The Caribbean Islands are pretty hot these days, even in winter. There is much more to this tropical area than its famous coastlines. Up north by the Atlantic coast, the Caribbean region of Colombia has received relatively less attention. It’s a shame, since it is both home to a vibrant music scene and the birthplace of some distinct musical styles in last few decades.
Sanjay Agarwal is one of the few music freaks who has dedicated himself to the music of Columbia’s Caribbean region. An avid digger, he is very precise when it comes to archiving his music collection. Agarwal’s The Best of Felitio Records compilation – due out on January 16 – holds a blistering set of heavy cuts with deep indigenous undertones. It also includes Colombian Gold, a documentary Agarwal made with his friend Ivan Higa that explores the region’s rich music heritage. The documentary and compilation is a labor of love that has kept him busy for years, so we are pleased to give the project a proper introduction here.
The Colombian Caribbean coast stretches all the way from the Gulf of Urabá edging Panama to the northernmost parts of the Andes, bordering Venezuela, almost reaching to the Netherlands Antilles and Suriname. For Agarwal, it’s a stone’s throw from Curacao, the Dutch colony where he was born. In 2003, Agarwal’s parents moved to Colombia and during those first digging trips in the country, he fell in love with cumbia and other Afro-Colombian styles. The idea for his Colombian Gold film project was already seeded in those early days. Agarwal shares his thoughts on the music culture there: “I think that the weather and the diverse mix of European, African, and Indigenous cultures really create a special melting pot in Colombia and this is expressed most vividly in the music.”
Around four years later, at a small bookstore in the center of the old city of Cartagena, Agarwal discovered Pedro Laza’s Navidad Negra LP pressed on Colombia’s most influential label Discos Fuentes. That’s when he first fell in love with cumbia. “Having lived in Brazil for many years prior to visiting Colombia, I was not familiar with cumbia and was shocked by the raw yet very refined sounds I was hearing. I can remember being completely blown away by these tracks.”
Hidden in the heart of Barranquilla’s infamous city center, Felito Records represented a particular sound of the region. The imprint was one of the most important record labels of Colombia’s música tropical scene. Established in the late 70s by Don Felix Butron, Felito became a powerhouse for the recording and preservation of Afro-Indigenous rhythms in Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. From its inception to its heydays in the 80s and 90s, Felito Records produced and recorded some of the most prolific music of that period, pioneering a new and innovative sound that captured the rich diversity of the region. “I really appreciate the fact that they used a lot of local talent,” says Argawal. “The label always stayed close to its roots and over the years, it became closely identified with Barranquilla’s Carnival scene.”
Agarwal has been searching for Colombian music for almost 10 years, preferring música tropical – a music term encompassing all rhythms from Colombia’s Caribbean region. During the 1970s, Barranquilla – Colombia’s coastal gateway – became an epicenter, a sort of focal point for the experimentation of different musical styles. “I delved deeper into the Discos Fuentes label, discovering artists like Jose Barros, Anibal Velasquez, Calixto Ochoa, Lizandro Mesa, Michi Sarmiento, Fruko y sus Tesos, to more experimental groups like Afrosound and Wganda Kenya.” Along the way, Agarwal also discovered other Colombian labels like Discos Tropical, which eventually lead him to Felito Records. “Luckily and coincidentally, around the same time in 2011, a few Colombian compilations were released. Those gave me further insights into the history and beginnings of Colombia’s música tropical movement.”
Around that time, Agarwal met with Rush Hour’s Antal and the two spoke about picking a few of Agarwal’s favorites for a release. Labels like Soundway and Analog Africa had already put out a lot of music from the more renowned Fuentes and Discos Tropical labels, which made licensing fees for some of the tracks very expensive. “I suggested that we work on Felito records,” recalls Agarwal. “The label was very experimental, especially in the 70s and 80s, mixing up styles and creating their own signature sound. Historically speaking, Felito Records was very important.”
The Western interest in Colombian musical styles doesn’t surprise Argawal at all. “I think that cumbia and Afro-Colombian Beat / Funk / Roots styles are the most captivating for Western audiences. I see this especially when I DJ. The cumbia rhythm although refined is also very raw and primal.” Agarwal adds: “People start dancing, (usually in a circle :), totally hypnotized by the rhythm. It is definitely infectious. Felito Records also released many killer Afro-Colombian Beat / Funk / Roots, which are featured on the compilation.” Below, Agarwal picks a track that represents Felito’s cumbia sound best.
The documentary Colombian Gold showcases many influential musicians who contributed to the of the música tropical movement in chronological order. For example, Lucho Bermudez was considered the “Godfather” of the Colombia’s musical scene, which emerged between the 40s and 50s. He was the first artist to feature folkloric rhythms like cumbia in his work. He also was one of the first to bring an orchestra to the biggest stages in Latin America at the time, including to Cuba. Sanjay adds: “Remember… Cuba is the motherland of Latin music. So, to be acknowledged and respected in Cuba meant that you made it.”
Sanjay continues: “Joe Arroyo was also a king in his own right, incorporating Haitian and African elements in his music. He died a couple years ago and I am very grateful to have met him before his death. He was born in the poorest neighborhood in the city of Cartagena and rose to become one of Colombia’s biggest Salsa exports to the world. He is regarded as one of the most important musicians in Colombian history ever who has played all over the world including the EU, USA and Japan. He is still adored in Colombia and is a household name in the salsa scene.”
Colombia’s Caribbean music continues to exert its influence in the region today. Vallenato music remains very popular while cumbia and música tropical performances are still common fixtures at fiestas. The champeta / picó scene, a sound system culture that populated the poorer neighborhoods since the 50s, is witnessing a revival. Sanjay adds: “Probably the region’s biggest export has been Shakira, who incorporated some cumbia and other elements of tropical sounds into her music. Underground groups have been popping up lately and the fusion of styles between cumbia and electronic music is becoming more commonplace.”
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