Totó La Momposina Takes It To The River

The Colombian singer keeps regional rhythms vital on Carmelina.

To many people, Colombia is a country of revolution and ultraviolent drug lords. But it's also home to many rhythms and dances — such as the cumbia, garabato and sexteto — that singer Totó La Momposina has dedicated herself to preserving.

Her latest U.S. release, Carmelina (Indigo), released originally in Europe in 1996, demonstrates how tradition can be perpetuated in all its vitality.

"The traditional music I sing has been in my family for generations and generations," Momposina said. "These days a lot of people have forgotten about traditional music, especially in Colombia. They want what's now. But you have to remember the past."

Now in her 60s, Momposina grew up in Talaigua, on the island of Mompos. Mompos lies in the Magdalena River, near where it flows into the Caribbean on the northern coast of Colombia. "When the Spanish arrived," she said, "the native people had to go into the forests. Then the African slaves who ran away lived there, and the two groups began to live together and intermarry."

The area's geographical isolation allowed the music to flourish without outside influences. The courtship dance between the two races evolved into the famous cumbia. But, Momposina said, "there are many different types of music in my tradition; they all go back to the drums, to clapping your hands to make a rhythm."

The Africans brought the drumming patterns, and their hypnotic polyrhythms form the basis of Momposina's folkloric music. The Indians contributed the gaita (so called by the Spanish because of its tonal similarity to Galician bagpipes), a cactus wood flute. The combination of the two can be heard on the traditional dance, "Indios Farotos."

A Spanish influence emerged later, and the musicians display it in their use of brass instruments and in such colonial musical forms as the bolero of "Agua" (RealAudio excerpt), which displays a strong Cuban influence.

Momposina learned music from her family, and also from Ramona Ruiz, a local woman who kept the old songs alive. As a teenager, Momposina traveled the coast, absorbing the region's musical heritage. By 1968 she'd formed her own group and was playing the music of the people she knew and loved. She recorded for the first time in 1985.

"I play traditional music because it's made me who I am. I'm the sum of everything that's gone before. I'm just continuing the story and passing it on. It's important to have respect for tradition."

Nowadays her group is quite the family affair; her children and even grandchildren are part of the band. But to her, that is as it should be.

"I'm the sum of different influences and cultures, all the information gathered and passed down through the years and generations. And now I pass it on. It will all stay alive."