Cadences of Colombia
December 29, 2016 | 1:01 pm

Music travels in Colombia, South America

Colombia - land of El Dorado, of coffee beans, the FARC, the Andes… and fabulous music!

Back in September 2016 I went to Colombia in South America, on a ‘Songlines’ world music magazine holiday, the first tour the magazine has put on to this fascinating country now much more appealing for tourism as it gets to grips with transforming its violent past. This was, of course, a music tour in the same vein as the one to Senegal and taking in a variety of places, our travelling from the mountainous capital of Bogota north to Medellin lower down in a mountain valley to the tropical city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. Being a lover of African and Latin American music this trip seemed to tick 2 boxes for me, and I didn’t really know my Cumbia from my Champeta so felt I had a lot to explore and learn!

Colombian music varies between its regions  – the Caribbean Coast has influences from Cuba and the Caribbean islands (notably salsa and reggae), the Pacific Coast has groups of people of African descent and where the local geography has kept them fairly isolated, both which is reflected in their music, and thirdly the Amazonian plains where the music has much influence from indigenous people.

We started off in Bogota, the cool capital - both in terms of its temperature (as it is high up in the mountains) and its musical nightlife. To give us some much-needed context, we had a couple of introductions into Colombian music from Mario Galeano (a musician playing with Ondatropica and Cumbia Freinte) and from Lucas Silva (of Palenque Records).

Sitting in the unpretentious, independent cultural space of Matik Matik, Mario talked us through the history of Colombian music through a slide show and audio samples from a large collection of vinyl discs from seminal artistes, explaining how the influx and movement of African slaves and the native geography has contributed to the different sounds throughout the country. One of the interesting points I remember is how the indigenous instruments like pipes are still used in many bands, but also historically how the pipe’s lines in tunes had often been appropriated by brass instruments when the latter were introduced to the continent. Kuisis pipes are interesting to see and hear - their being formed from a cactus stem and with an interesting tulip-shaped head and mouthpiece fashioned from wax, charcoal and feathers!

Lucas is a film-maker as well as running Palenque Records, and in our hotel’s little cinema he played us snippets of one of his films, also on YouTube See 3:30 for the Afro-Colombian Sexteto Tabala playing ‘Esta Tierra No Es Mia (This land is not mine)’ with notable Cuban son influence, and my favourite number of theirs.

Coinciding with our visit, was the Bogotá Music Market (BoMM), an expo for those in the music business, and at which we met the Editor of Songlines who was there in a business capacity. Our group just went for the evening Showcases, each of which featured 3 bands per night of up-and-coming or even established national talent. Sitting in a rather soulless concert hall, but proudly sporting our BoMM badges & lanyards and enjoying a complimentary welcome drink, we were all particularly taken with Curupira - a fusion of Cumbia and rock but also featuring a duo of Kuisis; Sango Groove - a jazzy Afrobeat & funk influenced outfit; and the Colombian Pacific sounds of Canalón de Timbiquí - a very African sound with balafon and djembes and predominantly female vocals.

Our next stop was north to Medellín, beautifully situated nestling amongst the mountains, but at lower altitude than Bogota - at once easier to breathe but vastly hotter. And speaking of heat, Medellín of course was once the hotbed of narcotics baron Pablo Escobar who founded the Medellín cartel. After his assassination the passing decades saw increasing tensions between the government and the residents of the city, and there was a near-breakdown in community relations. However things have moved on vastly and there are transformation projects going on, with water & electricity now being installed by the government, and projects to provide artistic and cultural channels for young people to put their energy into instead. We visited one of these: Comuna 13 (a comuna being an administrative district) which had been one of the most dangerous areas of all - full of assassins and drug barons. But in recent years the 4 Elementes Skuela was established to harness 4 artistic elements – music (hip hop), dancing (specifically break dancing), art (graffiti) and poetry (rap). From this project hip-hop bands like C15 have emerged, cutting records, with even a 2015 success at the Colombian Grammy awards for best hip-hop band. We visited the HQ to see their mixing decks and even a small retail shop, and try our hand at graffiti art - of course I sprayed ‘Mosaica’ with some mosaic-like patterns on the wall! And it’s harder than you might think…!! However the main event was the wonderful tour of this district which, being high up the hills, is accessible by a rather scary & hairy bus ride - going at high speed up and down steep streets and round bends dodging equally speedy traffic, that made you hang on to whatever - or whomever! - you could! One of the hip-hop and graffiti artists and his son took us on a walking tour of this district, where all around the very humble dwellings is colourful graffiti on walls and that really means something - often symbolic (like peace, loyalty and other positive traits), often beautiful and always well-crafted. The government have even put in escalators so that the residents can easily go down the hillside to the city business area and find work, and also make the area accessible to others too. A return journey via the escalators rather than scary bus was quite welcome!

Also in Medellín we spent a morning with salsa trumpeter Maite Hontelé in her Merlín Producciones record label premises. This Dutch-born trumpeter has lived in Colombia for several years now, and is much in demand. We were made very welcome with ‘nibbles’ and delicious lemon tea - much needed in the searing heat of the day. After telling us her musical life story and how the record label started we had a tour of the recording studio and the sound-mixing studio which to any iCompositions-er is fascinating, and I took the opportunity to ask her sound engineer on the best way to get hand drums sounding ‘real’! To polish this off, we had VIP seats at her evening concert featuring both her band and one other, Los Hacheros - actually from New York but authentic in the Latin American sound. A rather plush concert hall this time with plenty of people getting up to salsa dance outside of our VIP cordon, and which I would have joined in had anyone in my group been up for it too!

Not everything was great though - we had one real ‘turkey’ of an excursion where one nightspot was like an overly-crass & kitsch Las Vegas playground and with no other punters as it was far too early in the evening for anyone else to be there (9pm), and awful music when it did appear (11pm). However we had whiled away the time with a complimentary local liqueur and had fun bashing out rhythms on percussion instruments that were lying around the place for punters to have a go on - from hand drums to metal scrapers to shakers made out of bottle tops threaded through a wire ring! I taught my group how to play a Cuban son clave so the evening wasn’t entirely wasted!! But come 11pm we scarpered and made our way into the downtown area of restaurants and bars to get back into the real world and catch any street buskers or cafe concerts.

Heading up to the Caribbean coast, things only got hotter! The tropical and humid heat of Cartagena de Indias was matched by the hot rhythms of a late night show by champeta star Charles King at the iconic Bazurto Social Club. Again, the nightlife starts late with his majesty only appearing at around midnight, but up until then it seemed that anyone could take the stage to lead a line-up dance of champeta (not unlike aerobic dance or zumba) from the recorded music played by DJs. I was the only one of my group to throw caution to the wind and join in. But even I could only stand a 20 minute burst of this frantic and high-octane movement! Other nights we hunted for music in the beautiful streets of Spanish colonial architecture, and found the rootsy percussion and dance in one of squares performed by Candela Viva. This group was a mixture of drummers and dancers with swirling skirts, set against the picturesque backdrop of the statue of Simón Bolívar, and you couldn’t help but move to the intoxicating African-style drum beats.

Another highlight was a day at the nearby small town of San Basilio de Palenque, founded by escaped slaves as a refuge in the 17th century and still a home of African culture with an active music scene. I felt it was like stepping back in time, seeing horses & motorcycles in the rutted roads, and the rather dilapidated housing of wattle & daub with thatched roofs and houses with brightly coloured walls and corrugated iron roofs. Into one of these humble dwellings of corrugated iron roofing, colourfully painted walls and beautiful tiled floors, we were warmly invited for lunch and lectures. Lunch was the most gorgeous fresh fish, corn cake and other native vegetables all served on a huge leaf with a wooden scoop for cutlery, and musically accompanied by a huge ‘Pico’ sound system playing recorded music by M’bilia Bel from Congo. The lectures were again of musical history and given by local musicians of international standing. After a tour around this fascinating town and some cold beers in a cafe we were treated to an acapella performances by Justo Valdés (of Son Palenque) and of the aforementioned ‘Esta Tierra No Es Mia’ by no less than Rafael Cassiani of Sexteto Tabala, in a shady little wooden gazebo. Rafael was a delight, telling his story in such a torrent of Spanish that our interpreter couldn’t get a word in edgeways and in the end we just let him flow. We were giggling a bit, and that made him start to smile and laugh too but probably because he thought we were amused at his story. To this day I have no idea what he was saying to us, only that he thoroughly enjoyed saying it!! Later and in contrast, we were brought bang up to date by listening to a performance from young percussion/hip-hop outfit Kombilesa Mi. Their ‘concert hall’ was another simple house covered in graffiti from previous visitors and again we were invited to add to it, so ‘Mosaica’ made her second mark in Colombia! As we departed on this Sunday late afternoon the volume from the Pica was increasing and we were told it would get progressively louder until by evening it would be one big throbbing sound!

Like all Songlines tours this mixes music with more typical cultural visits too - and this all helps the visitor get a sense of the place and a context for the music. So for example, in Bogota we visited the Gold Museum which has ancient gold treasures relating to the legend of El Dorado, took a 5 hour city ‘food & drink’ trek stopping off at various cafes and outdoor markets for real Colombian food, 'tinto' coffee and coca tea (used for altitude sickness relief) and which allowed us to explore much of the more working quarter of this diverse city. We also walked around the La Candelaria artisan district, took a cable car up to Montserrate where there were wonderful views of the city, and journeyed out to the Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral - only 1 of 2 in the world! This helix of tunnels is a former salt mine and commemorates all who worked here, but is also a functional cathedral although not recognised by Rome. In Medallín we took a cable car ride over the city and marvelled at the integrated transport of buses, metro and cable car available to residents for their daily commute. On the Caribbean coast we had a historic tour of Cartagena old city, and we chose one day to go to a nearby bird sanctuary which had the most beautiful coloured birds, followed by a visit to Playa Blanca - supposedly one of the best white sand beaches in this part of the world - but it was more like Clacton-super-Caribbean! Whilst it had lovely sand & palm trees it was also very crowded, and with a myriad of people wanting to sell you things!

At the end of the 12 days I can honestly say I now know my Cumbia from my Salsa from my Champeta! I think all of us compiled play-lists of our favourite songs & tunes, and Colombia is now definitely added as a firm favourite to my world music interest. I cannot recommend these holidays highly enough. Although Songlines is UK-based, their land-only itineraries mean that the small groups are often international in nature. My next one is hopefully going to be Tango in Argentina!



becwil's artist icon
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Wow! This sounds like a great trip! I enjoyed reading your travelog and really appreciate all the information. Thanks! I look forward to Tango in Argentina.
Latest Song: Look Around (AITW)
Artist Page Send Message December 29, 2016 | 4:09 pm

DonnaMarilyn's artist icon
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Wow, Rosalind! I'd wondered what you've been up to! smiley What a fascinating musical/cultural adventure you've had.
Latest Song: Westering
Artist Page Send Message December 31, 2016 | 9:33 am

zincshed's artist icon
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Thanks for sharing your experiences it sounds like your appreciation of the music was given a big boost.
Artist Page Send Message January 3, 2017 | 7:30 pm

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