Colombia's La Momposina Sings A Tangled Social History On this week's Alt Latino, we spend time with an album from Colombian singer Totó la Momposina. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Felix Contreras about Tambolero.

Colombia's La Momposina Sings A Tangled Social History

Colombia's La Momposina Sings A Tangled Social History

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On this week's Alt Latino, we spend time with an album from Colombian singer Totó la Momposina. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Felix Contreras about Tambolero.


The music of Colombia is in the spotlight this week as we check in with our friends at Alt Latino. Felix Contreras usually joins us with a number of artists to share. Today he has just one artist.


TOTO LA MOMPOSINA: (Singing) Tambolero.

MARTIN: Felix, hi.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

MARTIN: Nice to see you. So who are we listening to right now?

CONTRERAS: This Toto la Momposina. She's a Colombian vocalist. She specializes in folk music. She has a brand new album out. It's called "Tambolero." In fact, it's up now at NPR's First Listen. You can stream the whole album before it's released next week. And if you do, you will be rewarded with an amazing listening experience as well as a history lesson.

MARTIN: All right, so let's get into some of the things we can learn from this woman. What is the track we're listening to, and what's the back-story with it?

CONTRERAS: OK, this is the title track, and it's an example of the reason why Toto is so revered in Colombia and throughout the world. Her music is a reflection of the country's African, Spanish and indigenous roots, kind of a tangled history of slavery, genocide and ultimately survival. She's recognized for preserving and celebrating the Afro-Colombian heritage. This rhythm that we're hearing underneath us right now is called lumbalu, and it's used traditionally in funerals and wakes. But it's mixed with other beats. And the example is at the end when the song switches to a rhythm called mapale.


MOMPOSINA: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: There's a lot happening in there.

CONTRERAS: Yeah, it's just like - it's definitely like music from West Africa. It's cyclical. You don't know where it starts and where it ends, you know?


CONTRERAS: That's what's happening there.

MARTIN: OK, so she sounds like a pretty unique artist. How did you happen upon her?

CONTRERAS: Through a 1993 album called "Candela Viva," all right? It was on Peter Gabriel's Real World Records label, and it brought her music to the rest of the world. Now, fast-forward 20 years, and a DJ has requested one of the tracks from that album to do a remix. And the original producer of the album pulled out some tapes, and he found a ton of stuff that was never used, like 20 tracks...


CONTRERAS: That they recorded and forgot about. So this album, "Tambolero," is what they're calling a reimagining of that original album, "Candela Viva."

MARTIN: Very cool. OK, let's hear more.

CONTRERAS: OK, this one is a little bit more indigenous. It doesn't have any vocals. It features drums and these flutes called gaitas.


MARTIN: Those are some high notes those gaitas are hitting.

CONTRERAS: Yeah, there's actually two of them. They're playing almost, like, an octave apart.


CONTRERAS: It's an example of some of the things that happened during those sessions, that they recorded so much original and just pure folkloric music, so it didn't get used in the first album. This is an example of one of those things that just - they just let it flow.


MARTIN: All right, so there's, as we said, a lot happening in her music. There's all these different textures, all these different influences, African indigenous music and Spanish music. So what does that look like, or sound like, rather? What does Spain sound like when you mix it in with what she's doing?

CONTRERAS: Sounds like this.


MOMPOSINA: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: Yep, that sounds like Spain.

CONTRERAS: Right? And it's basically because of the stringed instruments, right? The Spaniards introduced the stringed instruments. And the lyrics of this track are like tracking the development of this style through, like, lyrical GPS tracking, right?


CONTRERAS: OK, so she's going to sing (speaking Spanish).


MOMPOSINA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: What that means is the habanero has arrived; the palenquero has arrived. The guy from Havana has arrived, and the guy from the palenque has arrived. The palenque was, like, these small communities of runaway slaves.

MARTIN: What happens when these guys arrive?

CONTRERAS: Right, when they get together and they all come together and they're from even these different cultures, these styles mesh. And that's what you're hearing.


MARTIN: So this has been so fun. I mean, like we said at the top, we usually talk about a lot of different artists, but it was next to take some time and think about one particular artist and her journey and what she's doing in her music. And she's doing a lot.

CONTRERAS: People all over Colombia and fans of hers all over the world are very excited about this album. It's called "Tambolero," and the artist, again, is Toto la Momposina.


MOMPOSINA: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: You can stream the album on NPR Music. Go to the First Listen feature, then click your way into a musical history lesson. Felix, it's been so fun, as always. Thanks so much.

CONTRERAS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Felix Contreras is co-host of NPR Music's Alt Latino podcast. He joins us once a month to share his music with us.


MOMPOSINA: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: Our theme music is written by B.J. Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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