsa, vallenato, guaracha, bolero, tango and rancheras on famous sound systems like La Salsa de Puerto Rico, El Rojo, El Dragon, El Conde, and what is still largely considered to be the most popular picó in Cartagena, El Rey de Rocha.

Picós served a social and communal function for people living in the poorer areas, or barrios, of Cartagena and the region’s largest port, Barranquilla, offering a cheap form of entertainment as well as contributing to the area’s informal economy. When “música Africana” swept the region during the ‘70s and ‘80s, the sound systems played a vital role in building a collective diasporan identity for many Afro-Colombians living in a country heavily scored along race and class lines. Colombia’s black voices have been silenced and suppressed since European colonisers started bringing enslaved Africans to South America in the 16th century, and the country’s black population has largely been confined to the poorer coastal areas since slavery’s abolition. According to the most recent national census, while just over 10% of the country’s population is of African ancestry, the northern section of Colombia’s Pacific coast is over 80% black.

El Rojo sound system
El Rojo sound systemPhoto via: Fabian Altahona

“Champeta was a movement that was both punk and African at its core – musical and cultural liberation”Lucas Silva

The African music phenomenon – which also embraced Caribbean styles like zouk from Martinique and Guadeloupe, soca from Trinidad and reggae and dancehall from Jamaica – soon guaranteed picó owners a steady supply of records from all over Africa. There are different theories as to how these records ended up in Colombia, but most believe that they arrived with West African sailors docking in Cartagena and Barranquilla in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The sailors came with soukous from the Congo basin, Nigerian highlife and South African mbaqanga, and records by artists like Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and Prince Nico Mbarga, Cameroon’s Louisiana Tilda and Ivory Coast’s Ernesto Djédjé. The music was an instant hit with Colombia’s coastal population, or costeños, and was readily absorbed into the region’s picó culture.

Lucas Silva, the Bogota-born owner of champeta-focused label Palenque Records, says Colombians loved the African songs they were hearing so much that they began bootlegging them. “But after physically copying the records as much as they could, a number of Latin musicians decided to make their own versions,” he tells me when me meet in Bogota, the sprawling capital city. “That’s how the champeta blueprint came into being.” Picó owners would rip off record covers and throw away the sleeves to ensure exclusivity and keep their competitors at bay while also renaming the record in Spanish; Fela Kuti´s 1972 track ʻShakaraʼ became ʻShakalao’, for example.

Local record labels soon jumped on the bandwagon and began releasing records by Afro-Colombian artists like Wganda Kenya, who were signed to the prolific recording outpost Disco Fuentes (and who last year released a 12” on JD Twitch’s Autonomous Africa imprint), while other labels like Discos Tropical and Orbe & Costeno also embraced this new phenomenon. (More recently, in 2012 the African and Latin American reissue label Analog Africa documented the movement’s multitudinous sounds in its essential compilation The Colombian Melting Pot: Diablos del Ritmo, which spans everything from Afrobeat to Caribbean funk during the period from 1960 to 1985.)

“You can identify champeta by the pulsating beat and the rhythm of the African guitars which give it its identity,” explains Silva. Champeta has a signature three-part structure: an introduction, a chorus and a frantic, repetitive section called “el Despeluque” (which translates roughly as “messed up hair”, or perhaps more broadly, “lose your shit”). Songs are predominantly sung in Spanish, or the Spanish-based creole language Palenquero, which is native to San Basillio de Palenque, recognised as the first African free town in South America. Lyrics can be emotionally, socially or religiously charged, mostly touching on everyday life.

“Champeta is the most explosive rhythm coming out of the Caribbean’s belly since the end of the century,” writes Silva on his label’s Bandcamp page, “and it’s rewriting the ‘New Testament of Afro-American music’.” It’s exactly these explosive rhythms that I heard blasted from car radios, bars and patios in Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest surviving city. After spending a week in Bogota, I got a dose of Caribbean sunshine over a few days in Cartagena, where I ended up buying a handful of champeta CD-Rs from a market vendor.

“This is the music to dance to,” he excitedly told me, and he wasn’t wrong; two nights later I found myself flailing around to champeta at a small shop-cum-bar near my hotel. Many of the drinking dens in Colombia double up as convenience stores, stocking food like empanadas and various household items. I had just popped in to buy a packet of cigarettes when a Colombian man started talking to me from his table near the counter. A champeta song was playing loudly on the radio as I sat down to join him and his friends for a beer, and after conversing in broken Spanglish for an hour while guzzling down cold bottles of Club Colombia, we got up on our feet for a dance. As my new friend Sebastian told me: “This is the music of the coast. This is ours, this is what we have.”

Ané Swing aka Viviano Torres and Son Palenque's Justo Valdez in Cartagena, 2015.
Ané Swing, aka Viviano Torres, and Son Palenque’s Justo Valdez in Cartagena, 2015.Photo by Lucas Silva

“Champeta was a movement that was both punk and African at its core – musical and cultural liberation for the black population,” Silva later tells me. Differing forms of the champeta dance, which were born from salsa rhythms, Puerto Rican jíbaro and reggae, began as a kind of therapy, although have since progressed into faster, raunchier versions. “This was dancing to unite the collective soul of Colombia’s mixed Indian, Latin and African heritage.”

There are several theories about the origin of the word champeta, but it likely stems from the champeta knife used by workers in Cartagena’s Bazurto market. In the ‘70s, these workers would meet regularly to listen to African music on picós, but over the decades the word has been deliberately sullied by conservatives seeking to attach connotations of violence to the music. This kind of prejudice against the country’s black population has stifled the genre’s growth over the years, with Colombian politicians even attempting to enforce a national ban on champeta, accusing the music of encouraging violence and teenage pregnancy.

“Champeta is a not a violent rhythm or one that is sexually charged,” says Pocho, a member of a traditional champeta group called Tribu Baru, over the phone from his hometown of Barranquilla. “I grew up listening to it and it doesn’t have any negative connotations for me. Yes, champeta is a knife, so people translate a champetura as ‘the one with a knife’ – but it’s all complete sensationalism, of course!”

Although Pocho lives in Barranquilla, the six members of his band met in Bogota six years ago. “At sound system parties you would hear songs from all over the world, but you would mostly hear soukous music,” he says. “About 80% of the music we make is influenced by the soukous that we all grew up listening to, along with Caribbean music from Haiti and reggae from Jamaica – sound systems brought a lot of music to us and we want to show that in our music. We use the aesthetic of the sound systems because to be a champetura, that’s the culture surrounding it all.”

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, a steady stream of homegrown champeta stars – including one of the genre’s best-loved artists, Abelardo Carbonó – lit up the coast’s music scene, while the band Son Palenque, who married local palenquera culture to modern guitar and saxophone sounds, were the leading lights of the champeta criolla movement in the ‘80s (criolla is the Spanish word for ‘creole’), along with Estrellas De Caribe, who seared their sound with a psychedelic edge. Featuring songs sung in the Palenquero language, champeta criolla was largely confined to San Basilio de Palenque, and the town is seen by many as the source of champeta owing to its history as a free town. In the middle of the 17th century, runaway African slaves began settling in their own towns to escape from their oppressors and the risk of being burned to death by the Spanish Inquisition. These settlements became known as palenques, and San Basilio de Palenque was the first of its kind – in 2005, the village was given special heritage status by UNESCO.

Diogenes Salgado, vocalist with psychedelic palenquera band Estrellas De Caribe, who sadly died in 2015.
Diogenes Salgado, vocalist with Estrellas De Caribe, who died in 2015.Photo by: Lucas Silva

“In Bogota in the mid ‘90s everybody hated champeta. They all said it was ‘stupid’ music and too sexual”Lucas Silva

Silva, the founder of Palenque Records and self-styled ‘DJ Champeta-Man’, began researching Afro-Colombian music in the early ‘90s when he was living in France. He flew back to his country in 1994 when he heard about the music that had been gripping the coast, and when he travelled to Palenque he discovered a whole community of artists reinterpreting folk traditions in exciting new ways. In 1998, Silva released the compilation album Champeta Criolla – New African Music From Colombia Vol. 1, bringing the music to a market outside of Colombia, and the record’s popularity helped sow the seeds of Silva’s international reputation. Over the past two decades, Silva has released over 20 champeta records, both on his own label and in collaboration with others, like the Palenque! Palenque! compilation for Soundway in 2010.

Last January, Palenque released a second volume of Champeta Criola subtitled “Visionary Black Music From Colombia”. Spanning music made between 1984 and 1999, the 25 tracks were produced and recorded by what he dubs “the architects of the Champeturo sound of Cartagena,” including Chawala, selector for the Rey De Rocha Sound System, producer Yamiro Marin, studio engineers Luis Garcia and Alvaro Cuellar, and a plethora of singers. The album is a vivid patchwork of African and Latin styles, from Medellin-based Louis Towers’ ‘Mama Africa’, which fuses scratching and nostalgic blasts of accordion with urgent drums, to Latin hip-swing and horns from Batata y Su Rhumba’s ‘Ataole’ and deejay toasting courtesy of Elio Boom’s ‘El Fulo.’ There are also calypso-infused tracks, and the warm call-and-response vocals of Son San’s ‘Mangaina Vae ya’. The album unbottles what Silva refers to as champeta’s “wild cultural mix,” but as he explains, he had to work hard to spread the gospel of champeta outside its coastal home.

“It was a very tough fight. There is a lot of racism in this county and champeta was too new – people didn’t understand it, it was a shock, like with any revolution. I remember coming back to Bogota in the mid ‘90s and everybody hated champeta. They all said it was ‘stupid’ music and too sexual. But the lyrics were just covering normal things about life. Bogota was a very white city in the ‘90s – everyone was listening to rock music at the time. Rock music was for rich people and cumbia and champeta were for the poor people.”

Cassettes from El Rojo “La Cobra de Barranquilla” sound system
Cassettes from El Rojo “La Cobra de Barranquilla” sound systemPhoto via: Fabian Altahona

While Colombian society is by no means a liberal, tolerant utopia, things have started to move forward in recent years, and champeta has begun to be adapted into more commercial, digital strains. Urban champeta is the most-up-to-date electronic refit of the genre, melding dancehall and reggaetón with radio-friendly pop music. Trailblazer Kevin Florez, who began life as a rapper, is its most successful star, having made it onto national radio playlists – a success usually reserved for salsa and reggaeton artists, or those willing to pay the required commercial fees. A Florez song popped up on a restaurant’s playlist when I was eating in Bogota one night; he has made it out of the coast and into the country’s wider musical consciousness.

“Champeta is still a fairly new trend in Bogota,” adds Silva, who this year is celebrating the label’s 20th anniversary with a record of electronic remixes of champeta. “But it’s getting there, and people are starting to support it more at venues, bars and clubs. Along with the social climate, the internet has changed the way the music is consumed, distributed and produced. Everything is different now. New artists are all over the internet and it has broken down the barriers. When I started putting out champeta records, it was at the time confined to the ghetto. Now you have a singer who has a Facebook page with a lot of fans. It’s basically party music, and therefore there has been a proliferation of commercial artists who make a lot of money.”

So champeta is finally becoming commercial. “But it’s like any kind of music,” he warns. “You have good champeta, bad champeta, stupid champeta. It’s for all kinds of tastes. The black artists who are from the ghetto, they want to make money, they want to be famous. They want to go to America, to tour Europe – and what’s so wrong with that? Some of their music I like, some of it I don’t like, but there is more than enough room for all of it.”

April Clare Welsh is on Twitter

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