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Carlos Nno  in Worldwide
Latinos in London Magazine  on 2015-05-15

Toto la Momposina : Tambolero

Singer, dancer and teacher, Totó La Momposina's entire life has been dedicated to representing the music of Colombia's Caribbean coastline, where African, Indigenous Indian and Spanish cultures mingle to create a unique musical tradition. 'Tambolero', originally released in 1993 as La Candela Viva and regarded by many as one of Colombia's most important albums, has been re-created and re-imagined for 2015 as part of Real World Records' Gold series, and will be released on 29 June 2015.

About to turn 75 this summer, Totó's and her family's story is fascinating and compelling, and pretty much the story of modern Colombia. Totó was 8 years old when La Violencia, a ten-year period of Colombia's civil war which is estimated to have cost the lives of at least 200,000 people, kicked off in 1948. Living in Villavicencio at the time, Totó had to tread over dead bodies in the streets on the way to school in the mornings - the fighting was often at night. Her father was imprisoned there and narrowly avoided execution, they managed to escape to Bogota and he went into hiding.

It was there that Totó la Momposina's career started in the late 1940's, aged 8, alongside her three sisters and one brother, as part of her mother's dance and music group. The family had come across racism, and the group was created with the specific intention that the five siblings would be proud of their Colombian identity and Afro-Indian culture.

As Totó matured into adulthood her commitment to her culture and the traditions of its music were unfailing. She went from village to village, in all seasons, learning the traditions and songs of Colombia's Caribbean coast. She travelled to Europe to pursue her career as a singer, to some success, never faltering in her commitment to the music.

However, it was the invitation to perform at the WOMAD Festival in the UK that led to Totó's participation in the first Real World Recording Week and ultimately to the recording of the songs - with legendary American producer Phil Ramone at the controls in 1991 and English producer John Hollis for the follow-up sessions in 1992 - that would become 'La Candela Viva'.

The international success of 'La Candela Viva', and the following two albums 'Carmelina' in 1995 and 'Pacantó' in 1999 (MTM/Colombia), would ignite Totó's career in Colombia and finally see her recognized as a star in her own country.
While their repertoire could easily be categorised as "Colombian folklore", Totó adamantly defines it in different terms: "While I respect the word 'folklore', to me it means something that's dead - in a museum. Traditional music, or the music from the old days, is still alive: many people are working with it and it's always evolving. The people of the pueblo don't know about 'folklore'. They say música antigua or música de antes (from before)."

The music has continued to endure, including being routinely sampled by the world of dance and hip-hop (Michel Cleis, Da R3volution and Timbaland, to name but a few). It was during the search for the original master tapes to find the parts for a Michel Cleis dance track that producer (and now son-in-law of Totó) John Hollis discovered something rather remarkable.

Amongst the original 2" master tapes was a treasure trove of material: some 40 takes of 20 different songs. Material all involved had forgotten existed, until then. Not only was there a wealth of recorded material from the 'La Candela Viva' sessions that didn't make the original album there were also a number of previously unreleased songs too.

To restore the analogue tapes which would otherwise slowly deteriorate, the first job was to bake them (literally!) to remove any moisture that had accumulated, making them playable again. The recordings could then be digitised to work with modern technology. A process of reassessing all the different versions and new songs, re-editing and over-dubbing began.

"At this point it occurred to me that Totó's granddaughters would add a nice texture to some of the chorus lines," explains John. Totó happily agreed: "Claro, ellos son mis choristas [of course, they are my backing singers]." Soon after, Maria del Mar and Oriana Melissa entered The Wood Room at Real World Studios, the very same space in which Totó and her band performed their set live 23 years earlier; Maria was present back then, a toddler at the time, and Oriana hadn't been born. "It was a surreal moment and they delivered their parts beautifully." adds John.

The result is 'Tambolero'. More than just a re-release of 'La Candela Viva' it is a genuine re-appraisal and re-imagining of the original.

'Tambolero' is in effect a new album and one in which Totó continues to reflect the experience of her native Colombia through her life and music. The two things are intertwined: the story of Totó la Momposina is truly the story of modern Colombia. It has also become a celebration of Totó's professional career, which will soon reach a landmark 60 years - six decades dedicated to preserving, researching and developing an ancestral tradition, the identity of a people, passed down through the generations.

"For me, connection with my ancestors is all important. It would be a grave situation if Colombians didn't know their musical roots because these are what bind us together. We have a wonderful country but a nation without music would be a people without identity. Our musical identity is a natural creation, evolved by the people of the countryside, inspired by the elements around them. This music is for everyone, for the world." Totó la Momposina, April 2015

Totó la Momposina y Sus Tambores have been invited back to the WOMAD Festival where her international career started, to play for the first time at Charlton Park, on the Main Stage on Friday, 24 July 2015, at 3pm.


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