Songlines Essential 10: Colombian Albums


From cumbia to vallenato, Colombia is one of South America’s musical powerhouses. Russ Slater selects some of the country’s hottest releases, old and new

Bomba Estéreo – Blow Up 
(Nacional, 2009)

The electronic music scene in Colombia’s capital and largest city, Bogotá, simmered throughout the 00s to the sounds of Sidestepper and releases by Aterciopelados’ Entrecasa label, but literally ‘blew up’ when Bomba Estéreo released this debut album at the end of the decade. International audiences lapped up the sound of singer Li Saumet’s passionate, punky delivery, with the group’s mix of tropical grooves and 90s dance beats.

Choc Quib Town – Oro 
(Wrasse Records, 2010)

With ‘Somos Pacifico’ this hip-hop trio created a modern anthem that everyone from the Pacific coast of Colombia, an area that has long been marginalised, could get behind. Aside ‘El Bombo,’ with its catchy-as-hell flute and percussion intro, the track propelled Oro into becoming a smash, both in Colombia and around the world, and forced many people to take the music of the mainly Afro-Colombian Pacific coast seriously. Reviewed in #68.

Fruko & Joe Arroyo  Rebelión Tropical: The Very Best Of
(Nascente, 2010)

Joe Arroyo was a huge name not only in Colombia, but across the Spanish-speaking world, and perhaps that’s due to his pan-Latin sound, with influences of soca, zouk and merengue alongside those from Colombia. Many of his biggest hits are included here, alongside his early work with producer Fruko, an artist who should be revered worldwide too, as highlighted by his production work that spans half of this two-disc set. Reviewed in #76.

Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto – Un Fuego de Sangre Pura 
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2009)

Playing gaita-led cumbia, Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto are a musical institution known for their traditional interpretations of Colombian music. Though they have been active since the 1940s – they have a revolving cast of members – this was the group’s first international release and showcases the astonishing purity of their sound.

Totó La Momposina – La Candela Viva
(Real World Records, 1993)

This is the album that announced Totó La Momposina as a name on the world music scene, starting a journey that has seen the singer – now in her 70s – begin a second chapter in her career as an international ambassador for cumbia. It’s still a great starting point to discover La Momposina’s music.

Ondatrópica – Ondatrópica 
(Soundway Records, 2012)

Led by British producer Quantic and Colombia’s Mario Galeano this project paid homage to Colombia’s tropical music of yore, while also adding some modern touches. Recorded with producer Fruko, the result is a blistering double album of cumbias, porros and descargas with doses of Afro-Pacific rhythms, dub and reggae. A Top of the World in #86.

Sexteto Tabalá – El Sexteto Tabalá 
(Ocora Radio France, 1998)

This is undoubtedly the album that introduced the music of the runaway slave colony Palenque to the world stage. Sexteto Tabalá, led by enigmatic bandleader Rafael Cassiani, mixed Afro-Colombian rhythms like bullerengue, cumbia and funeral rituals with Cuban son and scintillating percussion.

Carlos Vives – Clásicos de la Provincia
(Polygram, 1994)

Vallenato had fallen out of favour in the 90s. Vives changed that, first by impersonating vallenato legend Rafael Escalona in a hit soap opera, and then by releasing this groundbreaking album, reinventing the vallenato songbook with touches of rock and pop. Following its success Colombians all over dared to pick up the accordion once more.

Various Artists – Cumbia Cumbia 1 & 2
(World Circuit, 2012)

Discos Fuentes is known as the home of cumbia and on this compilation of their highlights, it’s easy to see why. From the orchestral cumbias of the 60s, onto the brass-filled grooves of the 70s and the smaller 80s combos the label stuck with the style through thick and thin. This collects the best of these recordings, offering a concise history of cumbia. Reviewed in #83.

Various Artists – Pacifico Colombiano: Music Adventures in Afro-Colombia
(Otrabanda, 2011)

The full spectrum of Colombia’s Pacific Coast is represented on this gem that highlights the region’s strong African identity. Call-and-response vocals, deep percussion and marimba enhance the music of Grupo Socavón and Markitos, and Choc Quib Town’s fusion of música pacifica with hip-hop shows contemporary variations. Reviewed in #57.

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