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New Book Celebrating Colombian Music and Culture

28 May

This week I have been mostly working on Sounds and Colours Presents Colombia, a new book/CD celebrating Colombian music and culture. A lot of the research for this book was done during my Colombia travels earlier this year, all documented below, but since then the search has continued and I’ve delved head-first into anything Colombian I could find, and managed to get a few good collaborators along the way.

Which means this summer I’m going to be editing this new 208-page book (limited to 1,000 copies) and accompanying CD that will celebrate everything that’s great about Colombia, with lots of articles traditional styles of Colombian music as well as the current music scenes, Colombian cinema, Circo Para Todos, the giants of Colombian literature and theatre, original artwork, and lots more. It’s gonna be really special for anyone interesting in Colombia.

To raise the money for the printing costs we’re currently selling advance copies through a fundraising campaign. If you want to help a great project get off the ground, as well as discover a hell of a lot about Colombia you should really check out the link: indiegogo.com/sc-colombia

Palenque: The African Heart of Colombia

8 Feb

An hour’s bus journey south from Cartagena bus terminal (which itself takes an hour to get to from the centre of Cartagena) lies San Basilio de Palenque, a small village of 3,000 people descended from African slaves. Much of the coast in Colombia in fact has a large population of African descendants, but Palenque is the one place that has remained resolutely African.

The village is full of wannabe guides who I walk past as I get my bearings. The main square has a statue of Benkos Biohó but little else except for a few shops and bars. There’s an old woman in the corner of the square with some pots and pans so I go to see if she’s got some food, which she has; a soup full of bones followed by a plate of rice. While there I am joined by Daniel, one of the wannabe guys from the arrival. I ask him a couple of things about music in Palenque and he seems to know what he’s talking about. Considering the village looks nothing more than row after row of houses I agree to pay him 10,000 Colombian Pesos (about GBP3.50) to show me around.

Palenque is quite famous as the home of champeta criolla, a style of music that mixed Afro-beat with local Colombian styles (check out the Palenque! Palenque! to listen to this style in full flow). Daniel takes me to the house of Rafael Cassiani or El Maestro, leader of Sexteto Tabalá, a group with a strong Afro-Cuban feel. I felt a little bad for not buying any of the CDs he offered me but they were 30,000 Pesos (10 pounds) for CD-R’s with badly photocopied artwork. I told him I’d like to buy an original, to which he replied that they are the originals and that they sound better than the official ones which are actually broken. Apart from that dispute though, I got on well with Rafael. Then we met one of the two old singers from Las Alegres Ambulancias, a more traditional palenque group. Her CDs had proper liner notes and cases and were only 25,000 Pesos so I bought one. We also checked out La Casa de La Cultura, where many musical events happen on the weekend and at holidays.

In essence, if you plan on going to Palenque you’ll definitely need a guide as otherwise you will just find yourself walking along dirt roads past very similar-looking run-down houses. You should also know that the bus will only drop you off at the entrance to Palenque and from there you will need to get a moto for the final 2-3 miles to the village. It’s definitely worth it though for a taste of Afro-Colombia!

Academic Nonceties

4 Feb

I was under the impression that Oscar Guardiola-Rivera must be an interesting guy. He has written a book entitled What If Latin America Ruled The World?, regularly attends talks about South American culture in London, and was now appearing at the Hay Festival in Cartagena. In reality, his talk followed the same path as his book – which I’m currently reading – in that it never even attempted to answer the question that his book tempts you in with. Instead he delivered rhetoric after rhetoric with an academic glee, picking apart quotes from great thinkers in a last ditch attempt to show he had something to say.

Essentially the talk represented everything wrong about academia. Here was someone with great knowledge using that knowledge to prove that he had a lot of knowledge. Surely the only point of knowledge is in it’s application. Instead Rivera revels in it’s intricacies, using it to flatter the crowd who are pleased when in agreement, which considering he’s just dressing up history, is no real surprise. Not once did he even contemplate the question “What If Latin America Ruled the World?” which was the title of the talk. His book – which you can see here – follows a similar path, rich in history, low on insight. If Rivera simply referred to himself as a historian rather than a thinker and author he would gain a lot more respect from me.

Medellin to Cartagena by Bus

4 Feb

The big talking point on this bus journey was whether I should have gone at all. I was told nothing would be happening on the last night at Discos Fuentes for the Ondatrópica guys, just tidying up, that kind of thing. So I booked an overnight bus to Cartagena. No point wasting 13 hours of the day on a bus. However, they ended up having a listening party for the whole album, starting literally just as I left. Which meant not getting to party with some amazing Colombian musicians, including Fruko.

But anyway, really I wanted to talk about the journey itself. Essentially, there is just one thing you need to know about taking the overnight bus. For God’s sake bring a blanket or lots of layers. The bus drivers are sick individuals that feel more than okay in spraying freezing cold air down your next for the entire duration of the trip. It’s not pretty!

Ondatropica in Medellin

3 Feb

So the reason I came straight to Medellin was to catch what I could of Ondatrópica, a new project featuring Colombian musicians old and new, a “tropical” exchange of ideas. The project is headed by Will “Quantic” Holland, a British producer, and Mario Galeano Toro of the ridiculously good Frente Cumbiero. In total they recorded 34 tracks in Discos Fuentes studio – known for it’s unrivalled productions of Colombian salsa and cumbia. The results are already sounding legendary, and could be an album that really takes off when it’s released – slated for April 2012. The aspiration is for it to get close to the success of Buena Vista Social Club.

A slimlined version of the group, called Los Irreales de Ondatrópica, will also be appearing at the London Olympics as part of the Cultural Olympiad. That’s on July 21st/22nd and is definitely gonna be worth checking out. I wrote about this whole project in length at Sounds and Colours so check out soundsandcolours.com/articles/colombia/onda-tropica-rejuvenating-colombias-tropical-music for more info.

Medellin At Night

2 Feb

At night Medellin is covered in God’s sparkly dandruff:


Exploring Florianópolis’s Southern Beaches

10 Oct

The popularity of Florianópolis, an island off Brazil’s southern coast, increases year upon year. Every wealthy Brazilian has a holiday home there, regular flights from Buenos Aires and Montevideo bring plenty of tourists from the more Southern countries and for many travellers heading inland from Rio it’s their last chance of a nice beach. This has led to a tripling of its population in the last 40 years and huge amounts of development on the island. Something, its basic road infrastructure has struggled to deal with – traffic jams are incessant! This has led some to question its ‘beach paradise’ status, but there is hope. Much of that development has been occurring in the North, especially in Canasveiras (full of Brazilian holiday homes) and Barra da Lagoa (a village of gringos and hostels). The South remains largely untouched, and is definitely worth investigating.

Although getting a bus during rush hour could lead to you regretting ever stepping foot on the island, the bus system is actually very effective. Get on any bus and as long as you don’t leave a terminal you can go anywhere you want on the island without paying more than the very cheap initial fee. Taking a bus south will lead you to Armação, where there is accommodation, shops and a cashpoint (the last one for a while!) The Armação and Matadeiro beaches are full of Brazilian families playing frescoball, amateur fishermen with hopeful-looking sticks in their hands and the odd tourist catching some rays, but the real gem is Praia da Lagoinha da Leste, a 3 hour walk along the coast. The route is quite hilly but the view as you round the last bend of the cliff and see the beach open up in front of you is nothing short of breathtaking. It will take another half an hour to get to the beach from the top, by which time you will be ready to dive into the crystal clear water and revel in the fact that you’re most likely one of the few people to be enjoying it.

Taking a further bus south from Armação leads to Costa do Dentro, the last stop. There are a few guest houses here, a hostel and a couple of shops, but little else. Well, little else except for three very charming beaches and a beautiful landscape to explore. I spoke to Marcelo Piccolo, who owns Albergue do Pirata, the only hostel in Costa do Dentro. He says that “the south of the island represents what the island was like in earlier eras. It’s the area which has preserved the majority of its history and culture.” This is why the South is so alluring to me. The North may host the grander parties, with worldwide brands such as Pacha arranging club nights, but the South has the true beauty of the island at its heart. From Costa do Dentro it is possible to follow trails up into the mountains in the far Southern corner. One of these trails leads to a beach called Praia dos Naufragados, another remote stretch of sand that ticks all the boxes in the paradise stakes.

As the island’s population increases the danger is that more development will occur in the South and these claims of preservation will start to become more optimistic than realistic. Marcelo certainly accepts this likelihood but is prepared to fight against it: “There are many people interested in developing on the island, obviously with financial ends. It is up to us to make sure we stop that from happening.” Considering the amount of interest currently in Brazil and the forthcoming World Cup and Rio Olympics now may just be the right time to explore of one of Brazil’s many natural splendours before it disappears.

Jorge Ben’s Africa Brasil

7 Oct

Never has Brazilian music been as funky as this. The colour and hustle of Rio de Janeiro’s streets sits alongside the tight funk of James Brown and Fela Kuti on an album increasingly being thought of as Jorge Ben’s crowning achievement. The glittering guitar work, insistent vocals and bursting melodies are the same as he’s always used but there’s a power to the band that wasn’t completely there before and a rawness which would soon be lost in the eighties.

Opening track “Ponta De Laca Africano (Umbabaraúma)” starts the album with one of the densest grooves Ben has ever concocted. It also continues one of Ben’s main lyrical themes, that of football. Umbabaraúma is the name given to dribbling the ball past the opponents. It’s almost startling when you see the English translation of lyrics as the song is built like a chant. Here’s one of the verses:

Play ball play ball ball player
Play ball I want to play ball ball player
Jump, jump, fall, get up, go up and get down
Run, kick, find a hole, thrill and give thanks
See how the whole city empties out
On this beautiful afternoon to watch you play

Another two songs take football as their main theme on this disc; “Meus Filhos, Meu Tesouro” and “Camisa 10 da Gavea”. It’s one of his enduring qualities that Ben has always stayed clear of songs with political intent, choosing instead to write about themes from which any Brazilian can find joy. That he’s held in the same regard as heavyweight songwriters such as Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso is testament to how good these songs actually are.

This album includes two particular songs which have gone on to become stoned-on classics. “Taj Mahal”, which had featured as an improvisational jam on his collaboration with Gilberto Gil from the previous year, was here reinvented as a disco-funk tour-de-force. Some people see this as the step that Ben made away from Samba Funk and towards Samba Disco. It is definitely true that later albums would be far more disco’d up, but this should in no way detract from this track. It is impossible to sit still as the beat kicks in on this number, before the hushed words ‘Taj Mahal’ get the ball rolling and both an irresisitible verse and chorus leave no moment of rest for the song’s entirety.

“Xica da Silva” is another song which has gone on to become a staple, appearing in different guises on future Ben albums. It also brings up one of the other themes of the album, it’s African roots. I’ve tried to find out more about this record and where the African influence comes from but have failed to find anything substantial. Has Ben been to Africa? Were African musicians used on the record? After many listens I would have to suggest that the African influence comes more from the African influence within Brazil, a country which bought more slaves than any other. Xica da Silva, more commonly written as Chica da Silva or Francisca da Silva, is the name of an African slave who managed to work up the class ladder by marrying one of the wealthiest colonialists in Brazil. In some ways her story is very controversial as she kept slaves once she became wealthy but Ben chooses to concentrate on the paradigm of her being a black slave treated like loyalty, and with such a slinky, soulful groove this was perhaps the better choice.

Although I’ve alluded to James Brown and Fela Kuti these are just some touchstones in terms of understanding this album because it seems to have it’s own unique flavour. On first listen I was quite adamant that I’d never heard anything like it. Even other Ben records written around this time don’t seem to quite grasp the raw funkiness of this, a funkiness which does undeniably make you think of Fela Kuti rather than any of Ben’s Brazilian contemporaries, but then at the same time the album is undeniably Brazilian. From the songs about football to the Afro-Brazilian drums and rippling samba he learnt in Rio it has to be Brazilian, but then songs such as “Cavaleiro do Cavalo Imaculado” seem to come out of nowhere and you get lost once more in this album.

It has to go down as one of the greatest Brazilian albums of all time. I have no doubt about that despite only so far having a limited exposure to Brazilian music. There is put simply just some music which breaches all boundaries and exists on its own pedastal. Africa Brasil has to be one of these albums.

In 1989 David Byrne released Brazil Classics Vol.1: Beleza Tropical, a collection of classic MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) songs. “Ponta de Laca Africano” was the opening track and made a lot of people in America investigate more of Ben’s work, and especially Africa Brasil. This video of the song was produced when that CD was released:

Trancoso – a secret beach paradise

5 Oct

Trancoso is thought of as something of a secret in the low-season, one for the odd visitor to come and look around. There’s no mistaking it for a secret in the high season. Every local has their own story of meeting Liam Gallagher and Robbie Williams. It is a place where many of the top DJ’s will come to play for nothing; they will do it simply to have a week partying with their friends.

There is a wide range of pousadas in the quadrado and on the neighbouring square, which cater for a wide variety of people. It’s a popular spot for Brazilians to come on holidays and day trips, but it’s for the international tourists that most of these pousadas have been designed. The beautiful El Gordo with its swimming pool spanning to the far wall, giving you the feeling of floating into the ocean, while all the time only being arms length from the bar and a good cocktail (the Caipirinhas are a must).

Hotel de Praça feels more casual but still offers the same level of luxury, as well as some of the friendliest workers you’re ever likely to meet, and it’s contagious. Whether you are staying at a hostel or simply there for the bar and the huge cushions that are spread around its tropical garden, you will walk out with a smile on your face.

The most famous hotel in Trancoso is without doubt Uxua Casa Hotel, designed by Wilbert Das, the creative force behind the fashion brand Diesel. It’s a series of 9 guest cottages scattered around a garden of jackfruit trees. Rustic, warm exteriors hide the slick furniture and fully outfitted kitchens within. All of the guesthouses are made from local materials, many of the walls are made from mud, and this allows it to slip perfectly into the landscape of the town.

Trancoso is a colourful place, with a warm people. They seem to be revelling in the extra income that has come with its status as hideaway for those in the know. Every year seems to bring new boutiques and hotels as word of mouth spreads. For anyone interested, now is definitely the time to go, and relax, and while away the days in that hammock. All those visions of lounging on a beach in Brazil with the best amenities at your fingertips can soon be realised.


Journey to the Wachimak Tribe in the Ecuadorian Jungle

4 Oct

Cuyabeno had whet my appetite; a lodge nestled within Ecuador’s Amazon jungle and barely a stone’s thrown from Quito [the capital of Ecuador], it had offered piranha fishing, cayman spotting, encounters with tarantulas bigger than my hand but, most of all, a sense of serenity within the jungle that I had not expected. By the time the sun had fallen off the landscape and my sweaty body had been replaced by a surprisingly cold one the jungle seemed to come alive, there was a buzz in the air and apart from stinky turkey (a bird with a scream so blood-curdling my nightmares even got scared) it was blissfully peaceful. I don’t mean this in the traditional sense as the rattling, buzzing and foraging of insects, birds and animals was all around, but as a counterpoint to city life it was heaven, nothing but us and the endless jungle (for it certainly feels infinite when you’re within it.)

This 3-day trip had enthused me into looking for further excursions, ones that would be less touristy and longer. After an in-depth internet search I found Wachimak, a Kichwa tribe near Tena, a city in the Amazonas region of Ecuador. I sent an email to a volunteer co-ordinator who simply told me to get to Tena and gave me a couple of phone numbers to call once I arrive. One was for the tribe itself and one for Jacobo, a member of the tribe who has since moved to Tena. What follows is my diary from the days that followed, an illustration of speed when travelling, or rather, a lack of it.

27th November

After arriving in Tena I called Jacobo who tells me I need to catch the 5:30am bus to Puerto Rico, where I will then take a canoe and then go for a walk, or at least that’s what I think he said as I have only been learning Spanish for the past month and I still have a long way to go to be conversational!

28th November

Who knew an on-time bus could be so upsetting? I’m stranded in Tena for another day as I wake up late to find that the owner of the guesthouse was fast asleep. He had promised to be awake to let me out of the gates in the morning. By the time he had resurrected himself and I had run down to the bus station the 5:30 was leaving and I couldn’t catch it. The only thing to do is go back to the guesthouse and back to sleep.


Strangely the delay has helped me. I give Jacobo a call and we arrange to meet. Then I find out actually how I am supposed to arrive at the tribe. I have to get the 5:30am to Agua Santa (not Puerto Rico as I first thought), take the bus all the way to its destination and then start coming back as on its return leg it goes past Puerto Rico. There I need to find the medical clinic where there will be a radio to call both the tribe and Sergio, a man who owns the canoe that will take me up the river to Puerto Wachimak where two tribesmen will be there to meet me. He even drew a map:

God knows how I would have made it without this!

29th November

5:40am – I am now on the bus to Wachimak! There was no way I was going to make the same mistake twice!

8:30am – We’ve hit a snag. A bridge on the way to Puerto Rico has begun to fall apart. The bridge is constructed of a number of metal plates, three wide, but one of these has fallen into the river below. I wait with the other passengers by the side of the road as the driver of the bus and a gradually growing flock of people decide what to do.

9:15am – Progress has been made. It was decided to pull up a metal sheet that wasn’t quite as necessary as some of the other metal sheets and fill it in the gap where the bus needs to drive over. I’m loving the improvisatory nature of these Ecuadoreans!

9:22am – The metal sheet is in place but my bus driver refuses to go over it. I have to grab my bags and get onto another bus.

9:25am – I realise I have made a huge mistake. I took my bags onto the new bus, took a seat and waited. Everyone else got off. It’s now just me and the driver as he attempts to cross the bridge. There are men either side of the rusty metal sheet replacement holding huge branches which they are using to make sure the sheet does not fall out of place. Miraculously it doesn’t and we make it to the other side.

11am – We reach a crossroads. My new bus was not going to Puerto Rico so I get off at a junction and wait for another bus.

2pm – It’s now two ‘o’ clock. A bus has just passed but was full to the brim and unwilling to take on any extra people. I can’t believe it! The next one is not til 4pm. I have now been travelling for almost 11 hours simply trying to get to my destination. It is getting a little ridiculous, I was supposed to be at Puerto Rico by 11am, now it seems it will be 5pm.

8pm (maybe) – I’m not really sure what time it is but I’ve arrived. 14 hours and 30 minutes – not bad! Three hours on the first bus then roughly one hour watching crazy Ecuadoreans try and mend a broken bridge. Another two hours on a bus. Five hours waiting by the side of the road. Another hour on a bus. When I finally arrived in Puerto Rico it was clear that everything was closed up. It wasn’t hard to find the medical clinic as there was only three houses but nobody was there. I knocked on the other houses and eventually found someone but they couldn’t seem to get the radio working. I asked them where Sergio’s house and they pointed down the path. This walk was not ideal as I was carrying my usual luggage of backpack and guitar as well as a huge sack full of rice, corn, onions and candles for the tribe (as per their wishes) which was starting to break my back!

Once I arrived at his house (which was the only one by the river) he seemed to know what to do and packed me onto a canoe, where his two lads took me down to Puerto Wachimak. I jumped off, dragged my bag, sack and guitar and plonked them on the side of the bank. They asked me for twice the money Jacobo said it should cost and, devoid of energy, I gave it to them. With a final question of “Esta bien?” they drove off down the river. No-one from the tribe had arrived to meet me yet so I sat by the river, surrounded by dense jungle. Within five minutes the sun had almost set and suddenly I was thrown back into this world of buzzing activity and rustling trees. Now I also had the strange noises of things coming in and out of the river, of water gushing up to the shore and sounded like encroaching menace. This wasn’t the serene wilderness I had before touted, this was something altogether more chilling.

It was around an hour before someone had arrived. I had spent most of the time looking through my bag for a torch that I had packed incredibly badly, and the rest terrified. This feeling wouldn’t last long as I was greeted by two tiny Ecuadoreans, one of which took the massive sack of food and placed it on his shoulder, and the other who greeted me. At a ridiculous pace we then careered through the jungle, next to what seemed like huge drops to rivers below, and across log bridges in the dark, quite often being told not to touch the makeshift handrails that seemed like my only hope of not falling into the abyss.

Finally when I arrived something happened quickly. The plate of food placed in front of me was devoured before I even breathed. Later I fell asleep just as quickly after having a couple of victorious glasses of aguardiente with the men of the village. Without the journey before I am sure that all of these things would not have tasted quite so sweet! Speed has never tasted this triumphant!