SCENE REPORT In Colombia, Black Ancestral Sounds Fuel Music Of The Future By Richard Villegas · Illustration by Diana Ejaita · January 26, 2024

“Can I get you a drink?” commands Colombian cantora and educator Nidia Góngora—and then, before I’m even able to answer: “Bring him a vichesito.” It’s 11 a.m. at Góngora’s restaurant Viche Positivo in Cali, Colombia, and the conversation turns to this syrupy sugar cane liquor, which is stronger than beer, not as potent as rum. Far from a frivolous exercise in day drinking, Góngora explains viche‘s medicinal properties as a digestif, as well as its ceremonial significance in the culinary and spiritual practices of the country’s Pacific Coast. Most of all, it’s a reminder that centuries after colonization and the abolishment of slavery, Afro-descendent traditions remain integral to the fabric of everyday Colombian life.

Viche intersects with music of the Pacific, food, ancestral medicine, and people’s resistance,” says Góngora, her famed vocal rasp both soothing and authoritative. “Cantoras serve functions that don’t always relate to singing. We’re community leaders tasked with passing down ancestral values. We relate to the oral nature of our culture, becoming advisers and guardians of tradition, and sharing the memory of our mothers and grandmothers across different social, religious, and generational spaces.”

Black heritage is living, breathing, ongoing, and ever-changing. But in Colombia, reverence for tradition is not synonymous with a nostalgic or prohibitive study of the past. On the contrary, Black ancestral wisdom is the fuel behind many of the country’s visionary, innovative, and often futuristic musical movements.

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Drumming techniques that originated in Africa millennia ago are the pillars on which today’s popular music stands: from the reggaetón blockbusters of Medellín superstars J. Balvin and Karol G, to Bogotá’s new generation of cumbia philosophers. The same goes for songs of praise known as arrullos and alabados, which are taught in churches and town squares by community matriarchs like prolific singer and composer Inés Granja, from Timbiquí, and the joyful Ruth Elena Cabezas, also known as “La Ruca” of Telembí’s El Quinde de Barbacoas.

Solemn currulaos and propulsive chirimías are performed over hand-carved marimbas, makeshift brass bands, and booming drums of varying tones and sizes. In Cali—which is often described as “The Capital of the Pacific”—the world renowned Petronio Álvarez Festival has spotlighted folk music icons and rising stars since 1996, launching new-school groups Esteban Copete y su Kinteto Pacífico and Caro Mosquera & TimbiÁfrica. Nidia Góngora, too, has contributed to the currulao canon as the leader of beloved marimba ensemble Canalón de Timbiquí, and a founding member of rumba collective La Pacifican Power. She is also a vocal cornerstone in pan-generational Colombian roots supergroup Ondatrópica, and has collaborated with British electronic producer Quantic across a series of genre-adventurous records.

North, along Colombia’s Caribbean shores, avant singers Lido Pimienta and Combo Chimbita‘s Carolina Oliveros also tapped into a rich tradition of bullerengue cantoras, following in the legendary footsteps of Petrona Martínez and Totó la Momposina. Drum and vocal spirituals from Sexteto Tabalá, Son Palenque, and the dizzying archival catalog of Palenque Records are cherished rhythmic compendiums studied and expanded upon by electronic futurists Bomba Estéreo, Rizomagic, Mitú, and Indus. Meanwhile, the Caribbean’s diasporic melting pot found a thriving home in Barranquilla’s picó soundsystems, dating back to the 1930s. To this day, brazen DJs create colorful mish-mashes of salsa, champeta, and house music, bridging the gap between tropical legends Abelardo Carbonó and Michi Sarmiento, and the intergalactic mélanges of Systema Solar.

“Innovation in music has always been connected with movements at the margins of society,” says Diego Gómez, the dub producer also known as Cerrero, and co-founder of Llorona Records and Discos Pacífico. “Despite Colombia’s geographical, political, and social complexities, many voices and musical practices have been preserved in unique and authentic ways. [Our labels] are laboratories for creating music through meetings and dialogue, so these ways of understanding the world can resonate even louder. The goal is to strike a more powerful and attractive voice for people foreign to Guapi, Tumaco, or Providencia, but who are still interested in discovering the musical achievements of artists on the outer bounds of mass media.”

For over a decade, the expansive catalogs of Llorona Records and Discos Pacífico have broadened understanding of Colombian roots sounds. They’ve not only rekindled interest in the foundational legacy of Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, but also platformed a new generation of ensembles engaging with contemporary spirituality and socio-political discourse including Semblanzas del río Guapi, Bejuco, and Agrupación Changó. Hip-hop as a unifying, global language of Black expression has also taken root within the labels, releasing early defining work from Verito Asprilla, Afro Legends, and Boom Full Meke. You can trace much of hip-hop’s homegrown architecture back to Medellín titans Alcolirykoz and their faithfulness to classic rap codes, as well as the voracious genre bleeds of ChocQuibTown and their exuberant salutes to Pacific diversity.

The impact of Afro-Colombian artists stretches into countless more genres and dazzling homegrown hybrids like jazz, Afrobeats, salsa choke, and ritmo exótico. Here are 10 more artists bridging Black ancestry and cutting edge visions of the future.

Dawer x Damper

Brothers Dawer x Damper are refocusing Afrofuturism’s sci-fi gaze onto the boundless possibilities of creating gender and genre-defying art in the barrios of their native Cali. Colliding high fashion aesthetics with vibrant bursts of reggaetón, Afrobeats, and dancehall, the pair’s 2022 debut Donde Machi arrived as a dazzling visual album that earned a Latin Grammy nomination and bookings at Afropunk in Brooklyn and Bahia. The crown jewels of Discos Fiera are part of a fertile creative ecosystem where parallel projects like AFROTURRO and Ácido Pantera are also cooking up a new age of innovative Colombian tunes.

Kombilesa Mí

San Basilio De Palenque, Colombia
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San Basilio De Palenque, Colombia
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Tucked away in Colombia’s northern jungles, near the Caribbean metropolis of Cartagena, the town of San Basilio de Palenque was the first free African community in the Americas, settled in the early 1600s. In the centuries since, Palenque has been canonized as hallow ground of Afro-diasporic heritage—patrimony that rap group Kombilesa Mí embrace and update across records celebrating the fortitude of women, language, and Africa’s scattered children. Bars on their 2020 debut Esa Palenkera oscillate between Spanish and the native Palenquero dialect, while framed within lush organic percussion, and recent collaborative singles with producer The Busy Twist propelled Kombilesa Mí into throbbing electronic territory.

Verito Asprilla

“Verito llegó!”—the echoing hook from Tumaco rapper Verito Asprilla’s swaggering 2023 single “Verito de la Perla” heralded the arrival of the Pacific’s newest rap sensation. Collaborating with a cavalcade of musicians and producers that include Cerrero, Bejuco and Zoo Music, her debut EP Mundo Lila confidently stepped into boastful trap (“Letras Millonarias”), sex kitten perreo (“Pa’ Que Bailen”), and sultry dancehall (“No Soy Tu Princesa”). “Verito de la Perla” even channels South African amapiano, hinting at more beat-adventurous bangers to come.

M.A. Studio

Also from Tumaco, in the South Pacific department of Nariño, M.A. Studio has grown into a fertile collective and artistic space where dembow, Afrobeats, and salsa choke are flourishing into a soon-to-be hit factory. Since formally launching the project in 2017, a string of explosive singles including devilish rump shakers “Dame Rostro” and “Morochaje de Primera Línea” have dominated local dance floors. But it was their 2022 debut album Futuro Niche that truly set them apart, diving into the effervescent, streetwise banger fuel of salsa choke, and slyly winking at Cali salsa legends Grupo Niche.

N. Hardem

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One of the authorities of Bogotá’s evergreen rap universe, N. Hardem has vacillated confidently between classic boom bap and abstract hip-hop for over a decade. On his resplendent 2018 LP Rhodesia, producer Las Hermanas framed N. Hardem’s introspective ruminations within jittery, avant beats. Three years later, on Verdor, the master MC stripped down the beats, instead betting on minimalist, cinematic samples and a cast of inter-scene guests including R&B singer Lianna, singer-songwriter Briela Ojeda, and folklorist Edson Velandia. A fearless chameleon, N. Hardem also jumped onto soulful big-band projects with Afrobeat ensemble La BOA and trans-Atlantic jazz/rumba collective, Mestizo.

Alexis Play

As one of the co-founders of ChocQuibTown, Alexis Play helped pioneer the exuberant hybrids of Colombia’s coastal music traditions and global influences from hip-hop and reggaetón. He’d later break out solo, doubling down on bars with ardent messages of political dissidence and Black pride, refining his sonic palette into a percussive signature he dubbed “chirimía beat.” Anthemic cuts “Rebulú” and “Prietitud” are throbbing celebrations of melanated resistance, while his 2023 LP Afrocolombia embraced R&B, salsa choke, and reggae with guests Junior Zamora and Los Dioses del Ritmo.

Lalo Cortés

While working on her college thesis, jazz and soul singer Lalo Cortés began gazing within for intersections between her musical practice and Afro-Bogotana identity. The result was Re-Encuentro, her smoldering debut album released via prolific Colombian label In-Correcto, which nodded to ‘90s hip-hop and its legacy of Black iconography. On the title track, she melds smoky Coltrane atmospheres and playful Tribe Called Quest gusto, while “N.D.C.” (or “Negros De Carretera”) enlists N. Hardem for a searing critique of deeply engrained Latin American racism.

Afro Legends

Describing their dreamy, nostalgic sound as “dancehall Pacífico,” Afro Legends meld handmade marimbas and bass drums with the sinewy riddims of the West Indies. The region-spanning trio of Flowsiao (Buenaventura), Liliana Sinisterra (Guapi), and Sterling Delpa (Chocó) converged in Cali in 2019, transforming their music into a medium for anthemic messages of Black empowerment and anti-racism. “Dime Si Puedo” is a longing call for ancestral connection that unfolds over marimba and sizzling trap snares, while “Así Soy” celebrates melanated skin, glorious Afrocentric hairstyles, and the upstream hustle it takes to survive in an oppressive society.

Ghetto Kumbé

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Hailing from Colombia’s northeastern coast, Ghetto Kumbé blends cumbia, bullerengue, and digital rumba on their prismatic 2020 self-titled debut, which was released via folktronica label ZZK. The effusive calls of “Tambó” celebrate drums as an elixir for the spirit and a direct line to the ancestors, while the accusatory “Esta Pillao” satirizes corrupt politicians over immersive reggaetón and club production. The ritualistic nature of dance is intrinsic to Ghetto Kumbé’s music, with their explosive shows featuring hypnotic drum crescendos, neon animal masks, and throbbing electronic pulses to drive sweaty revelers into a frenzy.

Lil Keren

Following the trails blazed by Pacific rappers like Cynthia Montaño and Mabiland, Cali up-and-comer Lil Keren made waves with her Afrobeats and trap-soaked 2022 debut, Kamaleonika. She’s since become a favorite featured player among her Cali peers popping up on Jambeau‘s edgy club perreo “Rum Rum,” delivering silky bars on Junior Zamora’s seductive “2×1,” and repping hard for her city on Dawer x Damper’s “Bochinche” alongside her brother, rapper Young Kalif.

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