From the Afrobeat indie of New York’s Vampire Weekend to the ongoing rise of Mali’s Amadou & Mariam, African music has been the success story of recent times. One country, however, was hip to African grooves almost 40 years before the rest of the world.
At a time when samba and salsa were sweeping South America, Colombia was dancing to records by Nigeria’s Oriental Brothers International Band and Congo’s Dr Nico. The records found a home at picós, sound systems that brought street parties to the Afro-Colombian towns along the Caribbean coast.”African music came to Colombia in the early 70s and the poor communities went crazy for it,” says Lucas Da Silva, a Colombian DJ who has put together Palenque Palenque, a new collection of Africa-inspired Colombian music from the 70s and 80s. “In 1972 a few sailors brought records back from Nigeria. Then record labels sent producers out to discover African records for the DJs to play. It’s a unique phenomenon.”
One of the first picós to play African music was the El Conde sound system in Cartagena. An airline pilot brought over a 45 called El Mambote by Congo’s Orchestre Verve and gave it to DJ Victor Conde, who duly played it on the sound system. Playing that record turned him into an overnight sensation.
With African records in short supply, a picó lived and died by its tunes. Labels were scratched off, false names were given – anything to retain exclusivity over an Afro party anthem. Tracks sung in Zulu or Ibo were given new names according to what people thought they heard. One El Conde anthem became known as My Grandfather’s Pyjamas.
The next stage was for musicians to record their own versions of African songs, and so champeta – the Latin-tinged response to music from Nigeria, South Africa and Congo – was born. The greatest champeta star of them all was Abelardo Carbonó, a one-time policeman who sang rough, spirited versions of songs from Haiti and the French Caribbean. “I liked doing strange things, I guess,” says Carbonó. “I mixed African music with rock, even Chinese or Arab music. I like to play like I’m not from Colombia.”
Champeta became the music of black Colombia, but by the 90s the movement had died as digital technology destroyed the exclusivity of sound-system culture. When Da Silva rediscovered champeta a decade later, he found its former leading lights, once big stars, living in obscurity and poverty. “The 70s were a crazy time in Colombia,” says Da Silva. “It was the hippy era and the musicians didn’t think they were doing anything important.”
Carbonó is a case in point. “He has hardly any money at all,” says Da Silva of the former policeman, who gets by playing guitar for an orchestra in the port city of Barranquilla. “He was amazed that anybody was interested in the music he made back in the 70s because the rest of the country has forgotten about it.”
Now Da Silva is making a new record with Carbonó, while two compilations – Palenque Palenque on Soundway and The Afro Sound of Colombia on Vampisoul – are introducing the rest of the world to champeta. But why did Colombians love African music so much in the first place? “This music had a big success in Colombia because of the large black population along the coast, and the African culture that’s strong here,” Carbóno replies. Then, after a moment’s reflection, he says: “Actually, it’s because there are a lot of donkeys here in Barranquilla. When I was a kid, I was listening and dancing to their noises all the time. The African records reminded us of those donkeys.”