With Songlines – where the heart beats – Part 1 – the music

The next leg of my journey is with Songlines Travel on their ‘where the heart beats’ tour of Colombia. There are two main themes here, music and culture. Given the quantity of material to cover I will split this part into two blogs, one for each. This first one covers the music.

With much anticipation I packed my belongings and transferred from La Candelaria district of Bogota to its more leafy suburb where I was to meet with the Songlines group that evening. This is the area where the well healed Bogotans live work and play – altogether more developed and wealthier than the downtown area. But the focus of this leg now switches to the music and cultural itinerary pulled together by Songlines Travel. I discovered later that this is the first time they have run this trip, and, with hindsight, appreciate that we were not on tried and tested grounds. Over the next 10 days we will be introduced to music producers, artists, attend showcases at the BOmm (Bogota Music Market, a gathering of music industry professionals of South America), learn about the history of Colombian music, experience first hand the Palenque, delight in the cuisine and colours of Colombia, and so much more.


First, a brief synopsis of Colombian music. As my friend Gareth Gordon (networking co-ordinator of BOmm amongst many things – Bogota Chamber of Commerce) said by way of introduction – you could spend a lifetime learning about the roots, influences and musicology of Colombian music. I will try to cover it in a few sentences – I am sure much will be lost but there are several sources of information if anyone is interested in digging deeper.

Broadly, the music is aligned to the geography of the country represented by four regions – the valleys between the three Andean mountain regions that straddle the country, the Caribbean coast with influences from Cuba and the Carribbean islands (salsa, reggae), the Pacific coast with groups of people of African decent that have remained isolated and which is reflected in their music, and the Amazonian plains – largely cowboy country where the music from indigenous people has a large influence.

I will list below some of the genres picked up during this trip, and link to a representative sample of a song….

Cumbia – dance music from the Caribbean coast – Lucho Bermudez was a key proponent in the ‘40s and ‘50s

Vallenato (pronounced “bajenato”) – Cumbia with an accordion – Andres Landero

And Joe Arroyo

Bullerengue (pronounced “bujarenge”) – Cumbia with female singers – Toto La Momposina

Chicha – a fermented Peruvian drink but in this context it is Peru’s take on Cumbia – Chacalon

Palenque – African music imported from Nigeria and the Congo into Colombia in the ‘70’s – much more on this later in the blog where I describe a visit to San Basilio de Palenque – Sextato Tabala

Champeta – Atlantic coast influence but with strong African drums from The Congo (Zaire) focused on dance rhythms – Abelardo Carbono u su Grupo

Palenque and Champeta refers as much to the language, art (street art, graffiti in particular) and people as it does to the music.

Afrosound – Cumbia with a lot of funk – Wganda Kenya

Bambuco – representing the new republic of Colombia, waltz like folk music from the Andes) – Hermanoz Martinez

Reggeaton (Colombian flavour) – a hybrid of reggae, hip hop, rap, salsa, electronica – Maluma

No compilation of contemporary Colombian music can be considered complete without Colombian hip hop – ChocQuibTown – I would have said I don’t like hip hop until I heard this …

Mario in Bogota

I did not suddenly acquire all this knowledge by just being in Colombia – it is very much thanks to Mario Galleano Toro, a producer, artist (he leads the band Frente Cumbiero), promoter and knowledge extraordinaire of Colombian music. A sample of Frente Cumbiero:

His presentation, in Matik Matik, a small live music venue run by a Frenchman, with understated décor, was a fascinating historical tour through the regions people and the music, intermittently illustrated with samples of music from his original (and hard if not impossible to get) vinyl collection, carefully selected by him for us.


Maite in Medellin

In Medellin we met with Maite Hontele, a talented, beautiful and warm Dutch trumpeter now based largely in Colombia – here she is in Cuba….

She hosted us in the studios of Merlin Producciones who have successfully established themselves as central to the new wave Colombian music.


Her husband is the lead singer of Puerto Candelaria, a contemporary Cumbia group produced by Merlin Producciones. We were then fortunate enough to see her in a live performance that evening – she and her band were sensational. We had ‘VIP’ seats at the venue, but it was not possible to remain seated for too long with the groves and trumpets of the band.


Rafael in Cartagena

In Cartegena we visited San Basilio de Palenque, a town around 70km from the city, and the home of the Palenque people, language and music.


The town was the first to be declared free of slaves in all of the Americas when some men who were transported to become slaves escaped and built up such ferocious resistance to the Spanish, led by Benkos Bioho (statue of him in the photo collage below), that the latter yielded and allowed them their own place.


Much has been written about them (it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and I won’t repeat it here.

This Wikipedia page is a start…


And there is an excellent documentary being pulled together by Lucas De Silva (we met him in Bogota where he gave us a glimpse of the documentary and gave us a talk on the background to our visit – he was instrumental in the preparations for it) which can be found on YouTube at:

This clip includes Rafael Cassiani (see further down). Lucas is working on an English version.

This article from The Guardian is also a good introduction to San Basilio de Palenque and the roots of Champeta music.


We were lucky to be accompanied by Simon Broughton, editor of Songlines magazine who will be covering the trip in greater detail in the next issue.


We were treated to two special performances – first from Rafael Cassiani, the original member of Sextato Tabala, who sang Esta Tierra No Es Mia (“this land is not mine”). Video clips will be posted on YouTube (when I can figure out how or get the wi-fi bandwidth that will allow me to).

Our guide then proceeded to gather a group of somewhat younger lads and lasses to perform for us.


Their impromptu concert will be posted on YouTube too.

Finally, to give a flavour of the environment, some photos…



… and in particular the presence of the ‘picos’ – the sound systems.

The next part of the blog will cover the acts we saw showcased at the BOmm and other cultural aspects of the trip.

4 thoughts on “With Songlines – where the heart beats – Part 1 – the music

    1. Hey David. Thanks. There’s plenty of material here to help anyone explore the Colombian Latino sounds but it is just the tip of the iceberg. I want to upload some videos I’ve taken but was defeated by the technical challenge! Will have to find another way.


    1. Hey Tini
      Yes it’s good to be in Colombia at this time. With the peace agreement signed on Monday there is a sense of optimism. But the key decision is with the referendum. There is some scepticism but let’s hope the people make the right choice. With peace the music can really thrive!


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