For Afro-Colombian Diva Totó la Momposina, the Song Perseveres

The Song Perseveres
Is Totó la Momposina the Aretha Franklin of Afro-Colombian music? Come listen to the diva herself (unsampled and unremixed) and find out

Orange County Transit bus No. 60 meanders its way from Long Beach to Tustin. Before Seal Beach, it careens through Leisure WorldNs driveway, chock-full of seniors and their stainless-steel walkers, orthopedic shoes, polyester pants, velour warm-up suits and oversized sunbonnets—good, God-fearing American elders, yes, but not exactly graceful. ItNs hard to age gracefully, except with music.

Consider Totó la Momposina. Named after her native island of Mompox (Momposina being short for “woman from Mompox”), she is one of ColombiaNs living national treasures. During the past 40 years, Totó has wrapped her life around the music of her people. Four generations of family delivered it to her, and in turn, she has pursued it, mastered it and shared it with the world. “WeNre not inventing anything,” says Totó of her soundNs age-old blends. “ItNs ancestral. Many ethnicities intersected here—there were Bantu, Congolese, Carabali and Senegalese people—African ethnicities; and of the indigenous, we have 320 different indigenous ethnicities and 60 indigenous languages. Imagine.”

These facts about Colombia rarely reach North Americans familiar only with a blond Shakira and tales of Pablo Escobar, drug wars and insurgencies. TotóNs is the music of hemispheres, as old as each of its parts, and she represents it all with grace and fury to an audience that grows each decade.

“The music of identity is not instantaneous,” says Totó. “I come from a family of musicians. My uncles gave it to me; it was given to me by my mother. I didnNt have to look much because I had it there, and this is the same identity INll give to my grandchildren.”

Throughout Colombia, the Caribbean and Europe, Totó celebrates the music of Afro-Colombia as though she holds it in the palm of her hand, at the center of her heart, in the back of her throat and at the soles of her feet. ItNs more than graceful: ItNs sultry, provocative and historic, and this weekend, itNs within earshot, as Totó and her nine-piece ensemble of dapper drummers stop in our back yard in one of only five performances in the U.S.

“WeNre renewing our goal to continue winning the hearts of North Americans,” says Totó, adding that Colombia is “a country that many donNt know musically.” She cites Cuban music as an example of a popular African-inflected sound that listeners are more accustomed to hearing. In fact, she says, “music doesnNt have borders,” and hers has already made its way into North American rotations, at least in part.

Totó is generous. She extends her ancestry to listeners in huge doses, as an honored guest of international-music festivals and as a surrogate ambassador for Colombian expats the world over. In 1982, she accompanied author Gabriel García Márquez to Stockholm and performed at his Nobel Prize ceremony. In her youth, she lived in Paris and studied dance at the Sorbonne, dreaming of a return to the rich cultural landscape that feeds her spirit. From the stage, her voice emits the verdant lush of rainforests, mountainsides and brilliance. SheNs a living diva, a humble queen, a legend in her time—the Aretha Franklin of Colombia maybe, the Totó of Momposina guaranteed. Her sound is as contagious as her smile, and it infects audiences of all kinds: art-center gutter punks in Bogotá, underground-bar-goers in Berlin, and amphitheater attendees from Queens to San Francisco.

About a decade ago, the prolific hip-hop producer Timbaland snatched one of TotóNs flute lines and passed it off as East Indian. Within the past two years, a flurry of electro-cumbia DJs has swept through Ibiza, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, matching her a capella breaks to 808 drums, chopping her hand-carved drum sounds into samples, redesigning a centuries-old rural sound for the urban dance floor.

So, what happens when a handful of producers spins her records in a new, perhaps unintended way? Totó is bold to point out that “the music of the countryside is arriving [in] the city,” not the other way around. ItNs a distinction that signals a change in the power of the campesino. It is “the music of identity,” as Totó calls it, “a music that is at the core of men, at the center of their hearts—a music that is the seed of a communityNs sound.”

No matter the direction remixes pull her music, says Totó, the real thing will survive. “I donNt think that, in this moment, this music is going to die. There are many youth who are curious; there are cantadores who are coming out and singing in their towns,” she says, referring to female vocalists and traditional community leaders such as herself.

Might this music disappear? No. “The song,” she adds, “the song always perseveres.”

Totó La Momposina at Orange County Great Park, Sand Canyon Ave. N Marine Way, Irvine, (949) 724-OCGP. Sat., 8 p.m. Free; parking, $8.


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