African echoes in champeta

African echoes in champeta

The picó is the musical symbol of Colombia´s Caribbean coast. A powerful sound system consisting of a console, amplifiers and a vinyl collection, it is where entire barrio congregates to dance to champeta.
Foto: Stephen Ferry/FNPI.
Barbara Wanjala

Foto: Stephen Ferry.

I am marvelling at the Caribbean Sea when Emiro asks me where I am from.

Upon discovering that I am from el continente africano, Emiro, the rotund, sun-bronzed taxi driver who chauffeurs me from the Rafael Núñez Airport to my hotel in the Centro Histórico says to me with great excitement, “Here in Cartagena we love African music!" He takes his hands off the wheel temporarily to execute a dancing gesture. This revelation shakes me out of my post Nairobi-Amsterdam-Bogota-Cartagena somnolence. I ask him which música africana is loved here. "Mbilia Bel," he replies. And thus it starts: the First Lady of African Rumba will be mentioned to me at every turn during my time in Colombia. See more images of this work

Waves of nostalgia flood through me as I delve into Colombia's long love affair with African music. My childhood was steeped in the sounds of the Congo. When I was a baby, my uncle Ben would sing me the song Babla by Sam Mangwana. It goes,

Babla Babla, mi natembeya Est Afrika yote, Babla,

Naenda Kampala Babla haiko

Narudi Tanzania Babla sioni

Naenda Nairobi balisema Babla haiko.

Babla Babla, I am walking through all of East Africa

I go to Kampala, Babla isn´t there

I go to Tanzania, I don´t see Babla

I go back to Nairobi, they say Babla isn´t there.

As I wander through hot and humid Cartagena admiring the bougainvillea spilling from balconies atop pastel yellow walls I think: perhaps this is what made me a wanderer.


I am in Barranquilla. Here, they treat me like a star.

Puerto Rican jíbara is playing as Alex Puerta prepares to introduce me to the listeners of his show, Calentando el picó on Vokaribe 89.6 FM. ¨We have here with us today a special guest all the way from Kenya,” he says as he gets ready to play my request, Nakei Nairobi by Mbilia Bel. As the song winds down, Alex, a connoisseur of el mundo picotero – the picó world - recalls the first time that Nakei Nairobi was played in Cartagena. “It was thirty years ago, at the El Conde picó. It was a huge hit even though we did not know what the words meant.”

Mbilia Bel was born Marie Claire Mboyo in 1959 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Discovered by the soukouss star Sam Mangwana, she eventually rose to superstardom in the 1980s, becoming Africa´s first recognised female soukouss star and earning the title the Cleopatra of Zairean music.

In Nakei Nairobi, she sings that  she must travel from Kinshasa to Nairobi to bring back  her childhood friend Duni who has gotten lost in Kenya.

Nakei Nairobi, pona na salisa Duni

Nakei Nairobi

Na ko zonga na Duni

I am on my way to Nairobi, to help Duni.
I am on my way to Nairobi;
I will bring Duni back.

I never want to leave Barranquilla.


We are at the El Gran Che picó in between Barranquilla´s El Bosque and Las Malvinas neighborhoods. The picó is the musical symbol of Colombia´s Caribbean coast. A powerful sound system consisting of a console, amplifiers and a vinyl collection, it is where entire barrio congregates to dance to champeta. Each picó exudes its individual personality via flashy airbrush artwork, bright lights and a thunderous soundstorm.

Walter Hernández, co-founder of the musical-visual collective, Systema Solar, is getting down to the sounds of Orchestre Zaiko Langa Langa, arguably the best soukouss band of the 20th century. He leaps, struts and shimmies unabashedly across El Gran Che in his orange kente shirt and blue harem pants, his eminently abundant black hair piled in a top-knot. He is the embodiment of individuality and personal freedom.

Plastic chairs are set out on the sidewalk adjacent to the shops outside which the picó is set up. Couples swivel sensuously around the dancefloor as round after round of cold Club Colombia beers find their way to us. Everyone wants to dance with and/or take a picture with either Walter the star, or myself, the embodiment of African exoticism. A police pickup passes by, probably on patrol. Picó detractors say that they are an excuse for vice, promoting drugs, alcohol and brawls. Intense polemic surrounds champeta. Its overt sexual lyrics and lascivious dance moves are blamed for promoting promiscuity and early pregnancy among the youth.

Champeta comes from the name of the knife that is used to gut and scale fish by fishmongers of Cartagena´s Bazurto market. The knife is also a symbol of violence and criminality, hence the pejorative term champetúo, for the inhabitants of the poorest, predominantly Afro-Colombian neighborhoods in Cartagena´s centre. Champeta is a tool to articulate the social and economic exclusion faced by marginalised communities. "The main reason why champeta is stigmatized is because it is from a part of society that is excluded socially and economically," says Walter.

Growing up in the Caribbean in the 80s and 90s meant that Walter was fortunate to listen to all kinds of music. His mother would take him to music festivals where he saw African musical acts such as Lokassa ya Mbongo and the Soukouss Stars among others. His musical style has many African influences including mbaqanga, soukouss, chimurenga, highlife and Afrobeat.

I ask him who some of his favourite musicians are. “Soul Brothers and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens,” he says. I am thrilled by this as Kazet - gazette - by Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens was one of the soundtracks of my childhood. “We send our messages through music,” sings Mahlathini, “It´s our tradition in Africa.” Walter is especially keen on mbaqanga music, a South African musical style with Zulu roots that originated in in the early 1960s. He likes it for its rhythms and cadences, and the fact that it tells local stories. Because of his love for mbaqanga, he has started a project called Mbaqanga Bridge. His dream is to visit Soweto one day. “For me, Africa is everything,” says Walter, “Africa is life.”



A Thursday night in Cartagena. I am at the Bazurto Social Club in Getsemani to get a taste of this barrio’s hot and happening dancehall scene. Osman José Cordoba Orozco, lead singer of Champetesburgo, is king of the night. He is dressed in ripped blue jeans and a black polo shirt. The cap atop his youthful face is turned backwards and the studs in his ears flash in the light. He holds the crowd in thrall, segueing fluidly from number to number as the pulsating reggaeton beat throbs away. Now he croons, now he spits some bars in rapid Spanish, now he leads the crowd in a rendition of Orchestra Makassy´s Mambo Bado. I must be the only one here who knows the meaning of the words. In Swahili, mambo bado means, “things have not yet started” meaning the best is yet to come.

Bienvenidos al Caribe, Bienvenidos a Cartagena, Bienvenidos a Bazurto Social Club says a sign. Empty bottles of Club Colombia and Aguila beer line the tables. On the azulejo tiles of the dancefloor a group of young women in short shorts and skin-tight dresses dance together as they sing along with Osman, their faces aglow with the sheen of excitement and exertion. To my right, beneath the signboard announcing Bazurto’s signature cocktail the machacao, a young couple whirls around, their arms entwined and their faces alight with joy. To my left, another couple locked at the lip and groin as they swivel around to the beat. Nobody is holding up the yellow, red and green walls of the Bazurto Social Club tonight, not even me.

I find a seat and pull out my notebook. A deeply tanned man approaches my table and extends his hand, asking me to dance. My dance partner’s name, it emerges, is Reza from Iran. “Tú eres primera persona de Kenia que he visto,” he says as he whirls me around the dance floor. I am dancing champeta with a Spanish-speaking Iranian.



Pacho Majon´s El Conde picó, known as the Bible of African music, was the place to go to for African music in the 80s. Picó owners would rip the identifying label off the vinyls so as to hide the identity of the artist and stake exclusive claim on hot new songs. "When you set up a picó, you want to play music that nobody else has," says Walter. "Not knowing a song´s true identity was not an impediment to enjoying it however." The DJs would give the records different names from the original. These new names were known as piconéma. In this way the Zaiko Langa Langa hit Katshi became known as El Alacran and Lokassa ya Mbongo´s Tantina came to be known as El Satanás.

A Kenyan joke goes: a caller calls a radio station and requests, "Please DJ, play me Sorry Dad." The song being referred to is Soledad by Westlife.

Mondegreens - the mishearing of a phrase in a song in such a way that it acquires a new and usually humorous meaning - were common in the early days of champeta. Colombian listeners, unable to clearly make out the lyrics in African languages, substituted them with words that sounded similar and made sense to them. Thus, for example, the Orchestra Makassy hit Mambo Bado became Mamo Gallo, meaning to take the piss out of someone. Covers are an intrinsic part of the champeta tradition. 80s champeta bands such as Anne Zwing and Kussima would sing covers of popular African tracks, approximating Lingala lyrics in an attempt to sound authentically African.



Fredy Lorduy aka DJ Fetcho is one of the biggest collectors of champeta LPs in Cartagena. Champeta may have African influences, he says, but it is its own distinct sound. “Champeta is an act of freedom,” he says. “It was born as a way of finding our own music, of making our own identity. We wanted to preserve the African sound but also enrich it with our own sounds. It is therefore a fusion of both cultures.”

"There comes a moment which is the orgasm of the song," explains the bespectacled DJ Fetcho, an array of colourful vinyls spread out on the table in front of him in Casa Surtigas in Cartagena. "This moment is known as the espeluque." He clicks his fingers as he summons a song from memory to illustrate. “Nairobi, Mombasa…” It is surreal to hear a cartaganero sing Nakei Nairobi. Our eyes are glued to the YouTube as the First Lady of African Rumba and her dancers dance sensuously to her smooth soprano vocals. Roughly three minutes in, there comes a brief pause. Soon after, tempo rises. This, says DJ Fetcho, is the espeluque. "This is the moment when people know that things are about to get sexier," says DJ Fetcho.

DJ Fetcho was beyond thrilled when he met Lokassa ya Mbongo during his 2010 Colombia tour. “It was awesome,” he says. “I felt very happy. I couldn´t believe it,” he says. “Champeta is the daughter of soukouss,” said the Congolese guitar maestro and pioneer of champeta in a 2010 interview. “There is nothing that fills me with so much pride than when I see young musicians take my musical foundations to create their own style.”

In the popular Barranquilla estadero of La Troja I watch Natalia Algarin, a native of the city, dancing with unbridled joy. She went to see Lokassa ya Mbongo live in concert at Berbetronika in her home city last year. El Sátanas, the piconéma of Tantina by Lokassa ya Mbongo, is his most popular song here. It is also Natalia´s favourite. ¨I heard it for the first time in a bar called Bazurto,¨ she says, “When I heard the riff of the guitar and the percussion, everything went straight to my spine,“ she says. “I like the subtlety, elegance and naturalness of African dance. I feel it is a more personal dance. One is more aware of one's own body and movement thus connecting with the music through the body.”

Mambo Bado comes on, and the men on the sidewalk outside La Troja start to dance, executing rapid jumping moves with their feet. “Magoma motomoto na Nairobi,” sings Orchestra Makassy. Very hot beats from Nairobi.

I have found home in Colombia.







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