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Sound system culture in the Colombian cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena stretches back to the 1950s. It began on a small scale with the sounds being little more than the basic equipment that neighbourhood backyard dance parties needed to play the popular music of the day. The favoured styles were chiefly drawn from the musica costena the popular dance music of the Colombias Caribbean coast such as cumbia and porro and the ubiquitous sounds of Cuban mambo rumba and son whose influence had been powerfully felt across the Caribbean basin. During the 1960s the sound systems or picos the derivation of the word is obscure but is thought to come from pickup perhaps a reference to the turntable needle became more elaborate and more widely established. Employed to build the sounds from scratch often from reconditioned and recycled gear local technicians began to ramp up the volume and power. The taste of the selectors also began to include music from further afield in particular New York salsa which enterprising sailors had started to bring in to the coast from the US and sell directly to the picos whose operators were eager for exclusives and fresh sounds. By the end of the decade the main particulars of the cultura picotera were in place and popular picos would travel to play dances known as verbenas around Cartegena Barranquilla and nearby towns and cities. Popular African music was not distributed in Colombia during the postwar period for the simple reason that there were no immigrant African communities to demand it and no audience or market for it among Colombians. But as the fashion for salsa began to wane in the early 1970s the pico operators began to look for a new style. As with many such organic popular developments there is little concrete information on how the first African records began to appear within the picoteros selections but the consensus seems to be that as with salsa they had been first brought in by sailors. The astute pico operators quickly recognised both the potential popularity of the sound and saw a new way to sonically distinguish their pico from the competition. It is probable that there had been some African music brought in the late 1960s and also some importation of Haitian records but one thing is for certain by the mid1970s a picos reputation stood or fell on the selection of African music it could bring to the dance. In response to this highly specialised demand the importation of African music became systematic though it remained underground and there was still no general distribution of African recordings. Obtaining the latest and most exclusive African discs had become a matter of huge competition between picos in Cartagena and Barranquilla and the importers who typically sold records direct to the picos could command high sums for their latest discoveries. Pico operators went to great lengths to keep their discoveries and rare cuts exclusive covering up names painting over labels and swapping album covers in order to shroud their battle weapons in secrecy. The bigger systems even had buyers outside the country known as corresponsales to obtain exclusive and unknown cuts and the picos jealously guarded their sources. A fair amount of nonSpanish Caribbean music was also mixed in with the African music and this new dominant sound in the verbenas bore the generic name musica africana with favoured genres including highlife juju soukous mbaqanga and benga. No culture is static. And whilst turbos and picos still play classic musica africana with pride the new sound of southern Barranquilla is a combination of militant breaks and austere loops known as guarapo (after a popular Colombian drink made of sugarcane and lime). As with the drum breaks favoured by hiphop DJs selectors on the picos often play only certain sections of a favoured record. But guarapo producers go further looping small sections of vocal or guitar and overlaying thumping percussive beats. Each cut is short little more than a stark and hypnotic drop for the right moment to be liberally sprayed with a hail of placas. Samples are typically lifted from African music highlife soukous and benga tracks are the usual sources. Our own forty commissions raid Nigerian recordings from the 1960s kicking off by turns with Sagbeni Aragbada Olalekan Olorode Steven Amechi Eagle Ministers Dance Band and Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson. The cuts are roughhewn and usually intended for just one nights use oneaway distillations of Barranquillas sonic taste as the youth evolve their own iteration of cultura picotera. Most picos still play a mixture of music and include guarapo cuts alongside the latest tastes in musica africana champeta and so on. Jeanpi Perreo is with the El Rey Latino sound which combines guarapo with benga and techno. Edwin Producciones is resident producer for the Caribeno pico one of the best known sound systems in Barranquilla today and the first to play only guarapo in their verbenas. DJ Ander plays with El Africano a popular pico based in the Nueva Colombia barrio. As they say in the verbenas Aqui Suena: the sound is here!

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Forty Bangers from Barranquilla

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