COLOMBIA: La Candela Viva - Totó La Momposina
Wild and loose, Momposina carries the torch for traditional Cumbia in this spectacular record
Recently on Around The World in 200 Albums we have published a review of Comorian singer Maalesh’s Wassi Wassi. In the piece we discussed his ability to reflect the multi-continental influences of his country within his music. Whilst there are numerous examples of artists whose records bear influence from more than one genre, one might argue that no genre does this as obviously as cumbia. The genre in its traditional form in some respects belongs to Europeans, Africans and Americans alike as it is the result of this trinity of continents coming together. Depending on one’s perspective, globalisation has had a wonderful/catastrophic impact in propagating and diluting traditional cumbia.
“Though in some senses cumbia is the music of more than half the world due to its ancestral roots, its inherent link to the North of Colombia should not be forgotten...”
Nowadays, cumbia has taken on a life of its own with its own fusion styles being disseminated and popularised all over the Americas. It comes in a variety of unique forms from the rock and roll cumbia fusion of Los Lobos in the United States to the young Argentine generation’s cumbia boom with hip-hop cumbia fusion acts like Sara Hebe at the precipice, even to the global popularisation of electro-cumbia superstars Bomba Estereo in its birthplace Colombia. Whilst I personally certainly appreciate these successful efforts to modernise and keep the genre fresh, at its essence part of the beauty of the genre was its association with one particular region where the craft was honed and perfected over many years. Though in some senses cumbia is the music of more than half the world due to its ancestral roots, its inherent link to the North of Colombia should not be forgotten and thanks to Totó La Momposina’s work in carrying forward the baton of spreading the music of her proud Afro-Colombian culture it won’t be lost any time soon.
Momposina herself is the fourth generation of her family involved with music and on the recording of La Candela Viva she was joined by her daughters Angélica María and Eurídice on backing vocals as the Momposina family continue spreading the joy of their musical tradition. Though the album isn’t just purely stripped back cumbia, at points it serves as a wonderful artefact of how the genre would have sounded in the early 19th century on some tracks. Songs like the marvellous opener Dos de Febrero, Mapale and the title-track La Candela Viva simply rely on Momposina’s impassioned a capella vocals brought to life by the percussive rhythms. The party beat, particularly on the title-track, makes me want to dance in spite of its minimalist instrumentation. Legendary producer Phil Ramone describes his job on a video on YouTube as “getting the drums to talk” - he certainly achieves that here.
Yet this is not simply a monotonous traditional cumbia album without much variation or experimentation. My favourite song La Sombra Negra is a Cuban son track its core, sounding like it could easily fit into the back-catalogue of greats such as Ibrahim Ferrer. This Cuban influence is also apparent on Malanga and is rather fitting when one considers how close the Cuban musical experience is to the Afro-Colombian one, considering that they share a similar confluence of continental powers due to colonialism and slavery. The album features a subtle shout-out to their Andean brethren across the continent with the use of the panflutes in both Dame La Mano Juancho and La Acabacíon, both of which are still fundamentally cumbia tracks due to the percussion. Arguably the two most famous tracks on the album are El Pescador composed by legend José Barros which people unfamiliar with Latin music may well have across and Curura. Listening to the latter I realised that I had heard the rhythm before and was wracking my brain as to where. It then dawned on me that many evenings spent deciding whether I was going to play Mehmet Topal or Gokhan Inler in the heart of midfield of my İstanbul Başakşehir team that was going to take on my friend Toby’s Atalanta side would be accompanied by the Fifa 20 soundtrack, featuring a sample of Curura on Major Lazer and reggaeton superstar J Balvin’s Que Calor.
Ultimately, this is both a very enjoyable album but also an excellent taste of unadulterated cumbia music whose rhythms and lyrics tell the unique story of Colombia’s Carribean coastline. It serves a great purpose to remind us where so much great Latin music has its roots in, whilst also honouring cumbia’s specifically Spanish, indigenous Indian and African history. Without wishing to give away any spoilers, I would implore any world music fans to read the incredible anecdote of how Momposina came into contact with Real World Records to make this album possible in Thomas Brooman’s My Festival Romance.