The “Caribbeanization” of Afrobeat in Colombia

In Colombia, doing straightforward political music carries many risks, including confronting state repression, political armed rebellions, and organized crime.

Image © Daniel Solorio.

Bogotá Orquesta Afrobeat (La BOA), the first self-designated Afrobeat band in Colombia was created in 2009, about 37 years after Fela’s Shakara became a hit on the western coast of Colombia, and 12 years after Fela’s death.. In this article, I trace Afrobeat’s memorable arrival in Colombia, its impact on the cultural landscape, and the transformations it is undergoing in a country where, since the Frente Amplio (Large Front) won elections in June  2022, a complex process of self-renewal and “total peace” is underway to tackle the scourge of para-military, state and drug trafficking violence, as well as the impact of guerrilla warfare.

In 1975, Lizandro Meza Y Su Conjunto released on his own label, Limeza, a 45 pm vinyl disc titled Shacalao, inspired by Fela’s Shakara (1972). In the same year, another “cumbianized” version of Shacalao, released by Pedro “Ramayá” Beltrán y La Cumbia Moderna de Soledad, hit the Colombian market. In 1976, Wganda Kenya released Shakalaode, a more upbeat version of Shakara on the label Discos Fuentes, introducing wah-wah guitar riffs and wild organ solos. It was also a 45 pm vinyl disc. The composers of those tracks created new compositions inspired by Fela’s music, but DJs prided themselves on owning and playing the original LPs.

“In Barranquilla, in the 1980s,” as Walter Hernández, a leading musician from the band Systema Solar affirmed, Shakara’s time “was a very strong moment in which the impact of Fela’s music was unrivaled.” Although Hernandez could not tell precisely who, in Barranquilla or Cartagena made Afrobeat popular, it flourished in the Caribe, concomitantly with a slew of other urban African artists and genres—high-life, Mbaqanga, Congolese Rumba, and quite specially Soukous.

The Caribbean coast of Colombia has commercial and migratory connections with Upper and Lower Guinea going back centuries. Gradually, the largest contingents of Africans to Cartagena would come from Angola and the Congo, although many were still brought from both Guineas. Africans, who sometimes ran away and created their own communities or palenques, have  made an indelible impact on Colombian folklore first—Mapalé, Currulao, Cumbia—and on urban popular music.

The expansion of the record industry and its market facilitated the exposure of Colombia to urban musical production from Africa, especially from the Congo, Cameroon, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. In the third chapter of the documentary Pasos de la Cumbia, Lucas Silva, a DJ and cultural producer, who specializes in African music and has lived many years in South Africa, explains that Mobutu Sese Seko, the former president of Zaire, bought a plane in Colombia, and when he needed to service it, he hired a Colombian mechanic who traveled to the Congo. On the latter’s return, he brought along dozens of 45 rpm discs that inundated Cartagena and Barranquilla. Such discs have now become rare and precious vintage items. Another popular explanation holds that Colombian sailors/seamen who traveled abroad, brought back with them discs of the evolving popular music. Both versions are not mutually exclusive. However, one trip from the Congo may not be enough to explain the ubiquity of urban music from the whole continent.

Producers such as Lucas Silva have played a significant role. The spread and popularity of African music —high-life, Soukouss, Ndombolo, Congolese rumba, Makossa, Mbaqanga, Ziglibithy— was made possible by the Picó culture, a phenomenon typical of Cartagena and Barranquilla. In the 1950s, Colombian DJs began importing large sound systems, called pick-ups, from Jamaica. These would eventually become Picós. DJs moved them to play music in verbenas (popular fiestas) and in various other venues. African music impacted cultura picotera and was at the core of the emergence of a new assertive, uninhibited, and unapologetic Afro-Colombian musical identity. In “Champeta is liberation”: The indestructible sound system culture of Afro-Colombia”, writer April Welsh noted: “When ‘música Africana’ swept the region during the ‘70s and ‘80s, the sound systems played a vital role in building a collective diasporan identity for many Afro-Colombians living in a country heavily scored along race and class lines.” Kanda Bongo Man, Dr. Nico, Diblo Dibala, Ikengue Superstars, Mbilia Bel, Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens, among others, became local celebrities.  They helped recreate a pan-African connection, which remained largely unknown to most Africans on the continent.

This movement gave rise to Champeta, a genre essentially based on Soukous guitars, bass, drumming and dance. Because of its sensual and openly suggestive dance moves, and also because it came from a “Black Below,” the white upper classes denigrated it. For Afro-Colombians, it was an affirmation of their existence and personality. DJs changed African titles to Spanish ones, composed champetas in Palenque language, or they produced phonetic distortions of the original names. For example, Mbilia Bel’s “Mobali Na Ngai Wana” is known in Colombia as “La Bollona.” Champeta became the new black identity marker along the western coast. As writer Barbara Wanjala points out, Champeta, over time, became a national mainstream phenomenon, and moved from the periphery to the center.

Radio also assumed an active role in popularizing African music to the barrios. For example, Vokaribe 89.6 FM, an urban community radio station located in La Paz district, a neglected neighborhood of southern Barranquilla, creates a space where the African and the Caribbean meet. Hernández, a Vokaribe host, explained to me:

…our focus is the Caribbean as one, as a state of mind, as a territory that transcends physical borders. To be Caribbean is to have a way of thinking and feeling that, in its multiplicity, diversity, hybridization, and power, has a capacity for permanent dialogue …So, what we do is to connect the entire African diaspora and generate new content that goes beyond the commercial.

Vokaribe’s vocation is eminently political and it resides in the pleasure of artistic connections and of an imagined renewal. It is a specific attitude to life and has permitted displaced Africans to organize and resist racism and discrimination. As Hernandez explained: “The strength of the meaning of what they [African musicians] say politically is lost. But, they generate another type of logic.” Connecting through rhythm, harmony, melody, enjoyment and dance creates new spaces of self-knowledge, discovery, and solidarity. Fela’s Shakara and Zombie were part of those exchanges and resonated with Afro-Colombians, but they were emptied of their political content. As a result, Afrobeat lost its militancy. Its language (use of pidgin and Yoruba), its own musical essence (very jazzy), and its inability to supplant the festive force of Congolese music contributed to its fading. However, Afrobeat resurrected in Bogotá decades later.

The creation of Bogotá Orquesta Afrobeat occurred through an organic process. Michel Daniel, a Mexican, and David Cantoni, a Colombian, met in Argentina. Daniel was introduced to Afrobeat by a jazz musician friend in Buenos Aires, where a vibrant Afrobeat culture developed in the late 1990s. He listened to Expensive Shit by Fela, at a time when he was into electronic music and Punk. He became enraptured when he saw a live performance of Seun Kuti at the Glastonbury festival in England.  Cantoni returned to Bogotá, started a group, and asked Daniel to join. The latter agreed and traveled to Colombia where they created, in 2009, a studio called Changó Records, and later an Afrobeat band.

A few core political beliefs and musical practices link Daniel, the musical director of La BOA, to Afrobeat, as he became pivotal to La BOA’s journey from 2013 to 2023. First, as he confessed: “Since I was little I liked everything that was countercultural, that was some kind of protest against the current; then, from a very young age, projects that were managed independently always caught my attention.” Second, he believed that the aesthetics of Afrobeat were entirely compatible with traditional Afro-Colombian rhythms. Third, he conceptualized Afrobeat as “a musical process that linked traditional music to contemporary urban music, like Fela who mixed traditional music with Funk, Soul and Jazz.” Therefore, at that time, he “thought Colombia was a territory where this process could take place in such an organic way that no one would be appropriating someone else’s culture.” It would be a “natural creative process.” Fourth, the diasporic nature of Afrobeat did not escape him. As he emphasized: “America and Africa have always had a dialogue with their music.” In Cuba, he says, “they created the Son, it reached Africa, and it is now the Congolese Rumba.” He believed Afrobeat in Colombia would be part of those Atlantic crosscurrents.

In its first two years, Bogotá Orquesta Afrobeat was marked by the integration of Nelda Piña in the band. A renowned singer from the Caribe province, she was well-rooted in Costeño folklore and drums. The band was named Nelda Piña and La BOA (Bogotá Orquesta Afrobeat) after Daniel and Cantoni met Piña in a recording session in their Changó Records studio. As Daniel explained “Nelda Piña, a singer from Gamero (Bolívar) came to David’s studio to record traditional music. She was a story-teller, singer and dancer of bullerengue, a musical style popular in the Bolívar region… .” After hearing her music, he realized, “this lady is our singer. We proposed it to her for that recording.”

Piña Nelda, with more than 25 years of experience, attracted many musicians to the group, and soon the band comprised 11, including Diana Sanmiguel, who managed Piña’s shows in Bogotá. Sanmiguel became an excellent project manager and still belongs to the group, now as its single female artist. She also works with La Perla, an all-woman band committed to traditional singing, percussion, drumming, and feminist positions.

From 2013 to her departure in 2016, Piña had an indelible impact on the band in the choice of songs and messages. La BOA skillfully crafted traditional rural and costeño songs into an Afrobeat flavor. One example is the single Giumbelé (with Nidia Góngora) which, until today remains the most listened to track by LaBoa on Spotify. For health reasons, Piña returned to her community, origins and traditional music. As a result, La Boa lost part of its identity.

In July 2017, La BOA released Volumen, their second album, one that explores various beats the Colombian public is familiar with, as well as original blends such as Tambora and Pajára with the use of talking drums and lead vocalist Deimar’s uniquely languorous voice. The album is relatively subdued with jazzy brass notes and a lot of creative percussion. It stands a little away from the groovy tracks of Afrobeat, even in the song No compro (I Won’t Buy), one of the first songs the band  composed as a protest against fracking. Mining, legal and illegal, has long been the leading extractive industry in Colombia, leaving devastation and environmental disaster behind, especially “during the dominant neo-liberalism of the last 20 years,” as Deimar says.

With Máquina (2019), their third album, the focus shifted to the city, to people’s stories, inspired by the rapper JhonPri’s urban stories of freedom. Fela sang about Lagos’s chaos and congestion in Confusion (1974), but he “loved it like that.” The theme of the city as a ruthless, confused and heartless place, lacking empathy and solidarity caught the band’s attention:

We wanted Por Eso to bear the torch of hope, to be an invitation to organize and act. It goes like this: ‘when nothing happens /when everything hurts /without cause or desire of love or powers / without a roof and without money / without health there is no life / if you are overwhelmed, get up and walk.’ The background refrain, ‘That’s why you have to go out looking /wake up, get up and walk,’ is an invitation from a moment when we were writing many sentimental songs, so to speak, where the text originates from the tragedy, but we wanted the texts to begin to offer hope.

With their fourth album La Bestia, released in September 2022, La BOA entered a new phase of their journey, seeking to re-create sounds of the Great Caribbean vicinity: 1970 and 80’s Kompa, Dub, Salsa, Cumbia, and Reggae, for example. On this EP set of danceable compositions, La Boa aims to re-discover and explore music that precedes the digital era, and revive old genres. They want to  keep alive the spirit of Caribbean cultural and political solidarity, identity, and unity at the grassroots level of dance and enjoyment. La Bestia includes no classic Afrobeat track and remains politically prudent, at a time when new popular genres with Afrobeats are emerging, even from the African continent.

In its 10 years of existence, Bogotá Orquesta Afrobeat, now simply called LaBOA, has been arguably the only band in Colombia to label itself an Afrobeat band. In Chile and Brazil, Afrobeat, with bands such as Abayomy, Newen, and Funmilayo Afrobeat Orquestra, quickly took on a combative and militant character, sometimes associated with Candomblê practices. In Colombia, Afrobeat navigates, now more than before, the spectrum between cultural/social and political music. Doing politics, or doing straightforward political music in Colombia, carries many risks associated with state repression, political armed rebellions, and organized crime. In 2022, 215 activists, social and community leaders were murdered.

La BOA has remained true to the philosophy of its founder. Daniel considers Afrobeat a process of mixing urban, contemporary sounds with traditional ones. The impact of Afro-Colombian traditional music ended up being immense because of Nelda Piña’s influential presence. La BOA’s goal now is to fully respond to its Caribbean identity. It sticks to local musical traditions, is less overtly political but, aesthetically, it remains close to working class people’s aspirations and struggles and creates a vital platform of encounter and exchange between Caribbean and African people. It maintains a special political niche for itself as more commercial genres such as Afrobeats, Amapiano, Kizomba, Congolese Rumba, Gqom — are making their way into Colombia.

Further Reading