At first, when listening to Champeta, you might believe that it is music from Africa. This is because it originally is. Champeta not only derives from the African tribal music brought over to Colombia during the slave trade hundreds of years ago, but also recently crystallized as a genre when the port cities on the Colombian Caribbean coast began importing a steady trickle of African music LPs from the continent during the 1970s. If it were not for the lyrics sung in Spanish, one could easily imagine the music being from a lion-stalked savannah, but it is instead a reflection of the mix of cultures and historical trends that make up the Afro-Colombian experience.
Taking the music all the way back in time to its real roots requires going back before independence to when Colombia was still a Spanish colony. The city of Cartagena, a port on the Caribbean Sea, was a major center for the importation of African slaves. However, a good amount of slaves managed to flee and hide in the jungle, where they founded free cities known as “Palenques”, including the first and most iconic, San Basilio de Palenque, located about two hours south of Cartagena by bus. Even today, most of the population in these towns is descended from these runaway slaves, and in San Basilio a language called Palenquero, a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, and the African language Kikongo from Angola and the Congo, is still spoken. The New York Times has written about this language, which is currently in danger of extinction.
In the 1970s, sailors traveling to Africa began bringing back records by African superstars such as Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, who were mixing North American rhythm and blues with traditional African forms of music in genres such as soukous and highlife from countries like Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. DJs began playing the records at house and street parties on giant loudspeakers called picós, which often had crazy and colorful graffiti-like designs painted over them. The records were popular at parties, and the relative scarcity of new and novel African records made the DJs competitive. As dancers and fans became familiar with specific records, DJs were loathe to share music with one another, as they wanted to throw the biggest parties with the most varied collection of vinyl. DJs scratched the names and artists off of records to keep their favorites to themselves and their own parties. Demand for new music began to outstrip supply, and Colombians responded by making their own imitations of the African music they were hearing but by mixing it with reggae and soca riddims as well as the Latin percussion from cumbia and salsa, and champeta was born. Or perhaps it is better to say, the Afro-Colombian descendents of African slaves finally reconnected with their roots and brought the journey of their music from one continent to the other full circle.
The name Champeta comes from a knife that is similar to a machete, used on the coast for chopping fruits and vegatables, cutting sugarcane, and sometimes self-defense. But it is also a code word, originally used to describe the working-class black people who would become the music’s audience as vulgar, ignorant, and above all poor. Similar to Yankee Doodle, the Afro-Colombians adopted the term as their own, and the music reflects the vitality of a people that live close the edge of socioeconomic calamity and without pretension. Some of the cheapest electronic instruments are used to make the popular version of the music that dominates radios in Cartagena these days, including Casio keyboards with pew pew laser sounds and drum machines that sound stuck in the 80s. A reverb-drenched DJ can often be heard on mixes and between songs, who sounds like the guy hectoring you about discounts on vegetables at the food market. The picó speakers are garish and as huge as possible, and slathered with brightly colored drawings and graffiti, not unlike pimped-out cars or the old hip-hop tradition of carrying around the biggest, loudest boombox possible in the United States. Then there is the way people dance to the music, which is basically dry humping to a beat. The music is a like a car-crash combination of Afro-Colombian history and culture, maximized to make a party rage, but it’s not exactly polite or demure.
As you might expect with music so connected to street culture, it can be difficult to find a good entry point to see whether this music is your kind of thing. Short of going to a party in the barrios of Cartagena, it is tough finding solid compilations and that tell the story of Champeta or provide a solid’s disc’s worth of tunes that get the party rolling. There is also the fact that more official releases tend to emphasize the roots of the music passed down through oral tradition through the centuries rather than the more pop-sounding music that began showing up in the 1970s as a response to African funk, in addition to the fact that most releases available outside of Colombia are through one record label, Palenque Records, and its enigmatic founder Lucas Silva. There is still a lot to explore in this genre, and most available releases only scratch at the surface, but are an excellent introduction. Below I have listed some albums and blog mixes to get you started on your way to becoming an Afro-Colombian funk fanatic.
Palenque Palenque: Champeta Criolla & Afro Roots in Colombia 1975-91
Soundway Records does an excellent job here showing how Champeta music developed from copying African records to a real genre reflecting Colombian culture. The 28-page liner notes were written by Lucas Silva, who also helped choose the track listing with Soundways records honcho Miles Cleret. Packed with great photos of champeta record sleeves and musicians sporting short shorts and afros. For a great comparison of how the music changed when transported from Africa to Colombia, compare the original version of Nigerian Fela Kuti’s “Shakara” with the cover by Lizandro Meza y su Conjunto that is included on this compilation.
Shakara by Fela Kuti:
Shacalao by Lizandro Meza y su Conjunto:
Colombiafrica – The Mystic Orchestra: Voodoo Love Inna Champeta-Land
If any Champeta disc is going to make you fall in love with the genre through its sheer and unrestrained joy, this is the one. This jam session brings together champeta stars like Viviano Torres, Luis Towers, and Justo Valdez with African musicians Dally Kimoko, Diblo Dibala, Sékou Diabaté, Nyboma, and Rigo Star, who come from countries such as Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Guinea. The sunny, fluid African soukous guitar lines melt perfectly into Colombian accordion riffs and horn charts, with bouncy rhythms throughout making this perfect for a party or just picking yourself up out of a funk.
Batata y Su Rumba Palenquera: Radio Bakongo
Palenquero Singer and songwriter Paulino Salgado, or “Batata” (Sweet Potato) was in his seventies when he recorded this album, but you would never guess it from the vitality of these recordings. In his career has a drummer, he toured for two decades with famous Colombian singer Toto la Momposina as a drummer, and she recorded a number of his compositions as well. This is the only available album where Salgado actually led the proceedings before passing away in 2004, and the “Vallenato goes to Africa” sound of this disc caps a career spent keeping the musical links between Colombia and Africa alive.
For stuff that is closer to what you might hear on a contemporary Cartagena radio station, try this mix, which was put together by Fabian Altahona, who edits the Africolombia blog. The blog is a great source for all kinds of Afro-Colombian music, especially dubbed into MP3s from the original vinyl records, including lots of champeta but also Afro-Colombian contributions to such traditionally Colombian genres as cumbia, mapalé, porro, and salsa.
For myriad examples of Champeta musicians playing live and dancers grinding alone, check out this documentary, also put together by Lucas Silva (Warning: it’s in French):
This snippet of an English-language documentary describes how a famous welterweight champion boxer from San Basilio de Palenque helped to bring electricity, and thus sound systems, to the town back in the 1970s, unwittingly revolutionizing Afro-Colombian music. This documentary also features some eye-opening interviews with hard-partying senior citizen Palenqueros, as well as footage from a local percussionist’s funeral: