Champeta: A Colombian Caribbean Cultural Resistance



Collectively living the music, the picó soundsystem of the Colombian Caribbean cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena have created parties for people of their working-class neighborhoods, in particular for the Afro-Colombian diaspora. Edna Martinez shares with us the story of their emergence and their re-appropriation of the derogatory term of “champeta.”

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Picó el Sabor Stereo (1999). / Photo by Lucas Silva (Palenque Records Label).

The picó soundsystem culture of the Colombian Caribbean had its beginnings in street parties of the 1950s. These parties were organized in proletarian neighborhoods and marginalized spaces within cities such as Cartagena and Barranquilla. They were self-managed on the initiative of neighborhood groups and families. The organizers rented a house, where alcohol was sold and a very loud sound system with an exquisite musical selection was installed, creating an experience called verbena. In its origins, these parties that began in patios or terraces of these houses, started to become so successful that they needed larger spaces. They thus moved to and used communal areas of the neighborhood such as sport halls or vacant lots. To carry out an event under these conditions, sites were fenced off by installing a temporary and itinerant construction known as kazeta. There, surrounded by the humidity and high temperatures of the Colombian Caribbean and embraced by an urban and everyday environment, the sound systems found their main stage. Over the years, the sound systems were able to grow and acquire more strength, which also led the owners to give them unique names, develop their own designs with their own images and characters until giving shape to what we know today as Picó.

Picó parties are typical of the Colombian Caribbean. This is especially true of Cartagena and Barranquilla, two port cities that due to their geographical condition have enjoyed multiculturalism and commercial openness. In the case of Cartagena, it is noteworthy that, during the colony, it was the main port of entry to the former Nueva Granada and, as such, the key point of the slave trade. For this reason, its population was (and still is) essentially of African origin, which at the time was seeking to free itself from the Spanish yoke. When struggling against slavery, many slaves took refuge in the Montes de María region. In the 17th century, some of them found the first free town in the Americas, San Basilio de Palenque, about 90 kilometers from Cartagena, and settled there in isolation until the middle of the 20th century. From then on, their descendants returned to Cartagena in search of better life conditions and settled mostly in the Nariño neighborhood. Others simply continue to live in Palenque commuting to work in Cartagena only during the day.

The musical selection of the picós between the 1950s and the 1970s was oriented to Afro-Cuban rhythms, discharge, pachanga, guaguancó, bolero, and Latin and Caribbean rhythms.

The musical selection of the picós between the 1950s and the 1970s was oriented to Afro-Cuban rhythms, discharge, pachanga, guaguancó, bolero, and Latin and Caribbean rhythms. However, by the 1970s, a great wave of African music arrived in the country in the form of acetate records. It is said that workers of ships that anchored in ports and had been traveling around the world were the ones who negotiated with picó owners who — in a time when mp3 did not exist — had to get large amounts of records to expand their repertoire. At this time, each sound system and each picó already had its own name and its own aesthetics: striking and colorful figures generally alluded to its name, its own musical selection, as well as to its own entourage of followers. For example, in Cartagena, El Conde was in command, while in Barranquilla, it was El Timbalero or El Gran Fredy.

Like in the Jamaican Sound Systems, battles were organized between the picós, measuring their strength not only by the sound but also by the quality of the songs popularized by them. Each picó then tried to include famous songs in its repertoire, playing them as much as possible at each party until the followers recognized them as belonging to that picó and learned them regardless of the language of the song (Lingala, Creole, French or English for instance). In this way, these songs were considered exclusive to one picó, as no other owned them. To ensure the uniqueness of their records, picó owners kept the covers and erased the names of the songs printed on the acetates to prevent other picó owners from identifying them and acquiring the same records. The more exclusives a picó had, the more people it gathered, summoned, and the more dances it generated.

The influence of African music in the picós allowed the Afro-Colombian populations of the Caribbean coast to get closer to their origins and become aware of the violent colonial process by which their ancestors had arrived in Colombia. The slaves brought as labor from Africa belonged to diverse ethnic groups, brought different languages and customs, and had to face degrading conditions. Even after gaining their freedom, these generations of former enslaved people and their descendants remained in conditions of inequality and marginalization. The explosion of African rhythms in the Caribbean was resonating in the population to such an extent that singers such as Justo Valdez, Luis Towers, Viviano Torres, Charles King began to imitate this music. Even some picós, such as the Rey de Rocha, encouraged artists to create songs exclusively for them, thus giving birth to a genre, a dance and a movement of its own called champeta. From its beginnings, this music embodied a form of production, diffusion and distribution independent of the traditional market.

Those who attended and continue to attend these picó parties are people from the working class, in particular people belonging to the Afro-Colombian identity: countrymen, informal vendors, cooks, port operators, as well as the unemployed, who are frequent the picós. Hence, since its origins, this culture has been excluded from any official recognition promoted by the city’s policies regarding cultural representation. This has also been the case of cumbia, a traditional music of provincial origin that today is recognized in academic circles and even as national heritage thanks to the tireless work of musical masters such as Lucho Bermudez, who contribute to make these sounds adaptable for different ears so that this became a national symbol of identity.

Originally, the word champeta refers to a knife for fish-cutting, used by some fish sellers on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. This term was adopted by the elites to refer in a derogatory way to the stigmatized and marginalized population of the area, as well as to the music they listen to and dance to. Consequently, the adjective champetúo carries an intrinsic symbolic charge associated with criminality, danger, and illegality. Young gang members armed with champetas would come to the picó dances, and engage in fights that often left people injured or even dead. This situation led the hegemonic sector of the city to associate neighborhoods hosting picó with delinquency and insecurity, even though their music, the champeta, was beginning to be well received by people of the popular neighborhoods. Consumed by champetúos, this musical genre was created by the most depressed sectors of Cartagena and is associated with the Afro-descendant population of the city, and particularly of San Basilio de Palenque, where the first champeta singers came from.

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Picotero at picó El Recochero (1999). / Photo by Lucas Silva (Palenque Records Label,

These types of popular dances were stigmatized by the high economic and political spheres of the country, who judged them as dangerous, bad taste, and vulgar. But, in reality, strong social relationships began to be woven around the picós. Although they have changed over time, they continue to give continuity to a culture through dance and music, partying and popular enjoyment. This is their source of power and resistance, here lies their cultural and revolutionary character. It is a space that allows to redefine life itself, to create social fabric, solidarity and, in some cases, allows young singers and musicians to change their lives through the music itself. By strengthening the identity of a place, the musical genre of the Colombian Caribbean is created and both nourish each other. In the case of Cartagena, the birthplace of champeta, the picós not only play records of different genres but also allow these musicians to record and promote their music, giving them legitimacy long before the radio.

It is a space that allows to redefine life itself, to create social fabric, solidarity and, in some cases, allows young singers and musicians to change their lives through the music itself.

The association of champeta and champetúo with violent practices and undesirable behavior derives from racist ideas that have historically marginalized the Afro-descendant population. The popular festivities, rites, and customs of African slaves were associated with perversity: they were considered primitive, lowly and vulgar, compared to the refined and civilized practices of the colonizers. This perception has persisted over time and there are still expressions that imply a narrative of inferiority of black people. Today, this narrative is questioned more than ever through new cultural expressions such as those around champeta. Although the 1991 constitution promulgate s the construction of a nation based on plurality and multiculturalism, protecting the different cultural manifestations as part of the consolidation of a national identity, in reality, this panorama remains a gray area that takes different shades according to the interests of the ruling elites of the country, but especially of the Atlantic coast. Indeed, nationalist discourses have always been focused on homogenizing the identity of the Colombian people, co-opting certain cultural expressions such as music in order to legitimize the national identity both internally and externally. However, the hegemonic power of the Colombian elites has historically disdained the cultural manifestations of Black people, relegating their participation based on racial stigmatizations that deny the Afro in the construction of national identity, yet always presents the Afro as an element of comparison between what is eminently Colombian and what is not.

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Yamiro Marin, producer of Rocha Records (1999). / Photo by Lucas Silva (Palenque Records Label,

Like other historically marginalized music, the themes developed in champeta describe everyday contexts or sentimental problems in general, including corruption and some social problems such as drug use and delinquency among young people. Champeta has traditionally been a key driver of social cohesion within the popular classes of Barranquilla and Cartagena, linking ideas of identity and pride deeply rooted in the most depressed social sectors of the Colombian Caribbean coast. This identity is based on the development of the popular party (verbena) as an activity typical of the region, where the picó becomes the headquarters and circulation of the champeta, seeking to represent a legitimate urban culture of the Atlantic coast. The picó is increasingly seen and used as a means of creation, diffusion and distribution of champeta, which, as a sound product, attempts to embody the spirit of historically marginalized and oppressed social groups.

Champeta has traditionally been a key driver of social cohesion within the popular classes of Barranquilla and Cartagena, linking ideas of identity and pride deeply rooted in the most depressed social sectors of the Colombian Caribbean coast.

Thus, champeta finds in the informal (or even illegal) market the path that defines its future. This musical genre follows alternative forms of musical circulation that respond to the stigmatization and marginalization of the sound product and find in the picó the epicenter of this diffusion. The negative symbolic charge related to champeta has to do with the creation of songs themselves, in which informality and lack of professionalization are pointed out. These prejudices lead to the labeling of champeta as lacking in taste, musical affinity, and originality. However, the empowerment of this cultural phenomenon exercised by its different actors has made champeta strong enough to maintain and strengthen its roots, as well as to persist as a cultural and musical marker of the working and popular classes of the Colombian Caribbean coast. The picó has even managed to upset the existing power structures, in some of which these structures have nominally recognized the insertion of this musical genre in different spaces, whether in festivals or national festivals, as well as within the national music scene. ■