Colombian 'Champeta.' (Popular Music Genre with Colombian Roots)

By Leymarie, Isabelle | UNESCO Courier, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Colombian 'Champeta.' (Popular Music Genre with Colombian Roots)


Leymarie, Isabelle, UNESCO Courier


Born in the shanty-towns of Colombia, one of the most inventive forms of popular music today

The Cartagena region, on Colombia's Atlantic coast, is fertile agricultural land which also produces bumper crops of new music. For years, artists from all over the Caribbean performed at the city's popular music festival in the old wooden bullring, an event fostering cross-fertilization between various musical currents. Another rich source of sounds is the San Basilio palenque, a former settlement of fugitive slaves 70 kilometres away, which has jealously preserved centuries-old Bantu traditions such as lumbalu, a ritual for the dead accompanied by instrumental music, dances and songs, Son, a beat from Cuba's Oriente province, came to the palenque in the early 1930s, where it is still played on instruments that are no longer used in Cuba.

For many years African slaves passed through Cartagena, and even today the city is the meeting point of a wide array of outside influences. In the late 1960s, seamen brought back records of new African popular music, including soukous from Zaire (which stems from Cuban son), mbaqanga from South Africa, makossa from Cameroon and highlife from Ghana and Nigeria, with which the young local black community immediately identified. Soukous caught on like wildfire among young people from the palenque who sensed their Bantu roots in the music.

It wasn't long before local DJs and musicians were experimenting with these rhythms, reinterpreting them in their own way and, in the early eighties, blending them with rap and raggamuffin in lively remixes. That is when a new kind of music emerged in the black neighbourhoods in and around Cartagena and in the San Basilio palenque. It was first known as champeta, then as terapia criolla ("creole therapy"). Today the terms are used interchangeably.

Self-taught musicians

Born in the slums, champeta at first developed surreptitiously outside the mainstream of cumbia and vallenato, internationally known forms of Colombian popular music which also originated on the Atlantic coast, and of salsa, which started in Cuba but has taken deep root in Colombia.

Champeta is played over huge sound systems, or picos (from the English term "pickup"), painted with psychedelic designs in villages and run-down city neighbourhoods. A kind of Latin American soukous, it features a throbbing bass, front-and-centre guitar and percussion solos, repeated "breaks" and riffs of Haitian compas, Trinidadian soca and rap. At first it was popular among gangs of hoodlums who squared up to each other around the picos with long fishing knives known as champetas (hence the name of the music). Then it spread among the working classes, the people of the port and door-to-door salesmen.

Champeta was created by self-taught musicians who sing using both the typically African phrasing of the San Basilio palenque and the community's Bantu-based dialect. The records are produced by small, sparsely-equipped, storefront independent labels. Just about anyone can drop in off the street for an a cappella audition. But as the Colombian film-maker Lucas Silva shows in his documentary Los reyes criollos de la champeta ("The Creole Kings of Champeta"), champetuos (exponents of champeta) have very fixed ideas when it comes to music. …

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