The music in Cartagena tells the story of an African people suffering, enduring, surviving, and flourishing. However, more importantly, it is the portrait of a people sharing, creating, thriving, all intertwined within the history, traditions, and sounds of Africa at its root. It is a beautiful coming together of several African and Caribbean cultures and languages. It is basically a coastal city experiencing the hottest love affair with Africa that I have yet to witness. The music of Cartagena is the one piece of solidarity I have found that defies all shades, classes, and ages. I have spent a month here dancing with the people to Kompa, Zouk, Lingala, Soca, Champeta, Reggae, and Dancehall. I needed to know more.
Okay. So Haiti is right around the corner, but how do you know the entire English and Creole lyrics to “Zouk La Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni”?! Reggae, Dancehall, I get it. But why are even the oldest grandparents jamming to Chris Martin and Beres Hammond?! But more importantly, why is this country, which has West African ancestry in their blood, dancing to music of the Congo and East Africa? I couldn’t understand this. I’ve listened to more Congolese Rhumba and Lingala here than I have with my East African father.
Alright, what’s going on here?
So, I do most of my meeting of the people in random bars or restaurants. Even back home in the States, I’m the one you can always be sure to bump into grabbing some lunch or a glass of midday wine solo at the most packed venues. No, it doesn’t feel strange. Okay, it doesn’t feel strange anymore. It used to drive me crazy and the insecurity would ruin any type of good time I was trying to have. But I have learned to just get over it. I really enjoy being alone, and so, as much as I love a happy hour with friends or a nice group Sunday Funday brunch with bottomless mimosa specials, a lot of the time I am just wishing I was there alone so I can just reflect on my thoughts, people-watch, and see what’s new in whatever city or space I happen to be in.
So, last week, I am at this bar, glass of wine in hand, eyes shut, dancing to some beautiful Lingala. At this point, I am over questioning why Lingala is playing here, I am just accepting it and deciding to let myself melt into this beauty that I have chosen to accept as a special treat for my arrival.
This skill just introduced me to one of the most interesting people I have met traveling to date, and he happened to have all the answers to my musical questions.
So, last week, I am at this bar, glass of wine in hand, eyes shut, dancing to some beautiful Lingala. At this point, I am over questioning why Lingala is playing here, I am just accepting it and deciding to let myself melt into this beauty that I have chosen to accept as a special treat for my arrival. Then the song switches; it’s Kompa. Traditional Haitian music sung in Creole, English, and French. This is just too much now. Kompa is not even like Reggae. It has not made it to the club scene. I have never gone out in the States and the DJ randomly says, “Hey, about to throw on this Kompa jam right quick! Get it.” No, this just doesn’t happen.
I’m guessing that I am horrible at a poker face. Immediately everyone starts approaching me laughing and smiling and asking me to dance. They were enjoying the shock and bliss on my face. Soon enough, I start up a conversation with this guy from Cartagena, who lives in Cuba now, but is here visiting for the next month. He plays Champeta music at a few venues throughout Colombia, Cuba, and Spain. Champeta music has been described to me as a fusion of African rhythms, Haitian Kompa, and Indigenous and Afro Colombian music styles. It is freedom music. A creation very much linked to the history of Palenque. Palenque was the first freed African settlement in the Americas. I actually am living about 20 kilometers from the city now and have plans to visit, however, I have met a few people who have actually lived there. Go to this city and people will tell you they are from Angola. They are so connected to their African ancestry it is just as astonishing as it is admirable. The language also resembles more so the Kikuyu I hear my father speak than the Spanish being spoken 20 kilometers away.
I mean, imagine suddenly having thrust upon you this music that just sings to the hot, African fire-blood in you. I would get a little addicted myself.
Anyway, since the Haitian Kompa night, I have been going out to a lot of African-inspired music venues. I get into many conversations with my new musician friend out here. I am intrigued immediately by a remark of his: “I do not feel the Spaniard in me. I feel the African and Indigenous. But I do not feel the Spaniard. Maybe I speak their language, but that is not who I am.”
Deep. He starts explaining to me why African music is so prevalent here and where Champeta comes from. The question I needed answered or at least offered a peek at some sort of understanding was: Why the Congolese music? The Africans who were brought here during the slave trade represent a West African lineage. Why the Congolese Rhumba then?
From my understanding (this is me trying to piece together his lecture while simultaneously swooning over the bands drumming and dance skills…oh lord, I’m such a groupie), Champeta and this surge of music from the Congo is actually quite a new phenomenon, as recent as the 1970s to be exact. It is not a product of the music and languages the African people in Colombia were already playing pre- and post-slave trade. However, I am sure their affinity towards the Congolese beats was closely related to the fact they are rocking African blood. Instead, it was a group of sailors who happened to bring back some records from the Congo and Nigeria. It was a purposeful reach towards African culture and music that the Cartagena people identified with. Cartagena, being the port city, was the one most influenced by the new music. I mean, imagine suddenly having thrust upon you this music that just sings to the hot, African fire-blood in you. I would get a little addicted myself. From there, the Champeta music was created. Champeta sports these same African beats and musical styles coupled with Spanish language and Latinx flair.
I am loving Cartagena, and I am realizing I am loving Cartagena because I am loving black Colombia. I enjoy how raw and vulnerable and honest everyone is. How closely related my own Kenyan and Haitian background is with the people of Cartagena. The foods, culture and music are so deeply rooted in Africa that I am actually feeling pretty fraudulent myself claiming Kenya and not knowing the language. 2016 language goals. I think for now I’ll spend a few more weeks dancing on the beach, glass of vino in hand, to the music of my motherland.
Rachel Wangeci Kigano is a queer black woman “living” in Oakland. She spends much of her time traveling abroad, including many months in Southeast Asia and seven years in Nairobi, Kenya. Rachel is currently in South America with plans to continue traveling over the next year. She documents her experiences as a queer woman of color traveling the machismo-laden fields of South America. All her traveling has been solo, which is how she enjoys it. Rachel wants to continue advocating for more solo female travel across the globe.