When We Travel with Music: Cartagena, Colombia


The first entry in an ongoing series where we talk about music and travel.

Perhaps nowhere else in the world boasts the musical diversity of Colombia.  Recently, it attracted renowned videographer Lulacurz with Vincent Moon to the country for a trek around, which turned into a feature film, Esperando el Tsunami (Waiting for the Tsunami).  Not to mention a high-visibility visit by Barack Obama (and correspondingly high-visibility scandal with the Secret Service) to Cartagena de Indes.  Along with Rio, Cartagena was the doorway to South America during colonial times.  And the resulting mixture of cultures has given birth to a musical vibrancy which seems unmatched.

ESPERANDO EL TSUNAMI - 1st TEASER from Vincent Moon / Petites Planètes on Vimeo.

With the exception of WLFY darlings Bomba Estereo, our knowledge of Colombian music is remarkably deaf.  The most high-profile international musical star, Shakira, has been written off (by many in Colombia) as how she was marketed in the USA -- a Latin American Britney Spears.  It's a sad comment on the corrupting influence of marketing on a woman who sounded a lot more like Alanis Morissette when she started out and ever her first big international hits bespeak her musically fused background (Shakira is from Barranquilla, about an hour from Cartagena).  The mixtures of cultures in this port cost -- Indigenous, Spanish, African, Arabian, Asian -- has borne a mishmash of music which you can hear Shakria mining in her early hits as she fuses Arabian (from which her father descends) instruments into Latin rhythms for an excessively poppy song.  Not coincidentally, Shakira's big record, Laundry Service, arrived with both English and Spanish lyrics. 

Beyond the pop, what makes Cartagena so musically exhilarating is the street music.  Soundways Records, whose interactive map marks this post, has done incredible collections of Colombia's various sounds.  Cartagena! is a collection of cumbia tracks from local product Curro Fuentes, during the 1960s , before Puerto Ricans redefined salsa in NYC, when Colombians were fusing salsa with Cumbia, a traditional musical style from the coast born (by legend) when African rhythms met indigenous flutes.  The dance is usually done with one leg standing still, they say, because the Africans were nearly always chained.

You'll more than likely hear Cumbia on the streets here than Salsa.  While we think of Salsa only as dancing here, a premiere club near the convention center encourages only listening.  Which, some salsa purists say, is the only way to enjoy Salsa.  Others, like our Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, prefer clubs like La Havana where the party goes all night.

The storytelling music is vallenato, which you'll usually hear here from a trio with accordion, small drum, and what looks like a giant cylindrical grater which creates a hard rasping sound.

It was the Vallenatos who used to carry news from town to town and usually with song. 

Stay tuned for news on Champeta as I continue to travel around. 

For more Soundways Recordings, including all the stuff from Colombia, check out this Spotify Playlist.


  1. Just to add a few things to this it should be noted that mapalé is one of the most popular folkloric styles in Cartagena, that hip-hop is hugely on the rise and that champeta is also very popular in the poorer barrios.

    It's also only an hour's drive from San Basilio de Palenque, which is a hugely important Afro-Colombian settlement with it's own particular style of drumming.

    And just to correct a couple of things. It's Lulacruza who made Esperando el Tsunami with Vincent Moon and Curro Fuentes and not Carlos who Soundway focused on with Cartagena.

  2. Thanks, Russ. Blame internet cafes for my editing issues. Won't make it to Palenque this time around.

    Hip hop is totally on the rise. The number of buskers for money who have been rapping is kind of astonishing as is the infusion of it in champeta.

  3. Hey Hank,

    I think it is super rad that you are doing this focus on Columbia. We traveled to Bogota and Cartagena last year. I spent a lot of time hitting old record shops in Bogota to learn more about what was popular in Colombia. A lot of the music that was played for me was from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but I suspect that has to do with the specific record shops I was frequenting (they specifically focused on dusty vinyl records). Have fun.