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Champeta - The Sound of Cultural Struggle
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Stark contrasts blemish the otherwise idyllic Caribbean. Stray a few miles beyond the luxurious beach resorts and all you will find is poverty and discrimination. The city of Cartagena de Indias on Colombia’s northern coast is no different – with its walled historical centre and pleasant weather, it has quickly become a Colombian celebrity and upper-class playground. Yet, outside of this touristic bubble, both poverty and neglect are the lot of its African descendent population. It may seem an environment for cultural stagnation to flourish, but from this confrontation of social classes Cartagena’s population has found their best weapon to fight for their right to be heard: champeta.
From the slums of the city, where life is cheap and hope is fleeting, a new musical genre has emerged
Ever since the Colonial Period, Afro-Colombians have used music to subvert and escape European rule. Using traditional African beats, combining them with Indian instruments, and dressing up in exaggerated versions of their masters’ clothes, these slaves could make fun of their rulers — offering them a means of escape in a world where entertainment was hard to find. This parody of their Creole owners eventually evolved into the folk music of the region, mostly heard today in the Carnaval de Barranquilla, the country’s biggest cultural celebration. From those humble musical beginnings, fast forward 500 years and the parallels with today’s Afro-Colombian population are uncanny.
From the slums of the city, where life is cheap and hope is fleeting, a new musical genre has emerged. It was spontaneously created by diverse cultural forces that all converged in huge mobile sound systems called picós, a hispanicisation of the word pick-up. The picós served as a meeting point where improvised parties were held for people to dance and escape their miserable circumstances. These parties represented the social nexus of the slum culture – people met to drink, to start businesses (legal or otherwise), to exchange stories of their fishing expeditions, or simply to dance until their cares slipped away. Initially, the music played at the picós was salsa and traditional music from Colombia and the Caribbean, but in the sixties, as Cartagena’s port activities flourished, passing sailors brought new sounds into the mix.
Often dismissed by Colombian media and politicians as ‘violent’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘too loud’, champeta has never been fully accepted or understood by the masses outside of Cartagena
African music, such as soukous, high life, and soweto, which was popular in Africa at the time, struck a cord with the population. Picó organisers, seeing an opportunity, hired bands who translated these popular songs into Spanish to attract audiences and beat the competition. Slowly, the music was incorporated into the culture, adapting it to the whim of the musicians, all this unbeknown to the white mainstream collective. The music became so popular within the people of the slums, nicknamed champetúos because they worked the fields and carried so-called champeta machetes, that the upper classes dubbed the music ‘champeta’.
Often dismissed by Colombian media and politicians as ‘violent’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘too loud’, champeta has never been fully accepted or understood by the masses outside of Cartagena. Much like its musical sister soukous, which has prompted bans from the Cameroonian government over allegations of teens dancing naked to the music, champeta has also had a similar history of hypocritical social exclusion and of political repression. Citing security reasons, Cartagena’s mayor banned 12 picós stating that they were the cause of the high number of fights and wounded people in the city. In the town of Malambo, the mayor also imposed a similar ban arguing that the music uses subliminal messages to those who listen or dance it, transforming them into quarrelsome beings. Following the ban, an editorial in El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper, supported the mayor’s decision suggesting that the music is ‘mediocre’ and ‘tasteless’, causing a ‘degradation’ of traditional Colombian music.
After about three decades of existence, modern champeta is still kept as an underground means of expression. Only for a few years in the middle of the 1990s did it earn country-wide radio coverage with songs like ‘Paola’ and ‘La Voladora’
While its critics argue that its lyrics and sensual dances promote sex and violence, champeta distances itself from genres such as reggaeton (music often under attack for the same reasons) by including a more local, tongue-in-cheek flavour to its lyrics. As a form of expression, champeta exemplifies itself as being a vehicle for the poorer parts of society to vent their frustration and show their joie de vivre. In ‘Gato por Liebre’, a song about infidelity and betrayal, El Sayayin jokingly sings about his love: ‘Proud I was when I had you / I felt like the dollar: going through the roof’ introducing imagery related with the dollar’s long history of being overvalued against the Colombian Peso. Examples like this abound: ‘El Metemono’ and ‘El Lenguita Rapida’ offer a not-all-that-glitters-is-gold moral about men whose appearances are deceiving; ‘La Historia de Carlitos’ handles the topic of domestic violence by weaving in a popular joke.
After about three decades of existence, modern champeta is still kept as an underground means of expression. Only for a few years in the middle of the 1990s did it earn country-wide radio coverage with songs like ‘Paola’ and ‘La Voladora’ (whose video also played on MTV), both from El Sayayin. However, its cultural significance has already influenced other artists in the country: Joe Arroyo has made champeta-influenced tracks such as ‘Teresa Vuelve’, and Carlos Vives channelled champeta rhythms into his song ‘Pa’ Mayte’. Even for the brief duration of the aforementioned Carnaval de Barranquilla, champeta is enjoyed by all classes, with no fear of social rejection.
Yet, aside from these short instances, champeta still mostly survives in Cartagena. Foreign rhythms such as reggaeton endanger the survival of the genre, as they get more radio play and record deals, influencing the motivation of musicians, as well as listeners’ tastes. Coupled with the rejection from the upper classes as a dirty, immoral sound, what then is keeping champeta alive?
Part of this answer may come from its underlying message of hope and enthusiasm. ‘I am a flame / I am fire!’, sings Mister Black in ‘Cipriano’, symbolising the Afro-Colombian desire to rise from their current squalor into something as culturally valued and respected as any other people. As Colombian Culture Minister María Consuelo Araújo said, “Champeta is a cultural dialogue that expresses, in the case of Cartagena, the world of life outside the walled city, the city that reinvents itself every day from the margins of society, from memory, and from popular culture.” It is in this polyrhythmic revolution, transforming people’s perception from the inside out where champeta’s worth shines. It is not a coincidence that within the champeta scene, its own musicians and fans call it ‘terapia criolla’ or ‘Creole therapy’, for its psychological relief and as a medium for happiness. How many people can say that about hip hop, or its Latin counterpart, reggaeton?
—Photo by Kind permission of Elkin Contreras—
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