Somehow, as I sit here listening to Bing Crosby croon about snow (yes, I am listening to Christmas music in the tropical heat), I realize that I have yet to really write about music in Colombia. A gross over-sight, I apologize, because never has music defined a place more for me than in Colombia.Music pumps out of cars and buses, blasts from speakers in peoples’ homes, spills into neighborhoods from clubs, and emits – a bit muffled from cell phones or small portable speakers (with an USB jack) - in peoples’ hands as they walk down the street. And Colombians as a group love to randomly break into a few lines of a song, whether they are cooking, working, or sitting with you having a conversation.
Like its different regions, ethnicities, and cultures within the country, music defines and celebrates diversity in Colombia.
Let’s get Shakira out of the way first. Yes, Shakira is from Colombia and definitely the most famous and successful Colombian musician. Some of her songs are popular here, especially at discotectas, but in many ways she is more of an international pop sensation than a hit in Colombian anymore. I have heard “Waka Waka” in pretty much every town I have visited though.
But on the coast, and especially in Santa Ana, two very specific types of music are dominant: champeta and vallenato, but of which I have mentioned in various other blog posts but have failed to properly define or explain.Champeta is more African than anything, and is the name for both the music and dance that was born of the poorest of Afro-Colombian neighborhoods in and around Cartagena (hence why it is so popular in Santa Ana). Wikipedia (yes, there is a Wikipedia entry on all of these types of music if you want to learn more) calls champeta both a “cultural phenomenon and musical genre.” Very true. Because champeta is only popular within this small culture in Colombia, it can become an identity. Everyone has to like champeta in Santa Ana. Some of it is very distinctly Colombian (listen to popular artist Lilibeth’s “No Vuelves Más” here, while others are so unchanged from the origins of the music in West Africa, that I feel like I’ve got to be in Tanzania not Colombia.
If champeta is the music of Afro-Colombians on the coast, the most wide-spread costal music is vallenato. Vallenato is a mix between African and European music to create this folk music from the northern coast (especially Santa Marta and Riohacha). Guitars and sometimes flutes are popular, but traditionally must be accompanied by a guacharaca (like a guiro), an accordion, and a small drum called la caja vallenata. Vallenato bands are hard to miss in the coastal vallenato hats which if you ever visit a Colombian Caribbean town, are becoming popular for tourists as well. Its repetitive rhythms constantly blast out of homes and businesses in Santa Ana, but also shops and even hotels in the bigger cities. Unlike champeta, which is still looked down upon by the elite and middle class, the folk music of vallenato, is much more accepted along the whole coast. For a taste of vallenato click here: the problem is the best vallenato was made in trhe 1960s and 70s, so we hear a lot of the same stuff. Grammy-award winner Carlos Vives is famous for combining vallenato with pop and other Latin rhythms (characterized in songs such as “El Rock de Mi Pueblo”) which I also like but I have yet to hear in Santa Ana…
I am going to contradict myself a little here. There is one type of music popular in every corner of Colombia: salsa. First introduced in the 1960s, it has been adopted to be one of Colombia’s most popular dances and radio favorites. Cali, in the southwest interior, is the undisputed salsa capital of Colombia, but clubs, radio stations, bars, and homes from the Guajira to the Amazon blast it and dance to it and nowadays, both the dance and the music have very specific Colombian styles. Certainly one of the most popular and famous salsero was Joe Arroyo, a Afro-Colombian from Barranquilla/Cartagena whose famed continued from the 1970s until his recent death this year. The hit “La Rebellion” is the unofficial anthem of Cartagena, that is for sure.
And then there is cumbia, which is the more traditional and complicated Colombian rhythm that has actually influenced other international music more than any other. Then there is the Spanish-influenced Andean music, the joropo from Los Llanos (the eastern plains in Colombia) and more. Colombians listen to reggae, hip-hop, electronica, U.S. pop, and on and on.
But music, interrupted or not, is always everywhere. When the power goes off in town it gets almost eerily quiet. The contrast is those Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when I am trying to work, watch a movie or sleep at night and from across the field, through my room walls, the music is so loud that I would have turned it down if I had control. How loud it is for those who sit next to the speakers, trying to shout to be heard, I know and try to avoid. How my students aren’t deaf by the time they graduate from high school, I’ll never know.
The music is one part of Colombia I can carry back with me in my suitcase and experience even in the States. And it is such an integral part of the culture in every part of this country, it’ll be almost like being back. I’ll just be missing the interruptions of “Ohhhhh…LIMPICA!” interrupting the variety of pop and folk songs Colombia offers.