Tracing roots music in Colombia is an almost endless task. As the first part of this report exposes, we come across a wide array of traditional rhythms and genres, throughout the five regions that make up the territory, each one with its well-defined sound and cultural identities: the Caribbean, the Andean, the Pacific, the Orinoquía and the Amazon. A tour that always goes through cumbia, the most recognized Colombian music worldwide, that ever-present and all-terrain genre that is played, heard and danced in each region in its own way, in a continuous cultural dialogue with local folklore.
“Growing up in Colombia is an exercise in faith, surrealism and extreme contrasts in everything, a clash of conservative passions and a supposed morality that is always questioned in the need for subsistence. There’s a constant need to affirm yourself in the decision to be here, to understand your history, your place,” says Diego Gómez, also known as Cerrero, who founded Llorona Records fifteen years ago with his sister and cultural manager Eddy Johana. “We found that answer touring the country: the voice of music always seemed to us the most honest. We grew up in a very musical family. And since we were children we traveled Colombia by car, the best experience in the world, always listening to Diomedes, Joe, Niña Emilia, El Binomio, Fruko… A soundtrack to contemplate those landscapes that change from wasteland to jungle in a matter of hours.”
Diego remembers his childhood traveling to the sound of vallenato classics such as Diomedes Díaz and Binomio de Oro de América, or great legends of tropical music such as Joe Arroyo and Fruko y sus Tesos. “We always understood life from that joy and nostalgia that music has, I think that Llorona Records was born from that search,” he says, propping up the founding spirit of the Bogotá-based label that since 2007 has been producing, documenting, promoting and representing unique and authentic artists. Conceived as a platform, Llorona announces its premise: “We have found in the musical roots of Latin America and the Caribbean the inspiration to set up projects that connect creators, collectives, people and organizations that – like us – seek the original sound.”
Memories also surface in the words of Tato Marenco, always inclined to define his music as a meeting of different cultures. “Since I was a child, I listened to all the music from pelayeras bands: porros, paseos, and fandangos. Bands of 14 musicians always went to my house at birthday parties, so I think this marked my style when it came to creating my own,” says the great multi-instrumentalist from Barranquilla. Singers like Joe Arroyo and Diomedes Díaz are also part of Tato’s musical education. Among his influences, moreover, there are some of the biggest names in Colombian popular music, from Totó La Momposina to Carlos Vives, from Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto to Pedro Ramayá Beltrán – it’s not by chance that he’s had the pleasure of collaborating with all of them.
Continuing with his references, Marenco mentions the great singer-songwriter and conductor Pacho Galán, creator of the merecumbé, a style that combines cumbia with the local merengue. Nor does he forget to quote “Maestro Lucho”, Lucho Bermúdez, composer, arranger and true master of tropical music. He also mentions Petrona Martínez, who sings on his latest album Mamá Cumbé, and his “great drum teacher” Paulino “Batata” Salgado, two key names to delve into bullerengue – a genre of music and dance that emerged in the Caribbean through the Maroons.
In his search for ancestral sounds, Diego Gómez has traveled throughout Colombia, from region to region, soaking up the wonderful folkloric intricacies. Thus he came to live for two years in Providencia, a mountainous island in the Caribbean, as part of a cultural project with Llorona Records. There he met and produced Elkin Robinson, a local musician who sings in English-based Creole and draws on Afro-Caribbean rhythms such as calypso, mento and zouk. “I was able to work with him in this wonderful universe that the archipelago represents, which is our connection to the entire English-speaking insular Caribbean,” Diego proudly and enthusiastically points out.
“Little by little we entered the Pacific, another fascinating universe, musically essential to complete our mission,” says Diego. So it was that, after the success of De Mar y Río by Canalón de Timbiquí, the Goméz siblings decided to set up a record label more focused on the region: Discos Pacífico. Another catalog, another tour. “It’s about understanding the territory from its music, which is the sound of its history,” he adds. So from the outset, they recorded and produced Agrupación Changó, a large group formed at the end of 2004 in response to the need to “recover, compile, preserve, strengthen and disseminate” the music of the Nariño South Pacific. Its name pays homage to the African god Changó: the god of fire, lightning and the sacred drums.
In its goal of revitalizing the rich but little-known music scene on the Colombian Pacific coast, the new label surprised many with Bejuco. Armed with their rhythmic drums and powerful jungle songs, this band connects the sound legacy of their land with hip-hop and afrobeat. “At the moment of deciding to work together, the group wanted us to start the production of the album from scratch, to write everything thinking of creating a sound that would connect the music of the Pacific with the legacy of Nigerian afrobeat, thinking that politically there was a similar story and that musically there was a field to explore that had never been traveled from one point to another,” tells Diego. “We didn’t want to fall into the ‘pop’ formula of most ‘fusion’ bands that come out of the Pacific and all sound the same.”
“We’ve been lucky to work with people we admire: Adrian Sherwood, Mad Professor, Richard Blair, Iván Benavides… We learned from the best and made them part of the family on this path of producing music: we became a platform for artists to have the best work team,” explains Diego Gómez, aka Cerrero. “Having producers like Benavides at certain times of work has also been an incredible opportunity to understand all the layers behind movements as deep as those of the marimba”. In that sense, Semblanzas del Río Guapi is definitely another great find by Discos Pacífico. This band was formed in 2009 in honor of its river – the main artery of this small but cozy territory on the Colombian Pacific coast, in the department of Cauca. Their voices resound in the Guapireña jungle, inviting you to get to know it, preserve it, and understand the roots of its tradition.
“The moment there’s trust, affection and a respectful relationship, many doors begin to open,” says Diego. “And I think that each record we make, each group that enters the label, always brings us new opportunities to meet more artists.” Here the name of Nidia Góngora reappears, not precisely because of her great album with Canalón de Timbiquí, but because of the bridges that were built around her. It’s that one of the most recent anthropological adventures of Discos Pacífico was to record for the first time Ruth Elena Cabezas, better known as Ruca, a cult singer that Nidia fervently admires – to the point of calling her “teacher”. Born in Barbacoas, in the department of Nariño, Ruca is a strong older woman, a leader in her community who keeps in her DNA the ancestral sounds of a beaten people and who tells her stories through music. It is said that Ruca has written close to 1,000 songs, however, ¡Dale Duro al Bombo!is her first album.