Saturday. 17:00. A neighborhood of Cartagena is getting hot. There is exhilaration in the houses; there is a buzz and murmur. In the air, the smell of the sea meets and mixes with the perfume of sweat. The street has become a dance floor and the sidewalks have sprouted impromptu liquor stores. Sorrows, worries and debts are left inside the houses, while the people go outside. They go out to strike sparks on the asphalt with their dance moves, to flood mouths with alcohol and souls with whatever beat the DJ chooses. It’s Saturday. It’s 17:00 and a neighborhood of Cartagena is on fire because it’s a night for bopping and verbena. It is a night for picó and champeta.
Champeta is a rhythm, a dance and also a cultural event. Its name is taken from the machete, a long knife-shaped tool used by farmers to break through the mountain, which in the Caribbean region of Colombia is known as a champeta. The upper classes of Cartagena associate this tool with the mostly poor, black inhabitants of the city steppes -the champetudo- and its meaning has spread to cover everything related to the steppe-dwellers: their clothes, the way they talk, their particular way of dancing and partying.
People in the slums of Cartagena have now empowered champeta as an act of identification and cohesion, neutralizing racial discrimination and social differences with music and dancing: “We may be poor, but we dance more.”
Champeta exploded as a musical genre here in the 1970s, when vinyls of soca, juju, mbquanga, drifted out of the Congo, South Africa, the Caribbean Islands and the U.S., eventually washing up on the Atlantic shores of Colombia. Once here, they mixed with raggareggae, mapalé, salsa and bullerengue, and brought to life a unique hybrid genre that incites particularly tasty and libidinous dancing (perreo) and whose first rule is to be played with all the volume that a pair of speakers can give.
It was under this mandate of volume, power and bringing-the-whole-neighborhood-to-party that the picós were born. A picó is one, two, three, four, five, six giant speakers, capable of shaking the ground with their power. Usually adorned thematically (drawings of snakes, Che Guevaras, Virgin Marys or cartoons), baptized with names like El Rey de Rocha, El Imperio, El Broder, El Chulo de Pasacaballos, and sometimes mounted on pick-up trucks (hence the name picós: "pick-ups") or on donkey carts, these huge loudspeakers are the very core of a Sound System: A traveling music machine that spits joy and champeta.
In the same way that gramophones were once placed in the porches and windows of Columbian Caribbean cities, today, the picó’s powerful voice and haughty attitude announces that the party will not be private. Dancing will not be restricted in the outskirts of Cartagena or anywhere else the Sound System goes.
The quality of the DJ and the power of the picó will be measured in drops of sweat shed by the dancers, sweat that helps them to forget all the world’s ills and that justifies the name that the street and people have given to this amalgam of loudspeakers, music and dance: terapia criolla, or grassroots therapy.
Photo courtesy: Fabían Altahona