I had never heard of Champeta. So when Juliana sent me the reading list for the fellowship, I was intrigued to find that a genre of music had been invented based on some of the music that came out of Nigeria and other parts of Africa. More extraordinary was discovering that this was happening all the way in Colombia, and Nigerians knew nothing about it.
Our connection with the Latin Caribbean has always been our loyal obsession with Telenovelas. Thanks to this, husbands have been known to invest in dual view decoders, and I have almost had my eyebrows waxed off by wondering eyed beauticians.
So as part of my research, I dig out old YouTube videos, but they mostly remind me of francophone pop music I grew up watching and listening to.
When I arrive for the fellowship in Cartagena, Nicholas, one of the fellows, offers to take me to a rave for a feel of Champeta as he is shadowing a DJ for a story he is working on. Nicholas reminds me of those music journalists cum music fans I had read about. Fast-talking and precocious with far too much knowledge of the intricacies of the musician’s lives, he always seemed so invested, in-fact so intense. He had told me about the different waves of Champeta. From the first wave where African highlife records came into Cartagena from the sea port and the musicians mimed on top of the existing records to the music festival that brought some of these African musicians to Colombia and then the Champetuos started to replicate the sounds with their own bands.
Unfortunately, Nicholas didn’t send me the email as promised that night. The next morning when I asked what happened he told me he was unable to organize transportation, and he felt the neighborhood was too dangerous for me. A part of me wondered how dangerous it could be. I am from Lagos after all.
Our photographer Joaquin offered to introduce me to two well-known Champeta musicians; Louis Tower and Charles King.
We wait for Charles King at the Casa Surtigas where our workshop holds. When he doesn’t turn up, Joaquin suggests we meet with him at Plaza del Reloj near our hotel. As we walk, Joaquin tells me that Colombians are not very good with time so usually you tell them to meet you a couple of hours before. I realize we have so much more in common, so I tell him that where I come from we call it ‘African time.’
We decided to head off to Louis Tower’s house and hope Charles King would meet us there. We hail a taxi by the plaza, as we get in, Joaquin and the driver share thick laughs and embrace. Joaquin tells me that the taxi driver is his girlfriend’s father.
We drove out of the walled city, past the tolls and into San Fernando. The electric poles with criss-cross wiring remind me of home except void of its known cacophony and theatrics. Cartagena changes as you move.
The walls of Louis Tower’s living room are covered in decorative paintings. The wooden shelf reeling with porcelain is reminiscent of kitschy eighties decor, but his is less garish. Tower plugs in a standing fan, which he brought out from his bedroom. His six-foot plus frame towers over me as he says ‘how are you doing.’ His words are nasal, like a bad impersonation from watching old American gangster films. When I respond with surprise that he speaks fluent English, he waves his hand urging me to quieten my excitement. ‘ My English is nat bery good,’ he says with a grin that warms his face. Though the lines on his face tell that he isn’t the age he used to be, he is decked out in jeans, a baseball hat, red-rimmed spectacles and a slight bounce to his walk.
Louis Tower grew up listening to West African highlife, Afro-beat and traditional Soukous from the Congo. He revels as he mentions artists Prince Nico Mbarga, Fela Kuti, and Hugh Masekela. So when I ask Tower to describe Champeta to me, he says ‘Champeta is my essence, my engine. From the moment I wake up I think about playing.’
He jerks with excitement as he speaks to me as though we should share the same sentimental attachments.
He plays me some of his records. The singing is a falsetto on loop, the piano is loud, the rhythm guitar takes me back to Juju music at Owambe parties and of course the conga is ever present. But it feels like an up-tempo ballad with some jive talk in between but sung in creole.
Tower migrated from rural Palenque to Cartagena, so I am curious about this particular soft spot for African music.
‘ In Palenque where we are from we also have an original and authentic music, which is very close to these African, sounds.’ With quivering excitement he adds, ‘It was like mother Africa coming to look for us without even asking. It was spiritual.’
There seemed a certain pre-occupation with this idea of ‘Africa’ or ‘Africanness,’ and it felt more exaggerated as Tower was speaking with me; an African.
Joaquin had told me earlier about the tussle between the old and new crop of Champeta artists. The old Champetuos feel that the new music is nothing close to the African roots of Champeta. They disapprove of the electronic nature of the music claiming that what the new guys are doing is more European.
When I ask Tower how he feels about the new rising Champeta stars, he attempts to stifle his displeasure claiming that the changes are too abrupt. ‘When I get on a bus or on the motorcycle, everyone asks what happened with the music. This kind of music is not Champeta .’ I notice that Tower also seems to skirt around his answers though I contemplate if that is a translation issue.
During our conversation, Charles King strolls into the living room. They acknowledge each other with a head nod and a smile as King helps himself to a portion of the couch like a relative would.
Charles King is wearing wristbands strewn with Rastafarian colors, and hanging from his neck is a wooden pendant shaped like the map of Africa.
His dreadlocks half way from his roots, a darker shade from the brown ends, are tied in a knot to the back.
‘These people come from other musical backgrounds like Hip-Hop, Dancehall and especially Raggaeton, he explains when I pose the same questions I asked Louis Tower earlier. He feels like these artists only use Champeta as a springboard to connect with other cities. But King sounds a lot more pragmatic about the success of the new Champetuos. He tells me about the stigma Champeta had experienced.
‘ It was seen as music from the ghetto, and from the black people. This is a very racist, conservative, elitist city where we have always been put aside. The new wave have figured out a way to separate a little bit from this notion of being very ghetto, very black or being seen as a music of black identity. This is the reason why they are more appealing.’
This they believe is another reason the new Champetuos have termed their genre of music ‘Champeta Urbana’ as a way of creating a distance from traditional Champeta. Tower finds it difficult to come to terms with the suffix ‘Urbana.’ As far as he is concerned, the roots of the music have always been urban. I am curious as to whether Tower feels a bit threatened or if this for him is a battle for nostalgia. ‘Champeta was segregated and put down, but it was the only thing we knew how to do. It was the only thing we fought for,’ He says with that same evasiveness.
For Charles King, he is spending a lot more time traveling internationally playing to audiences in the United States and Venezuela in an attempt to get Champeta back into the bars. There were a lot of Columbians in the audience, but what made him really happy was seeing the American audience happily dancing to Champeta. ‘I still feel people connect the same way they used to even though they are new audiences.’
While I wait for the storm to settle to catch a taxi back to Centro, Louis Tower heads to his bedroom and changes into a beany hat and an Ankara shirt. King unknots his locks, and they move to the front porch. The two men seem locked in performance striking poses. Certain liveliness explodes as Joaquin clicks on the shutter button.