Recently, I wrote about the Palenque near Cartagena and while I wanted to include Champeta music in that post, I decided it would be best to split them up so that any one post won’t seem overwhelming to the reader.
“Forty years ago, sailors coming from Africa arrived in the Colombian Caribbean city Cartagena, bringing with them albums like the music of Prince Nico Mbarga (Cameroon-Nigeria), the Oriental Brothers (Nigeria), Tabu Ley Rochereau & Mbilia Bell from Congo, and a long list of the “Highlife Master Messagers”. Thanks to these anonymous travelers, and to the vitality of my AfroColombian brothers who have made African music the rhythm of their hearts, in less than 10 years Colombia has become the “Soukouss Republic of America”. Today, these African stars provide major inspiration for thousands of youth who dream of forming their own groups to play Soukous, Highlife & Afro-beat in the streets of Colombia. The irrefutable fathers of this music are the black maroons from the San Basilio village of Palenque, near Cartagena. Viviano Torres with his group Anne Swing, Justo Valdes & Son Palenque, the group Kussima with Hernan Hernandez without them, this musical movement would not exist today.” – Maroon Culture
The word “Champeta” was first used as a cultural identifier in the 1920s, it was used to identify a dance in the 1970s and a musical genre in the 1980s.
Since before the 1920s the inhabitants of the neighborhoods farthest from the center of Cartagena, those of the poorest social strata and of African descent have been called ‘champetudo’. The economic elite used this designation as an attempt to devalue this vibrant culture. The name, ambiguously accepted and transformed, originates from the relationship of these people, with the knife called “champeta”, as it was associated with vulgarity, poverty and blackness. This culture has a past historically marked with slavery and mistreatment with its center in the oldest districts of the Isla Caimán, currently called Olaya, and the Pozón district.
At the beginning of the 1970s the Champeta culture became more visible at a national level in Colombia through a series of diverse and complex dances set to the rhythms of Caribbean music. This music was principally a mix of genres such as salsa and jíbaro but later included reggae. This music was played over large loudspeakers, popularly called “picós”, that were invented during the 1960s in Cartegena. Equipped with these sound systems they held dancce competitions and other events. Those dances were called “therapy” because of their ability help people to relax and free themselves from the economic problems of the country.
In the 1980s “creole therapy” became a new genre of music, sung and interpreted by people from Cartegena and San Basillo, later joined by people from Barranquilla, Santa Marta and the rest of the country. Baranquilla played an important role in the commercialization of this genre of music. Subsequently, the music became popular in picós. Soon, it was known as “creole therapy”, “Colombian therapy” and finally, Champeta.