Totó la Momposina

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 a restless innovator too.

Totó hails —as did her ancestors— 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 over a thousand miles to the Caribbean.

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’. Whilst still a child, civil war forced Totó to flee her home and move to the capital Bogotá. There her mother started a dance group, created with the specific intention that the five siblings would be proud of their Colombian identity and Afro-Indian culture.

As a young woman, she travelled from village to village researching their various rhythms and dances and studying the art of the cantadora. Traditionally the cantadoras are peasants, women who grow yucca, plantain and pumpkins in the patches of land behind their huts. These women play a central role in the village culture. Those songs that the villagers sing to accompany their daily tasks are now performed by Totó on stage, such as rhythmic chants to pace the pounding of the corn, and suggestive lyrics which add spice to the monotony of scrubbing the clothes in the river. The drums are played by the men, boat-builders who hollow out tree trunks with their axes, fishermen, net-menders and cigar-makers.

Gradually, Totó’s voice and performance technique matured, until in 1968 she formed her own group and began to pursue a professional career, though still delighting in playing at family fiestas, street parties and other roles enacted by ‘la cantadora del pueblo’. Rapidly gaining a reputation for her impressive voice and presence she began to appear outside Colombia in the 1970s touring in 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.

However, it was the invitation to perform at the WOMAD Festival in 1991 that led to Totó’s participation in the first Real World Recording Week that year, and ultimately to the recording of the songs — with legendary American producer Phil Ramone at the controls in 1991 and English producer John Hollis for the follow-up sessions in 1992 —that would become her first album recorded for Real World, La Candela Viva.

The international success of La Candela Viva, and the following two albums Carmelina 1995 and Pacantó (MTM/Colombia), would ignite Totó’s career in Colombia and finally see her recognized as a star in her own country.

The music has continued to endure, including being routinely sampled by the world of dance and hip-hop (Michel Cleis, Da R3volution and Timbaland, to name but a few). She 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.

As part of the Real World Gold series of re-issues, we have revisited La Candela Viva. The original 1991/92 master tapes have been restored and remixed, instrumentation added, and backing vocals from Totó’s young granddaughters. More than just a re-release of La Candela Viva, the renamed album Tambolero is a genuine re-appraisal and re-imagining of the original, in which Totó continues to reflect the experience of her native Colombia through her life and music. The two things are intertwined: the story of Totó La Momposina is truly the story of modern Colombia. It has also become a celebration of Totó’s professional career, which will soon reach a landmark 60 years —six decades dedicated to preserving, researching and developing an ancestral tradition, the identity of a people, passed down through the generations.

Further reading

Totó la Momposina in Paris: a Colombian refugee becomes a star

How the Colombian musical icon’s career blossomed in the 70s and 80s in France

Live: Totó la Momposina at St. George’s Bristol

The Colombian legend was joined by her band and local school children for an energetic show at St. G...

Real World Sessions: Totó la Momposina, 18 August 1991

A look back on The Wood Room session with producer Phil Ramone and mix engineer Richard Blair.

Totó la Momposina: The Flower that Appears and Disappears

Tatiana Spencer explores the world of Colombian folk music legend Totó la Momposina.