Brazil has a reputation as South America's most racially-diverse country. But the Spanish-speaking nations on the continent have their own complex mix of races too. Today's Global Hit puts that complexity squarely into focus. The World's Marco Werman reports on a type of African music that's popular in Colombia. But you wouldn't know about it unless you hang out in one of Colombia's black communities.
In Colombia, the racial-class divide is a fact of life.
â€œEverybody want to be white.â€
Lucas Silva is a musician and record producer from Colombia who now lives in Paris. Cynical Colombians says Silva use a gauge to describe upwardly mobile aspirations in their country.
â€œSometimes in Colombia we say the rich want to be American. The middle class want to be European. And the poor, they want to be like Mexicans.â€
And those poor in Colombia, to a large degree, are black. Of all the world's Hispanic countries, Colombia boasts the largest black population. Over a quarter of the country's 50 million people have ancestors who came from Africa. The music that many of those Afro-Colombians listen to is called champeta.
â€œChampeta is a mix of Afro-Colombian traditional music and African modern music.â€
Listen to the opening notes of a recent recording of champeta music, and you'd swear you're listening to Congolese music.
This is a special introduction to champeta music. The name of the ensemble performing it is "Colombiafrica: The Mystic Orchestra." It's something of a supergroup of Colombian and African musicians pulled together by producer Lucas Silva. Silva moved to Paris from Colombia in 1998 to study filmmaking. And everytime Silva walked out the front door into his heavily African neighborhood of Chateau Rouge in Paris, he'd hear music he recognized.
It wasn't champeta music though. It was the Congolese roots of champeta.
And that's when Lucas Silva turned his energies away from filmmaking, and toward championing this music that he felt Colombia had been ignoring for too long.
â€œChampeta is a ghetto music, coming from the poor people of my country. It was the source of discrimination, people coming out and saying that it was a bizarre music, that it was not Colombian music, but music from other countries. So what I'm doing is to fight for that music, to get it recognized by everywhere in the world and in Colombia also, and to get noticed that in Colombia, there is a very strong African culture that is still alive but very few people know about it.â€
To start with, Lucas Silva has gotten the message through to a small group of Congolese musicians. One of them is the renowned guitarist Rigo Star. I'm not talking about Ringo Starr of the Beatles here. Rigo Star is from Kinshasa and is a master of soukous guitar. Here he is on the track Quien Manda A Quien.
When guitarist Rigo Star was meeting the Colombian musicians in their hometown of Palenque, Lucas Silva says the Congo-Colombia connection suddenly became real.
Rigo Star and the musicians from Palenque are kind of from the same family, right? In Palenque they have an African creole. So when the Palenque people was talking to Rigo Star, they could understand each other. And Rigo Star was answering questions to us about our own ancestors, about the roots of our music. Because he knows where it comes from.
â€œFor us, the best music in the world is African music. I mean we don't care very much about salsa, because we were born into salsa, right? We care about soukous, we care about highlife, Afrobeat, mbaqanga, Soweto music, Kenya music, Nairobi music. You know, in Colombia, salsa is for the people who have money, to go into a disco. But when you are a black man in Colombia, you can't go in that places. So you have to make your party in a street.â€
Lucas Silva's own champeta street party is portable.
It comes in CD form and is called Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land, and performed by his very own Colombiafrica: the Mystic Orchestra.
For The World, I'm Marco Werman.