Champeta: Therapy in the form of visionary Afro-Columbian Music

The rhythms of Cumbia and salsa are synonymous with Columbian music culture. However, Colombia is also the birthplace of a guerrilla cultural movement firmly rooted in African music, known as Champeta. Emerging in the 1970s, this musical phenomenon united Columbias Indian, African and Latin heritages for the first time. Champeta combines Congolese soukous, Nigerian highlife and South African mbaqanga, with further influences from salsa, ríbaro and Caribbean zouk, soca and reggae. Upbeat, percussive and vibrant, Champeta is music to dance to. Flourishing in coastal regions such as Cartagena, Palenque and Baranquilla, it embodies the Afro-Columbian struggle.

With sailors arriving daily at the major port of Cartagena, records from Congo, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania began to infiltrate the local music market. Simultaneously bolstered by Cartagena’s proximity to the Caribbean which saw records arrive from Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, Trinidad and Jamaica. Flamboyantly painted sound systems called picós were erected in the streets of these neighbourhoods from which picoteros would play the newly sourced records for the locals to dance and congregate. 

Although African rhythms had run for centuries in the bloodline of Columbians, it was only in the 1960s and 70s that they started to gain traction among the picoteros who found themselves at the helm of popular musical culture. The music was a huge hit among the Afro-Columbian communities in and around Cartagena and was readily absorbed into the pico culture. At a time of heavy marginalisation and socio-economic deprivation these street parties not only offered free entertainment but also helped build a collective identity for Afro-Columbians. The music itself provided a form of expression referencing spiritual and ritualistic customs as well as political and social issues such as injustice, exclusion and mistreatment. As a result it was condemned by conservatives as rebellious and violent, with politicians attempting to enforce a national ban on Champeta.

However, there was no stopping the burgeoning scene with homegrown champetuos becoming stars on the coastal music scene: Abelardo Carbonó, Son Palenque, Estrellas De Caribe to name just a few. At the time World Music was not a recognised genre, these champetuos were unconscious pioneers, unaware of the Pan-African movement they were part of.

The geographical location of Columbia as well as the impoverished socio-economic status of many of the collectors meant that they had to work hard to get hold of the rare records. Exclusivity was key to their success with the result that picoteros would erase the information from the LP or destroy the cover in order to ensure that rival picoteros could not track down the same record. This facilitated the re-imagination of African music by locals and the creation of a fantastic Africa tucked away on Columbias Caribbean coast. 

Champeta remained underground up until the turn of the century, largely due to the racist narrative underpinning Columbias history. People who danced in front of the picos were called Champetuo, a derogatory term meaning ragamuffin or ghetto boy. The word Champeta is derived from the knives fishermen and labourers would hide in their trousers when attending the parties. This contributed to its reputation as lawless and as a result it received continuous prosecution from official authorities.

Champeta itself is like a knife, it cuts Columbia in two, it represents the break away from colonial traditionalism and the arrival of a new modernity. It wasnt just black music, it represented a liberation struggle for these people. This is captured beautifully in Lucas Silvas 1996 film, Los Reyes Criollos de la Champeta, which gives us an authentic picture of the musical revolution that was taking place at the time.

Los Reyes Criollos de la Champeta - 1996 film by Lucas Silva

Lucas Silva, more commonly known as DJ Champeta-Man, began to source rare African records in Europe to sell to collectors and picoterosback in his native Columbia. Lucas tapped into the particular sound made popular by the champetuos which gave precedence to African music made for African people, rather than the Europeanised afro-funk. In 1996 Silva founded Palenque Records which similarly steered away from the tastes of European labels and favoured the afro world both in the records produced in Columbia and those recorded elsewhere. Palenque Records is named after San Basilio de Palenque which was recognised as the first African free town in South America and is seen as the birthplace of Champeta. [Palenques were settlements formed in the middle of the 17th century by runaway African slaves escaping from their slave drivers on the plantations.] 

Small but mighty, Palenque Records has been instrumental in putting Champeta on the map and since then it has become hugely popular throughout Colombia as well as conquering the hearts of people all over the world. Silva sees everything through a filmmakers lens, commenting that an album is like a movie; it has to convey images and stories to its listener. With this as its guiding principle, Palenque Records has successfully reinstated Afro-Columbian music as a significant genre beginning with the 1998 release of Champeta Criolla – New African Music from Colombia Vol.1which saw this genre reach the international market for the first time. Silva was deemed mad by his peers in Columbia for promoting Champeta, however this record successfully provoked a shift in attitude towards Afro-Columbian culture. In predominantly white cities such as Bogota, Silva witnessed a newfound interest in music much closer to home than the European rock that had held the monopoly for the previous two decades. 

Palenque Records continues to break down borders by promoting a Pan-African movement which prioritises and protects the root sounds. Silva is currently working on a new film about Igbo music in East Nigeria which has led him to legendary highlife artists such as Oriental Brothers International Band and Oliver Nayoka. At the heart of the label is the ever-present struggle against colonial mentality and slavery which Silva considers of upmost importance. Music brings these issues to the surface, it can make people dance while simultaneously change their way of thinking.

Check out Palenque Records’ catalogue over on Bandcamp.