As producer John Hollis has said in the run up to the release of Totó La Momposina’s Tambolero, “You don’t normally get the chance to go back in time and recreate an album. Building on a classic project that began 24 years ago is a challenge and a delight!” That’s undoubtedly true and to John and Real World Record’s credit, whatever challenges there were have been obviously overcome as the second half of his assertion rings true. The CD is an absolute delight. It’s also one of the most handsomely dressed silver discs to come my way in a long time. Coming in hard back book form and packed with photos, commentary and most importantly great songs, it tells the story of what made this music special first time around and why it was also worth revisiting. The results, sounding so fresh and immediate, are to all intents and purposes a whole new record, which pays a fitting tribute to one of Colombian music’s most vivacious stars and the incredible legacy resulting from her original breakthrough.
Tambolero happily avoids the common pitfalls of CD re-mastering and general tinkering, which of itself is nothing new. Even if there is a little of the obsessive’s quest about this new version of the record, it’s about the wealth of the original recordings and also about taking advantage of the time that has elapsed since the original release and the perspective that offers on the how the material all sounds.
Originally recorded over two sessions, first by Phil Ramone and then John Hollis, almost a year apart in 91 and 92, the original record was called La Candella Viva. The making of the album followed on the back of a WOMAD appearance that led in turn to Totó participating in the first Real World Recording Weekend. In part, the decision to add it to Real World Records Gold series comes down to the impact that the record had in the first place, setting her on the road to stardom, not only in her native Colombia, but also around the world.
Totó La Momposina’s music is that of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. Her family were from the village of Talaigua, at the heart of an island in the great Magdalena River, called Mompos (hence ‘la Momposina’). Their own musical lineage could be traced back through five generations. Her father was a drummer, her mother a singer and dancer who taught Totó as a child and also instilled a pride in her heritage, a unique mixture of Colombia’s African, Indigenous Indian and Spanish cultures, with its own special musical tradition of ‘la costa’. When civil war descended on Colombia, the family were forced to flee her home and move to the capital Bogotá. There her mother started a dance group, created with the specific intention of reinforcing the pride that Totó and her siblings had in their Colombian identity and Afro-Indian culture.
So Totó’s life was filled with music and she even performed as a child. As a young woman, she travelled from village to village learning new songs, rhythms and dances, adopting the role of the cantadora, singing songs that mixed the routines of everyday tasks with the spice of village life. During her teenage years, her father’s record player gave her access to western pop music and by the end of the 60s Totó’s future seemed to be pretty well defined.
Forming her own group in 1968 Totó started to build a professional career, although she remained grounded enough to continue playing at family fiestas, street parties and fulfilling her role of ‘la cantadora del pueblo’. She began touring internationally through the 70s and then in 1982 Totó accompanied Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Stockholm to perform at the ceremony where he was awarded his Nobel Prize For Literature. Totó had already come to recognize that Europeans were more receptive to her music than the Colombians, so settled in Paris for some years and it was there that she first met Thomas Brooman, who invited her to first play WOMAD in 1984. More appearances including one in Trafalgar Square followed.
After four years in Paris, however, Totó returned to Colombia as she was missing her home and family. She found herself out of fashion, however, and coupled with some health problems her career stalled. It would take Womad to come calling again, with the promise of a world tour, which was enabled through the Ministry Of Culture. It literally took the intervention of the President’s wife, Ana Milena de Gaviria, to get it off the ground, as she donated the money for the flights.
Back on the world music map, Totó was also reunited with Brooman and WOMAD, just at the time that Real World Records was starting to take shape. Everything seemed to fall into place and the eventual recording of La Candella Viva proved to be pivotal for all parties. The tour and Real World album, followed by two subsequent releases, Carmelina in 1995 and Pacantó in 1999 (both through MTM/Colombia), lit the spark under Totó’s career in Colombia and finally saw her recognized as a star in her own country and around the world.
Crucially, however, it’s also the fact that La Candella Viva has enjoyed an ongoing, extended life through sampling, with both dance and hip-hop cultures wanting to utilize its extraordinary rhythmic energy and sheer infectious brio. Timbaland, Da R3volution and Michael Cleis are just three of the names to have used samples from the album. In fact it was the latter’s request to access the original master-tapes that led to the discovery of what they had.
The two inch magnetic tapes, which first had to be baked to remove moisture and preserve them, contained some 20 songs and 40 different takes. There were both versions and entire songs that didn’t make the original cut, which having been forgotten for 20 years, got everybody excited. Once preserved the process of digitizing the recordings to further preserve them began, which in turn opened up the options for re-editing, mixing and sequencing and even adding to the recordings, as the project started to take on a life of its own.
It should be noted that John Hollis now has family ties. On the back of Totó’s breakthrough. He eventually accepted an invitation to work closely with her and relocated to Cartagena. There he fell in love with Totó’s daughter Euridice. But most importantly John has also gained a real appreciation of Totó’s art and the way that the family line still remains at the heart of her music. She may be about to enter her sixth decade as a performer, but granddaughters, Maria Del Mar and Oriana Melissa, are part of the current line up and at John’s suggestion were included in this project. Everyone agreed and so 20 plus years after the original sessions, they entered the same Wood Room Studio at Real World to record new vocal choruses.
One major presence on the record who sadly is no longer with us is drum master Paulino Batata Salgado. John talks about wanting to capture the fine details of the tambores, “the bass-heavy colours from the heart of the wood and the crisp slap at the top edge of the skin.” In honour of this fine musician who worked alongside Totó and her family for many years it was decided to name this version of the album Tambolero.
So much of this album is music in its purest most fundamental form. The melody comes from the human voices, while the rhythm comes from the drums and shakers. It’s so simple, yet so skillful, so infectious and joyous. This is music to shake and shimmy and strut to as the beats are subdivided into fractions and reassembled in criss-crossing polyrhythms. Totó’s voice commands a response from the chorus, who sometimes swell the melodies with sweet harmony and offer insouciant asides, as she weaves together these celebrations of everyday toils, trials and daydreams of love, the calls for fiestas and parties to celebrate the very stuff of life itself and of course to commemorate the dead.
If you speak Spanish, then the full delights of these songs will be all the more complete, but if like me you don’t, then the booklet gives you enough to get a foothold from the stories and you can simply luxuriate in the tunes and rhythms. Again the notes are helpful here, explaining a little about the different styles as the tracks play out a varied collection of beats, which mostly seem to be about getting people dancing.
That mix is typified by the opening two songs, Adiós Fulana, which uses the popular carnival rhythm called the garabato and the cumbia El Pescador. The latter, which is a widespread form across Latin America, may well be one of Colombian music’s better known exports, and Totó’s vocals give a sense of ownership through the sheer passion of her delivery. El Pescador celebrates the fishermen and there’s a hint of the poetry on offer here with the translated lines, “The moon waits, smiling, with its magic splendor, the valiant arrival, of the contented fishermen.”
There are two other songs that fall into the cumbia beat and Dos De Febrero is about The Festival Of The Virgin Of The Candelaria. It combines elements of the courtship rituals of the cumbia dancers and tells the tale of a woman pregnant out of wedlock, urging her to be strong and proud. Curura also falls into the gaita tradition and features the distinctive flutes that are made from cactus stems, with their charcoal and beeswax heads and thin quill mouthpieces made from a large bird feather. There are two types the hembra and the macho, to represent female and male voices and they are also used on the album’s two instrumentals, Dame La Mano Juancho, which is an upbeat puya and La Acabación, which is a funeral march.
Most of the album is upbeat and the chandé rhythm is another lively style used twice. As well as being a drum pattern specific to the Talaigua region, where Totó is from, chandé also means street party, which seems appropriate enough. Gallinacito, which is a song about turkey buzzards, has a deep pounding beat and La Candella Viva, another festival song is lighter on its feet, perhaps betraying the skills required to kick a burning football along the streets, which seems to be a central part of the entertainment.
There are also three sextetos (or sextets), which use the additional instrumentation of guitar, tiple (from the guitar family) and double bass, the latter being added to the original recordings, recorded by Totó’s son Marco Vinicio and played by the band’s current bassist Nestor Venagas. Again two are upbeat with Chi Chi Manicapturing a village rumba and Malanga, being a celebration of good food, with an Afro-Cuban beat. La Sombra Negra is slower, but with tempo changes for the mid-section and is a double edged mixture of love and superstition. The album’s final song, Tambolero, is darker too and pairs with the funeral march of La Acabación in referencing the dead amidst a complex mix of Afro rhythms and sentiments. The lyrics make reference to Batata’s long deceased father, but could now also been seen as a tribute to the drummer on these sessions.
Amongst the pictures of the brightly smiling Totó that grace the CD and the comprehensive notes, which tell the story of this record in joyous detail are some words from the singer herself. Whilst they also serve to add to the timelines and history, at the end she talks about the importance of music and the connection to her ancestors. She concludes, “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 and my wish is to be a star in the universe rather than a star on earth.” With music like this, who could deny her?
Review by: Simon Holland
Released 29th June via Real World Records
Order it here