New Internationalist

Somos pacifico!

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Esme McAvoy meets Choc Quib Town, a rap trio putting Colombia’s Pacific on the (music) map.

Jorge Orozco
Jorge Orozco

Goyo, Tostao and Slow – the energetic rap trio that make up Choc Quib Town – are putting Colombia’s Pacific on the map. With their jazzy, upbeat blend of Colombian Pacific coast rhythms and salsa fused with hip-hop and funk, their lyrics speak of Afro-Colombian identity, political corruption and the often harsh realities of living in the remote jungle-clad corner of Colombia they call home: the Chocó.

I caught up with the band in London a couple of months ago, at the start of their biggest European tour to date. Now back in the capital for the last stretch, they are set to play at a free outdoor Colombian music festival near London’s Southbank on 25 July – Colombianamente – to mark 200 years of Colombian independence from Spanish rule as well as squeezing in a ‘club-night’ session that evening at the Barbican.

Folklore music is all around you in the Chocó and it’s not about whether you like it or you don’t, you grow up with it and you’ve got it inside you, it’s the music of your hometown

When I meet Tostao and Goyo in the reception of their north London hotel it’s the morning after their lively performance at Camden’s Jazz Café, yet they’re already in the midst of packing up to head to Paris for a gig that night. ‘We’re going to be super busy touring,’ says Tostao, still buzzing from last night’s gig. ‘It’s basically one day in one city, the next day in another. This time we’re really putting ourselves out there, performing in so many places in Europe – but we´ve got the energy for it.’

Choc Quib Town – the name a fusion of the region of Chocó and its provincial capital Quibdo – is led by Goyo (Gloria), younger brother Miguel, better known as ‘Slow’, and childhood friend, Tostao. ‘We met in Quibdo when we were very young,’ says Tostao. ‘We made friends easily. We liked the same kind of music, basketball, simple things.’ While Tostao grew up in Quibdo, Goyo and her brother grew up in the nearby town of Condoto but they met up again years later when all three ended up living in Colombia’s salsa capital, Cali. It was there, 10 years ago, that Choc Quib Town was born.

Musical lives

Music was central to all their lives growing up. ‘I’ve always loved music but I didn’t study it in any formal way,’ reveals Tostao. ‘Salsa was my first love. And, of course, folklore. Folklore music is all around you in the Chocó and it’s not about whether you like it or you don’t, you grow up with it and you’ve got it inside you, it’s the music of your hometown.’

Tostao recalls the exciting new stream of urban music that reached the Chocó from Panama. ‘Now we talk about rap and other types of urban music but at that time in my town, it was simply known as reggae en español (reggae in Spanish). It was like urban flow but it didn’t come from Jamaica or the US but from Panama.’

The music of the Colombian Pacific – musica Pacifico – has a mystical connection with Africa. It’s very spiritual in some ways

For Goyo and her brother, it was their music-collector father that developed their love of music. ‘My father would listen to music all day. Mum used to sing all the time and would put on shows in the village so from both our parents we were surrounded by song and music. We grew up in a small village in the Chocó, our house just a few hundred metres from a jungle river. We had no running water but it wasn’t a problem. We would just all go and wash in the river before school. We’d spend our time playing in the river or picking guavas from the village trees.’

The Chocó is a dense jungle region hugging Colombia’s Pacific coast where over 80 percent of the population is of African descent – a legacy from the days of slavery. Difficult to access with little infrastructure, the Chocó today is one of the poorest regions in the country. Yet its people are rightly proud of their African roots with its distinct music and culture. ‘The music of the Colombian Pacific – musica Pacifico – has a mystical connection with Africa. It’s very spiritual in some ways,’ says Tostao.

Choc Quib Town is a group very much of a particular place and culture – whether on the streets of Quibdo or the gold mines of Condoto, their colourful, uplifting videos are always shot in their province of Chocó. ‘The Chocó is different and exotic to those on the outside but for us, it’s home. Our music is about showing people how we live, how we feel when we’re there. When we were young, we were always taught in school through music and dance and there is a great oral tradition. Story-telling has preserved a lot of the African culture and traditions.’

Heart of the Pacific

The band makes the most of the many percussion instruments at the heart of Pacific music, particularly the melodic, tropical sounds of the ‘marimba’, akin to a huge bamboo xylophone.

Their ‘urban’ sound reflects the band’s early encounter with hip-hop. Moving to Cali aged 16, Goyo got caught up in a hip-hop scene that was then in its infancy. ‘It was the year 2000 and hip-hop was really underground. Few people knew what it was and that was exciting. There was a great little bar in Cali which ran an open mic night on Sunday evenings. We would put on hip-hop nights there, rapping with friends.’

Outsiders came to the Chocó and built these big, colonial-style houses on the back of money made from gold, while local people were left with contaminated waters and deforestation

The band has a lot to say about black Colombian identity, a group historically marginalized within Colombia. Their uplifting song ‘Somos Pacifico’ (We are Pacific peoples) has become a unifying anthem for Afro-Colombians across the country. Their latest album, ‘Oro’ (Gold), is more overtly political and confronts some of the harsh realities of life in today’s Chocó, including the widespread environmental destruction wrought by gold mining in the region.

‘My grandparents worked all their lives in mining, searching for gold,’ Goyo explains. ‘We called our album “Oro” to represent the value we put on our own music but also to take a critical stance against the irresponsible exploitation of gold in the Chocó. It contaminates the rivers and damages the area’s incredible biodiversity. The extraction process uses toxic heavy metals such as mercury.

‘Outsiders came to the Chocó and built these big, colonial-style houses on the back of money made from gold, while local people were left with contaminated waters and deforestation. Multi-national companies from all over the world are now mining there. But the money made from the gold doesn’t stay in the villages and communities.’

Yet Goyo doesn’t see herself as a green crusader: ‘I don’t think we’re environmentalists as such. It’s more that natural, human reaction to seeing a situation that’s damaging and wanting to speak out about it. We’re all human beings, living in the same world and it’s about rejecting what we see as bad while supporting the causes in which we are in agreement. It’s about individual responsibility.’

I don’t think we’re environmentalists as such. It’s more that natural, human reaction to seeing a situation that’s damaging and wanting to speak out about it

Politicized lyrics that speak out about social ills are central to the hip-hop tradition and the fourth song of their album, ‘Pescado envenenado’ (Poisoned fish) is a critique of corrupt politicians. ‘We use poisoned fish as a metaphor to criticize the political discourse in Colombia. When we talk about fish in the Chocó, it’s understood as a symbol of abundance. The rivers are full of fish and it’s a staple food. When we talk of them being poisoned it’s a comment on the way corruption has contaminated all layers of the political system. The empty promises of so many politicians.

‘When Tostao raps the line: “Cada cuatro años se ve venta de bacalao”, (every four years the cod is being sold), it’s a comment on the way every four years when it comes to electing a new leader, it’s the same thing on offer. Leaders change but nothing changes.’

‘You see this most in the campaign period before the Presidential elections,’ chimes Tostao. ‘The great majority of politicians standing for election are from within a powerful network, from within the system. They’re not always the best, most focused candidates. Just the wealthiest.’

Every four years when it comes to electing a new leader, it’s the same thing on offer. Leaders change but nothing changes

As a female Afro-Colombian hip-hop artist, Goyo is a refreshing break from the norm. ‘Hip-hop is perceived as something very masculine in its style and attitude. But I’m here rapping and I don’t try to hide my femininity,’ she says. ‘In this genre in Colombia it’s very rare and maybe strange to some people but I think it’s great to do what you want to do and not follow the stereotypes.’

In recent years, Choc Quib Town have become unofficial ambassadors for Afro-Colombian music and culture. ‘People have put us forward as role-models for young Afro-Colombians,’ says Goyo. ‘We support a foundation that works with young people from the Chocó, La Familia Ayara, in which we go and talk to young people in different villages about how we started as a band, how we make our music. I hope what we’re doing inspires them.’

An unqualified success on their home turf, Choc Quib Town are quickly gaining a following worldwide. Their top song ‘Somos Pacifico’ was nominated for a Latin Grammy while their latest album was named as one of the best 12 albums to watch in 2010 by National Geographic.

Their melding of musical traditions is about finding a distinct sound, an identity. One that takes pride in Colombia’s cultural and ethnic diversity and proves that, in their words, ‘there’s more to Colombia than coca, marijuana and coffee.’

www.chocquibtown.com

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