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Cumbia: The Afrosound of Columbia

A  2-volume set and the hisstory of how African music captivated Columbia

Over two and a half hours of funky, hot Afro-influenced tracks from the 60s and 70s golden period of the seminal Discos Fuentes label in Colombia. 43 dancefloor hits provide an irresistible mix of genres: salsa, cumbia, boogaloo, tropical funk, chicha…

To understand what this compilation refers to as the Afrosound of Colombia, you have to acknowledge the profound role of African cultures in Colombian life and music. The story of the Afrosound is a tale of transformation. It tells of the enslaved African peoples who were taken to Colombia, who mixed with Europeans and indigenous inhabitants (by force or choice), and were eventually set free, as well as the escaped cimarrones (maroons) that lived in palenques (fortified settlements) and continued their own traditions. The Afrosound sings of a double Diaspora, first the trek in chains during the infamous Middle Passage from the Motherland of Africa to the so-called New World, then much later, the migration from the plantations to the cities.

This release deals with the unique sounds produced as a result of the inventive mixing of pop and roots that took place in the urban confines of the Discos Fuentes studios, far from Colombia’s coastal regions. For our purposes, the invented term Afrosound can serve as the title of a thrilling and sometimes odd soundtrack that chronicles the diffusion and evolution of the musical culture from those coastal regions as it was brought inland, where it was translated, simplified, mass marketed, manufactured, modernized, “whitened”, globalized, recycled, and then sent back to the world at large, disseminated from the cities of Medellín and Bogotá, where the major bulk of the music production industry resided in the 50s through to the 70s.

To tell the story of Afrosound, you not only have to know about the influence of Afro- Antillean music and indigenous Colombian tropical coastal genres, you also have to know something about the history of Discos Fuentes and musician/producer Julio Ernesto “Fruko” Estrada. Suffice it to say that the coastal area of Colombia shares in common with other areas in the Caribbean Antilles a certain tropical mix of sensuality and syncopation that somehow manages to combine joy and pain in a transporting wave of rhythm and melody that is food for the soul.

The tracks on this compilation were chosen from the vast archives of Discos Fuentes because they are fun, funky, unexpected, crazy, hot. They are not necessarily your ‘typical’ or well known cuts, though the performers might be familiar and in some cases are quite popular today outside of Colombia due to an increasing awareness of the country’s exciting musical heritage. The title of this compilation comes from one of the Fuentes bands, Afrosound, but here it’s taken more as a general term to denote the funkier side of the label’s prolific output in the 60s and 70s. The unifying factor for the collection is that the tracks all have something to do with African roots or influences in one way or another, and they mark a period of sonic experimentation, self expression, upheaval, rebellion and rebirth in the industry, nurtured by Discos Fuentes and its stable of musicians, producers, and engineers.


How African music made it big in Colombia

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.

“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.”

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 atpicós, sound systems that brought street parties to the Afro-Colombian towns along the Caribbean coast.

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.”



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