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Colombia Songlines Music Tour

Trip report by Raxa, founders of the London Jukebox

Imaginative Traveller / Songlines Music Travel: Where the heart beats


TRIP CODE
SLCL

GROUP TOUR from £3625 for 14 days

HIGHLIGHTS

- Experience the very best live music across Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, Baranquilla and Cartagena
- Get to know what life was like in Medellín during Pablo Escobar’s time
- Immerse yourself in the rhythms and atmosphere of the Petronio Alvarez Festival
- Visit San Basilio de Palenque and its traditional communities
- Explore Colombia’s alternative hip hop scene as well as more traditional music genres

Colombia - Bogota, Medellin & Cartagena

September 12 - 22, 2016

In September 2016, a group of music lovers and avid travellers alike were invited on a wonderful trip of a lifetime, exploring the rich, diverse sounds and culture of Colombia: "the land of a thousand rhythms". For many lovers of latin music, Colombia has the most interesting vibrant music scene in South America at the moment. As accompanied by our Songlines Travel Leader, the group gained a unique access to the artists and musicians, who shared an intimate knowledge of the places visited.

Raxa, founder of ‘The London Jukebox’, was amongst the group and tells us of their experience on this tour... Part One is seen below and covers the music aspect of the trip, with Part Two providing an insight into Colombian culture.

The London Jukebox

With much anticipation I packed my belongings and transferred from La Candelaria district of Bogota to its more leafy suburb where I was to meet with the Songlines group that evening. This is the area where the well healed Bogotans live work and play – altogether more developed and wealthier than the downtown area. But the focus of this leg now switches to the music and cultural itinerary pulled together by Songlines Travel. I discovered later that this is the first time they have run this trip, and, with hindsight, appreciate that we were not on tried and tested grounds. Over the next 10 days we will be introduced to music producers, artists, attend showcases at the BOmm (Bogota Music Market, a gathering of music industry professionals of South America), learn about the history of Colombian music, experience first hand the Palenque, delight in the cuisine and colours of Colombia, and so much more.

Background

First, a brief synopsis of Colombian music. As my friend Gareth Gordon (networking co-ordinator of BOmm amongst many things – Bogota Chamber of Commerce) said by way of introduction – you could spend a lifetime learning about the roots, influences and musicology of Colombian music. I will try to cover it in a few sentences – I am sure much will be lost but there are several sources of information if anyone is interested in digging deeper.

Broadly, the music is aligned to the geography of the country represented by four regions – the valleys between the three Andean mountain regions that straddle the country, the Caribbean coast with influences from Cuba and the Carribbean islands (salsa, reggae), the Pacific coast with groups of people of African decent that have remained isolated and which is reflected in their music, and the Amazonian plains – largely cowboy country where the music from indigenous people has a large influence.

 

Mario in Bogota

I did not suddenly acquire all this knowledge by just being in Colombia – it is very much thanks to Mario Galleano Toro, a producer, artist (he leads the band Frente Cumbiero), promoter and knowledge extraordinaire of Colombian music.

His presentation, in Matik Matik, a small live music venue run by a Frenchman, with understated décor, was a fascinating historical tour through the regions people and the music, intermittently illustrated with samples of music from his original (and hard if not impossible to get) vinyl collection, carefully selected by him for us.

Maite in Medellin

In Medellin we met with Maite Hontele, a talented, beautiful and warm Dutch trumpeter now based largely in Colombia – here she is in Cuba….

Link to Maite’s music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z17JJIn-yzU

She hosted us in the studios of Merlin Producciones who have successfully established themselves as central to the new wave Colombian music.

Her husband is the lead singer of Puerto Candelaria, a contemporary Cumbia group produced by Merlin Producciones. We were then fortunate enough to see her in a live performance that evening – she and her band were sensational. We had ‘VIP’ seats at the venue, but it was not possible to remain seated for too long with the groves and trumpets of the band.

Rafael in Cartagena

In Cartagena we visited San Basilio de Palenque, a town around 70km from the city, and the home of the Palenque people, language and music.

The town was the first to be declared free of slaves in all of the Americas when some men who were transported to become slaves escaped and built up such ferocious resistance to the Spanish, led by Benkos Bioho (statue of him in the photo collage below), that the latter yielded and allowed them their own place.

 

There is an excellent documentary being by Lucas De Silva (we met him in Bogota where he gave us a glimpse of the documentary and gave us a talk on the background to our visit – he was instrumental in the preparations for it) which can be found on YouTube at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1nXiXuuwqE

This clip includes Rafael Cassiani (see further down). Lucas is working on an English version.

This article from The Guardian is also a good introduction to San Basilio de Palenque and the roots of Champeta music.

We were lucky to be accompanied by Simon Broughton, editor of Songlines magazine.

We were treated to two special performances – first from Rafael Cassiani, the original member of Sextato Tabala, who sang Esta Tierra No Es Mia (“this land is not mine”). Video clips will be posted on YouTube (when I can figure out how or get the wi-fi bandwidth that will allow me to).

Our guide then proceeded to gather a group of somewhat younger lads and lasses to perform for us.

Their impromptu concert will be posted on YouTube too.

 

Credits: Raxa at The London Jukebox www.thelondonjukebox.com

Summary of the trip

I am sitting under an avocado tree in the middle of a coffee plantation as I write this – had no idea that avocados grow on such large trees – some pics to illustrate.

This is the second part to the blog relating to the Songlines tour – here I will focus on the cultural aspects of the trip while the first one was focused on the music. The pedants amongst you will no doubt be thinking that music is a part of culture surely. But given that such a huge part of the trip focused around music, I thought it worthwhile to have a dedicated one just for it. I will, however, cover the BOmm (Bogota Music Market) show cases here.

During two of the evenings in Bogota we attended the BOmm showcases – a sample of the current musical trends in Colombia. We saw the following artists … But first – thanks Russ (Russ Slater – South American music expert, editor of Sounds and Colours – www.soundsandcolours.com – a bible for music by each country and will my guiding light for this journey) – who stepped in at the last minute to be our tour lead – many thanks for stepping in and for the summary descriptions below,

  • Animales Blancos – indie / punk / rock, not really our type
  • Sango Groove – musica Pacifica – general consensus was that they were good
  • Burning Caravan – gypsy rock – I liked them
  • Curupira – fusion of Cumbia and rock – popular in Colombia and well received by the group
  • Canalon de Timbiqui – also musica Pacifica which everyone loved
  • Hety and Zambo – hyperactive dancehall flavours from the San Andres islands

 

But the universally accepted (by the group at least) cultural highlight of the trip was the graffiti tour in Medellin. First, some background. The itinerary simply said “graffiti and hip hop tour where we will visit the local hip hop communities of Crew Peligrosos and Son Bata”. Not being a fan of hip hop or, really, graffiti, I was not especially looking forward to this. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Medellin has had bad press with the serialization of narcotics baron Pablo Escobar who was based here and founded the Medellin cartel. With the resulting tensions between the government and the residents of the city, there was a near breakdown in community relations. The project Crew Peligrosos aims to change all that, by providing artistic and cultural channels in which the energies of the young people of Medellin, specifically of Comuna 13 (Medellin is broken down into administrative “comunas”, and Comuna 13 was one of the most dangerous areas and the scene of near warfare at the height of the communal tensions in October 2002 when the army was brought in to ‘restore order’) can be directed. The 4 Elementes Skuela was established to harness 4 artistic elements – music (hip hop), dancing (specifically break dancing), art (graffiti) and poetry (rap). From this project there has emerged a hip hop band called Crew Peligrosos who has cut several records and have gone on to win the Colombian grammy award for best hip-hop band in 2015.

Excellent coverage of the transformation of Comuna 13 can be found at:

http://healthymedellin.weebly.com/comuna-13.html

Our tour guide is Carlos who works for Casa Kolacho, an NGO founded by Jeihhco. Both are hip hop artists and inspiration for the Medellin Graffiti Tour. Carlos is accompanied by his cheeky and adorable son, pictured above, and in others below. Jeihhco explains the importance of hip hop and graffiti culture as a tool to educate and transform societies. You can see his TED talk at Jeihhco @ TEDxTigre.

And you can see Carlos presenting the tour here:

http://www.medellingraffititour.com/medellin-graffiti-tour-info/

Comuna 13 is not just a hip hop graffiti project, it is a transformation project, where the communities have taken charge of their own destinies. You will rarely hear me say these two things – that I like hip hop and that I buy a holiday t-shirt – in Comuna 13, I did both.

No trip to Medellin is complete without a tribute to Botero – his statues in Botero Plaza were a treat.

 

As a group we had one free day to do with what we wanted in Cartagena. We chose to go to a nearby bird sanctuary and pay tribute to Playa Blanca, supposedly one of the best white sand beaches in this part of the world. Expectations were rather low for the bird sanctuary and high for the beach – reality proved the exact reverse. Spectacular species of birds were seen at the former, and the latter was a sand pit for tourist traps and vulture like parasitical swindlers, the less said about that experience the better! “Select” photos of the bird sanctuary (including the odd iguana) below.

On that last night we also took in some spectacular street dancers, Pacific coast influence with the African drums and dance moves – I especially liked the woman deeply immersed in her newspaper, more than the dancing – mind of her own!

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