Few songs evoke Colombian pride like Grupo Niche’s salsa classic “Cali Pachanguero.” The moment the song’s opening trombone intro plays in a room full of Colombians, chairs and tables get pushed to the side, the space turns into a makeshift dance floor and a sing-along breaks out.
So what if the song is a love letter to the city of Cali? The entire country embraced Cali’s unofficial anthem as its own and felt national pride when a snippet of the song played during this year’s Academy Awards.
“Cali Pachanguero” — normally a staple at Colombian Independence Day celebrations taking place this time of the year — was written by the late Jairo Varela. The salsa legend co-founded Grupo Niche with Alexis Lozano, giving it a name – “Niche” — that is used to refer to dark-skinned people. Varela is one of many Afro-Colombians who’ve shaped music in a country known as “the land of a thousand rhythms.” Not many others, however, have achieved the same level of mainstream success.
Breaking through in the industry has historically been an uphill battle for Afro-Colombians. But artists such as Varela’s Grupo Niche, Lozano’s Orquesta Guayacan, Toto La Momposina, Leonor Gonzalez Mina and, more recently, ChocQuibTown — which includes Varela’s niece Gloria “Goyo” Martinez and nephew Miguel “Slow” Martinez — have led the charge and served as inspiration for others.
With the Black Lives Matter movement extending across the globe, it seems appropriate that this July 20, we celebrate Colombian Independence Day by highlighting Afro-Colombian artists, both veterans and newcomers you might not know, but should.
Lido Pimienta: This Barranquilla-born experimental singer now residing in Toronto marches to the beat of her own tambor alegre. Pimienta proudly celebrates her roots by blending Colombian styles such as porro and cumbia with electronic and orchestral production. But don’t think the queer daughter of Afro-Colombian and indigenous parents won’t confront her native country for its prejudice and corruption, as heard in her sophomore album, Miss Colombia. That defiant album, by the way, is on the short list for the 2020 Polaris Music Prize — a prestigious best Canadian album award that Pimienta won in 2017.
Mr. Black El Presidente: Shakira may have introduced the rest of the world to champeta’s dizzying footwork at this year’s Super Bowl. But the genre — born in Colombia’s Atlantic coast and influenced by African rhythms such as soukous and highlife — is part of Colombia’s long musical heritage. Once shunned by many in the country for being too risque and low-class, it has seen increasing acceptance thanks to artists like Mr. Black, credited with helping steer the champeta ship the last 20 years as it became more accepted. These days the self-proclaimed “Presidente del Genero” enjoys legend status and a fan base that extends overseas.
Mabiland: Her soulful voice and jazz-infused sound has earned her comparisons to Amy Winehouse and Erykah Badu, but make no mistake: Mabiland is a true original. The LGBTQ neo-soul singer and rapper is a versatile breath of fresh air, alternating between singing, rapping and spoken word in her music. And while Mabiland does tend to focus on love, personal growth and female empowerment, she can also turn up when needed, as shown by her feature on Crudo Means Raw’s viral dembow track “La Mitad de la Mitad.”
Willy Garcia: You may have heard Garcia’s voice before and not even know it. He was a member of Grupo Niche from 1994 to 2002 and then formed the critically-acclaimed salsa duo Son de Cali with Grupo Niche bandmate Javier Vasquez. Son de Cali earned a best salsa/merengue album Grammy nod for Creciendo and saw three songs reach the top 10 of Billboard’s Tropical Airplay chart. Garcia spent most of the last decade establishing himself as a solo artist but did reunite with Vasquez for a Son de Cali tour earlier this year.
Herencia de Timbiqui: Backed by the folkloric sounds of the marimba and cununos (a type of drum), this all-male ensemble founded in the remote Pacific coast town of Timbiquí honors the region’s idiosyncrasies and musical traditions and fuses them with elements of rock and pop. Fans of Netflix’s La Niña may recognize Herencia de Timbiqui’s nostalgic “Te Invito” as the Colombian drama’s intro theme.
Kevin Florez: Traditional champeta was given a slight makeover when Florez arrived on the scene and combined champeta’s tropical sound with rap. The Cartagena native’s hits “La Invité a Bailar” and “Con Ella” ushered in the subgenre known as champeta urbana. Florez anointed himself “El Rey de la Champeta Urbana.”
Profetas: This male-female duo’s well-traveled brand of hip-hop and reggae is finding a following outside of Colombia. Pablo Fortaleza, nephew of late-salsa singer Piper Pimienta — and bandmate Antombo Langangui, who arrived in Colombia by way of the Central African Republic when she was 10 — make melodic tropical hip-hop that renders language barriers irrelevant. Together they’ve performed at international festivals such as SXSW and Glastonbury.
Buxxi: Life hasn’t been the same for Buxxi ever since he released “Como Tu No Hay Dos” in 2011. The high-tempo reggaeton bop took off in Latin America and beyond; it was famously a locker room anthem for Spanish soccer club Real Madrid, and the official video has nearly 40 million views on YouTube to date. Buxxi’s club-friendly singles “Vuelve” and “Te Quiero Conmigo” followed, as did collaborations with J Balvin, Zion & Lennox and ChocQuibTown.
Mauro Castillo: Born in the salsa capital of the world, this Cali native has helped continue the city’s musical tradition with his ageless voice and knack for the trombone. Castillo began his career with stints in various bands, most famously Grupo Niche, and then soon after enjoyed success as a solo artist thanks to his salsa ode to unrequited love, “Viene Y Se Va.” (The added exposure from his TV role on the novela El Joe, La Leyenda didn’t hurt, either.) In May, Castillo released Idilios, an album he says was made during quarantine in just two weeks.
Mitu: Allow Julián Salazar, Bomba Estereo’s ex-guitarist, and Franklin Tejedor, a former drummer for the long-running San Basilio de Palenque ensemble Las Alegres Ambulancias, to introduce you to the unlikely world of “techno palenque.” The multi-racial duo invented the term to describe Mitu’s experimental electronic music, which set out to replicate the sounds of the Pacific coast jungles using synthesizers and tambor alegre. These danceable beats are occasionally accompanied by vocals in Palenquero — the creole language spoken in Palenque, said to be the first free town in the Americas — and Spanish.