The Sonic Geography of Cartagena

The strong local identity of Colombia's most African big city is slowly being erased. But not all its artists, especially musicians, are giving up without a fight.

No Credit.

It had been three years since I’d visited Cartagena, and I was shocked by all the changes. They must have been bubbling under the surface the last time I came, because they seemed so drastic. On my first visit to Colombia’s Atlantic coast, I was on a mission to hear of Afro-Colombian sounds produced and consumed in their local context. I had heard about the influence of African pop music in cities like Cartagena and Baranquilla, but didn’t realize the extent with which they had come to represent the local identity of costeños (“coastal”), especially those descended from the community of San Basilio de Palenque (outside of Cartagena). It warmed my heart to know that Africa was definitely a major factor in the equation that made up costeño identity.

Taking a stroll around Cartagena this past November, I was gripped with fear that the strong local identity was slowly being erased from the city. During my previous trip, most of the tourists I ran into last time were Colombians from the highland interior, this time there were many more backpackers and high-end tourists from the US and Europe. Inside the old city, on every corner you see a luxury hotel, a fancy boutique shop, and pricey restaurants. That was one thing, but the fact that above the old salsa club now hung a Hard Rock Cafe sign was a little hard to comprehend.

The most evident musical expressions in the historic Centro of Cartagena are salsa and vallenato. These are the types of music peddled to foreign tourists, by people spinning Cartagena as a romantic alternative to Havana. Not that I don’t love those musics, but they are the safe genres — accepted by the country’s middle classes and elite — and they don’t really represent the diversity that makes up Cartagena’s cultural heritage. Even if you do get more traditional Afro-Colombian styles like mapalé, or bullerengue presented in public, they’re often historicized or treated as dormant folk culture, not the living tradition of a very real and alive people.

However there are two music styles in Cartagena that very much contain the living breathing influence of all those previous genres mentioned and more. Besides cumbia, salsa, and vallenato, the Atlantic Coast of Colombia is famous for the development of champeta music. This music and it’s antecedents are the popular musics that most represent the Caribbean identity of the Afro-Colombian community today. The story of champeta is that in the 1970s, vinyl pressings from African and Caribbean capitals made their way to the port cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla. Sounds like highlife, calypso, soukous, kompa, mbaqanga and makossa became all the rage amongst local Afro-Colombians, particularly in the autonomous maroon community of San Basilio de Palenque. Afro-Colombian Atlantic costeños took to these records as a form of cultural affiliation and pride in their African roots. In the early ’90s, the stream of vinyl would dry up, and local singers started producing their own records based on both older and newer African sounds such as kwaito or ndombolo, and called them champeta criolla, or local champeta, and that’s why you might hear echoes of someone like Brenda Fassie in local singer Lilibeth.

However champeta is not the only new form of music to develop in Cartagena’s popular neighborhoods. In recent years dancehall Cartagenero has grown up to be the newest expression of youth subculture. The music is influenced by producers from San Andres y Providencia, Colombia’s beautiful Caribbean islands located between Nicaragua and Jamaica. The cultural mix of these islands have allowed for the development of a Spanish-English patois that borrows equally from the Spanish Caribbean as the English. The subsequent migration of many of the island’s residents to the North coast of the Colombian mainland provided the recipe for an amazing musical mix that includes elements of calypso, dancehall, reggae, salsa, and, yes, champeta.

There are positive and negative effects of economic development in any context. The positive in Colombia’s post-war opening is that outsiders are finally able to appreciate the beautiful culture, the amazing music, the unbelievable food. As evidenced by the many music festivals in the country such as Circulart, and the strong delegation at this year’s Womex festival in Europe, Colombia is investing a lot in its cultural exports and tourism. The economic boom of the past years has been good to some costeño artists. One of champeta’s biggest stars, Kevin Flores, recently scored a deal with a record label based in Bogotá and I was able to buy an official CD from a local shop (as most champeta is only available online or on bootlegs sold in the market).

In Cartagena it is clear that there is money flowing into the city. The negative side effect of this kind of investment is that often the financial rewards only end up in the pockets of those who already have. While the city appears richer, it becomes more unequal. It is a classic case of free market development, and reflects the relationship that Colombia has entered into with countries like the United States.

Getsemaní is perhaps one of the only places in Cartagena where there is an even mix of locals and foreign tourists. The cultural mix this allows, especially with historically open sonic tastes of Cartageneros, is quite unique and exciting. Walking down a main strip in the neighborhood you can hear the latest dancehall from Jamaica, zouk from the French Caribbean to Spanish pop from Central and South America, and I even heard Nigerian superstars P-Square’s “No One Like U”  pumping out of one bar. These are all the sounds that are adding to the palette of dancehall Cartagenero producers and DJs such as Passa Passa Soundsystem’s DJ Dever, or DJ Corpas from the alt-Caribbean super group Systema Solar, who play regularly in the neighborhood.

However, the gentrification of Cartagena points to a very real threat of the disappearance of a local identity from the city’s historical center. The Getsemaní neighborhood has become a mecca for backpacking tourists from around the world. There are cheap hostels, and restaurant catering to gringo palates. The last time I came to this neighborhood it surely retained a local barrio feel. I remember distinctly one little neighborhood square that was filled on evening with young folks just hanging out and socializing. Today that square was surrounded by fancy restaurants, and no hanging out.

Edna Martinez, a Colombian artist currently living in Berlin, tells me that a classic case of gentrification is happening in the neighborhood. As she describes it, “In the last two years a strong and accelerated process of gentrification has taken place. Many people native to Getsemaní have moved because they sold their houses, or because they were living in rented apartments, and the apartments decided to sell their houses to foreigners or local and international investors looking to buy in that part of Cartagena.” The results of such market oriented investment have very real consequences for a neighborhood like Getsemaní. Edna explains, in “another part of Cartagena, San Diego Plaza, was like that before, but now you only see restaurants, cafés, hotels, etc. There’s no room for local people. It’s very expensive to live there. Many of the houses are closed because they are only vacation homes. Nobody sits in the doors of those homes, there aren’t even places to sit in the plaza. There is no ‘vida’ there.

But again, as is common with stories of economic development, there are positive changes happening in the neighborhood. Before arriving in Cartagena, Edna had told me that in Getsemaní a community center called Ciudad Móvil had opened up. She explained, “Ciudad Móvil is a project that tries to support something a little different in Getsemaní by working with the local community, and trying to retain some sense of local identity and open spaces where the community can meet and interact.” Luckily for me, the weekend I was in Cartagena, Ciudad Móvil was having a three day music festival, so I could check it out in full swing!

I headed to the center of Cartagena on Friday, the second night of the festival. The atmosphere on the street was electric as we walked amidst the crowd of about thirty young people through Getsemaní. I realized halfway to Ciudad Móvil that we were all headed to the same place, and my excitement grew, especially after having passed by too early the first night when the venue was still empty. On the previous night I did see a young DJ setting up a small modern picó, the Caribbean coast of Colombia’s colorfully painted sound system. Unfortunately when I arrived this night, the picó was not there. However, local radio DJ Tiger was playing champeta and a mix of international African sounds, including Batida from Portugal, and a remix of the Nigerian band Kabaka International’s “Mangala Special” by a friend of mine in New York, Uproot Andy.

The crowd was a mix of twenty and thirty something gringos and locals. People were hanging around the bar as the venue started to fill up. There was a beautiful open lounge outside where they were also serving local fried snacks such as arepas and empanadas. While the foreigner crowd largely sat outside and enjoyed the nice  nighttime air, local Champeta fans danced and sweated away inside.

The venue was really filling up when the music suddenly stopped. A band called El Caribe Funk was about to go on. I didn’t know the band, but when I told a friend who was living in Panama that they were about to hit the stage she screamed and said, “El Caribe Funk is here?!” We straight ran into the venue space and joined the throng. El Caribe Funk launched into a series of high energy original productions that were kind of a rock meets reggae meets salsa melange. Girls sang along at the top of their lungs, and screamed after the rugged rockero-looking trio. I felt almost like I was witnessing the Caribbean Beatles! My group and I danced in sweaty circles for about 45 minutes until the group finished. After an all vinyl DJ started to throw on throwback cumbia, vallenato, and African records, and the young crowd began to file out. It was a high energy flash, and I wasn’t quite sure what hit me, but it was one of my funnest nights out in awhile.

I spent some time researching the Buenos Aires-based, Cartagena-bred El Caribe Funk the next day. Turns out their bio very much reflects what I had been feeling about the changes reflected on the face of the city in Cartagena:

The elegance of music has seduced us from childhood, first rock, later funk, and inevitably the exotic music of the geographic area in which we were raised: The Caribbean, which shouts in the skin of the drum and the volume of the picó. That elegance that according to the collective imagination of the musical gatekeepers, is pagan, grotesque, low class, nothing important, ‘ñera’, ugly, for poor people, for black people — it makes us understand that to do independent music with it’s own identity in a city biased by unbridled capitalism is a bit daring… so the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, decided to open its arms and accept us to bring them a piece of the Caribbean to the City of Fury.

On our way back home the previous night, walking back through Getsemaní to catch a taxi at edge of the old city, in almost every late night bar I heard someone playing dancehall Cartagenero. As I hopped along into the night, I thought that sometimes if you just scratch the surface of the glitz, sometimes you can really find gold! Projects like Ciudad Móvil are an example of that, and it can really serve as an example to anyone living in a changing urban environment on how to act (and interact) with their community before it’s too late. As Edna put it, “luckily, in Getsemaní the barrio still lives!”

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