Totó La Momposina’s entire life has been dedicated to representing the music of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. As a singer, dancer and teacher she embodies that fertile place where Colombia’s African, Indigenous Indian and Spanish cultures mingle to create a unique musical tradition. Totó is not only its greatest interpreter, but also a restless innovator.
As a child, the conflict of La Violencia forced her family to flee their home and move to the capital, Bogotá. There, her mother started a dance group from which Totó emerged as a promising singer in the 1950s, forming her own band in the 1960s. She began touring internationally a decade later but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that her global fame was cemented by a WOMAD tour across three continents, the release of La Candela Viva on Real World Records and the many international shows and recordings that followed, notably the albums Carmelina in 1996 and Pacanto in 1999 with MTM Colombia.
Totó’s ancestors hail from the village of Talaigua, at the heart of an island in the great Magdalena river, called Mompos (hence ‘la Momposina’). The river, which rises high in the Andes, stretches more than a thousand miles to the Caribbean. In the sixteenth century, Spanish invasions forced the Indians – the original inhabitants of Mompos – to flee into the island’s dense forests. In later years, runaway slaves intermarried with the Indians. ‘The music I play,’ explains Totó, ‘has its roots in a mixed race; being African and Indian, the heart of the music is completely percussive.’
The cumbia is one of the better known rhythms and dances of Colombia. This rhythm is powerfully hypnotic and, along with the dance and its costume, a fine example of the mixture of Indian, Spanish and African influences: The dance originated as a courting dance between African men and Indian women at the time when the two communities began to mix. In this gentle, sensual dance the women hold up lit candles as the pairs weave in and out.
Born into a family of musicians spanning five generations, Totó learned to sing and dance as a child. Her father was a drummer, her mother a singer and dancer; their household lived with the musical traditions of ‘la costa’. As a young woman, she travelled from village to village researching rhythms and dances and studying the art of the cantadoras, the peasant women who grow yucca, plantain and pumpkins in patches of land behind their huts and play a central role in the village culture.
In Talaigua, Ramona Ruiz, a fine cantadora, tutored the teenage Totó. In this community of peasant farmers and fishermen, Ramona dispensed everything from marital advice to herbal medicine and was a vivacious and inspired leader of chande (fiesta and also a rhythm of Talaigua), able to rustle up a full complement of drummers, singers and dancers at a moment’s notice. Onstage, Totó performs the songs the villagers would sing to accompany daily tasks, such as rhythmic chants that pace the pounding of the corn, or suggestive lyrics that add spice to the monotony of scrubbing clothes in the river. At the same time, the drums were played by the men of the village: fishermen, net-menders, cigar-makers and boat-builders, who would hollow out tree trunks with their axes.
As Totó’s voice and performance technique matured, she formed her own group and began to pursue a professional career in 1969, though still playing at family fiestas, street parties and wherever a ‘cantadora del pueblo’ was needed. Gaining a reputation for her impressive voice and presence, in the 1970s she began to appear outside Colombia, touring Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe and the United States. In 1982 she accompanied Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Stockholm to perform at his Nobel prize ceremony.
Totó based herself in France for four years, studying the history of dance for a year at the Sorbonne and performing extensively in Europe, particularly France and Germany. She recorded her first album during this period in Paris, ‘Totó La Momposina y Sus Tambores, Colombie’ for Auvidisc and contributed to the Colombian compilation ‘La Ceiba’ for ASPIC. At the invitation of WOMAD, in 1984 she gave her first shows in England. In 1987 she returned to Colombia and performed concerts in Latin America and the Caribbean. She also spent time in Cuba, where she studied the bolero.
In 1991 WOMAD brought her back to Europe and she performed at its festivals in Japan, Canada, England, Germany, Spain and Finland. Since then, Totó has performed all over the world, been sampled by DJs such as Timbaland and Michel Cleis and influenced artists from Manu Chau to Banda Magda. Her albums include ‘La Candela Viva’ in 1992 for Real World Records, ‘Carmelina’ for MTM in 1995, ‘Pacanto’ in 1998 and ‘La Bodega’ in 2009, both on Astar Artes. Her album ‘El Asunto’ was released by Sony Colombia in 2014.
Totó continues to work tirelessly to promote the music of her homeland, driven by passion and the simple joy of performance. In 2006 she was presented with the WOMEX Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2013 the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Her living legacy continues and the latest album is ‘Tambolero’, a re-creation of the classic ‘La Candela Viva’, on Real World Records.