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Toto la Momposina, Queen of the Cumbia

by Allie Silver


Toto La Momposina, queen of Colombian Cumbia and one of the strongest fountains of influence in Latin American music, will be returning to Buenos Aires this Tuesday the 6th to the Teatro Gran Rex.

Toto was born on the island of Mompós in the Bolívar region of Colombia, making up the fourth generation of musicians. Her father was a shoemaker and accomplished percussionist, her mother a singer and dancer, and so from infancy her home was filled with music which in the Caribbean coast of Colombia is a fusion of African and indigenous sounds with Spanish and native instruments. Her show is as energetic as her constant laughter, which we were able to experience when we interviewed her last week, discussing the origins of her music and the future of the sounds and rhythms that emerged from the northern tip of the continent and have made their way all the way to our southern city.

While representing traditional Columbian music and culture, Totó's music is very much present in today's music scene, and often remixed or covered by young modern artists influenced by her legendary rhythms. She will be performing alongside three of those groups, Lulacruza, Miss Bolivia and La Ixalú Band, who will be opening the night.

I just have a few questions for you, I don´t want to take up too much of your time.


First I want to congratulate you for your two Latin Grammys.

Thank you, well when you make music with its own identity you´ll be asking yourself the questions, (laughs). In Latin America us South Americans have a point of reference in common, identity. That identity develops through emotions and love. Art is a very important thing for human beings, that it hasn´t been given true importance in Latin America is a whole other thing, but there is a universal language and that is the music and the music made with love. So what won was love, through a consciousness that the people that make music, that sing, and singing is physical, transmit love through our musical notes.

Let´s talk about Colombian folklore music, it´s stronger than it´s ever been here in Buenos Aires. It´s really present and continues to grow. For the people that are just beginning to discover this music, I want to start with the basics. Could you describe to me the types of Colombian folklore that you play? What are the rhythms and genres called?

We all have a way of singing. That style that I have developed and interpret are the bailes cantados (singing dance). Bailes cantados es primary music, we use drums, our palms, repetitive choruses with verses that talk about the day to day life of man and the life in the Caribbean. What I do comes from the Caribbean coast but it is a style of singing that exist in all of America. The different rhythms are divided between zones, sub-zones and sub-zones of sub-zones, and depending on where you are the name changes. You can call them merengue, or bullerengue, you can call them chuana, you can call them pajarito, in the region of Bolivar you can call them tunas or chalupa, it just depends on where you get your information. I come from an island called Mompós where the people call it chandé, but you could also call it tambora or zambapalos. These bailes cantados are also visible in the evolution of cumbia. Everyone in South America was introduced to commercial cumbia, they don´t know the old cumbia. I always begin with cumbia that is played with the instruments of our native people like the African drums, that our ancestors gave to us. In America, and in the entire world, one must understand that there is an enormous influence of African culture in all of us, contrary to story of the conquerors, the Italians, the Germans, and especially the Spanish and their moral influences, African culture won. And that’s what I sing using new instruments like the electric guitar or the bass guitar. But I use the instruments at the service of the music and not the music at the service of the instruments, to be more clear, you have to study the percussive elements of the bass and electric guitar in order to interpret the instrument with the music that we know. It´s important because they are instruments that we didn´t create ourselves, the clarinet and trumpet for example are European.

That´s interesting this fusion of music, and that it´s not as simple as saying “Colombian folklore music” because it has so many different elements, the mixture of European influences like you point out. Why do you think that these rhythms that are so regional, that are indigenous, are being felt so strongly abroad, mixing with other styles, what is so special about this music?

Because it´s simple music, that you can play with or without electricity (laughs), that´s the key, original notes, percussion, melodic rhythms and melodies, harmony, the song has its own harmony.



Dos de Febrero (Atropolis Lite Edit) by Atropolis


Remixing your music has become a really common thing, have you heard the remixes?

Yes, I think that there is a new music coming out right now. Music with identity is like that, it´s all around you, when someone makes a composition and fifty years pass that music is part of the people, so now [my] music is property of the people because it’s now part of the people’s identity.

How do you react when you hear one of your songs remixed?

First I think, this woman in the song can’t be me! (laughs)

Where do you see the future of the music?

I’ll have an answer when it happens, see what stays and what has gone, like everything in life. I feel a lot of joy that the younger people are understanding that one has to work to make their own creations. You cannot imitate anyone, especially in Colombia where there is so much music, imitations are just imitations. We Latin Americans have a language. It is a continent that speaks Spanish, but at the same time our Spanish has different sounds, different expressions, different ways of dancing, of thinking. But love is the same everywhere, and the music is too, because real music is made with love. My grandfather used to say that there were two classes of musicians, musicians and artists-musicians, the artists-musicians are always thinking in art, what one can project.

This is going to be the first time that I see you live, and everyone tells me that your shows are incredible, that you have an incredible energy. What can other people who haven’t seen you play before expect to see?

Right now we are working a lot with the staging and the lights, things that big shows have, we have a music director, an art director, things that one doesn’t really need, but one must also be in line with the company because that is what really attracts people. I feel secure because we are doing it out of love, to project the emotions of a musical community, through good music, and the good music is always made with love.


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