Real World Sessions: Totó la Momposina, 18 August 1991

On 18th August 1991, Colombian folk singer Totó la Momposina and her band of tambores drummers recorded a live session in The Wood Room at Real World Studios under the direction of legendary rock producer Phil Ramone. Performing to an audience which included many other musicians from around the world who had arrived for the famous Real World Recording Week, they delivered iconic renditions of songs such as 'Adios Fulana' and 'El Pescador', forming the basis of the 1993 album which would earn her international recognition, La Candela Viva.

Totó la Momposina, often heralded as the original Queen of Cumbia, has spent her life singing the music of her ancestors to audiences across the world. Her music combines aspects of African, Indigenous Indian and Spanish cultures. As a young woman, she travelled from village to village researching the various rhythms, dances and art of the Colombian cantadora.

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’.

Totó la Momposina in The Wood Room. Photo credit: Andy Catlin, 1991.

It was whilst she was touring France in the 80s that Thomas Brooman, then Artistic Director of WOMAD Festival, invited her to perform in the UK for the first time at an open air concert in Ashton Court, Bristol in 1984. Thus began a long-term relationship between Totó, WOMAD and Real World Records. Following a headline performance at WOMAD Reading in August 1991, the singer and her band arrived at Real World Studios to participate in the first Real World Recording Week.

Each evening of Recording Week one of the guest musical groups were invited to record a selection of their music live under the guidance of world-renowned producers. On Sunday 18th August, it was the turn of Totó la Momposina y sus Tambores, who had been paired with American producer Phil Ramone, famous for his work in achieving classic vocal recordings for singers such as Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles. The session would comprise simply Totó on vocals, her daughters Eurídice and Angélica María on backing vocals, and a band of tambores drummers.

Session Notes

Recorded on 18 August, 1991 in The Wood Room, Real World Studios with a live audience on the Studer A820 to 24-track tape

Producer Phil Ramone (1991 Wood Room session); John Hollis with Marco Vinicio Oyaga and Richard Blair (1992 sessions and 2015 Tambolero project)

Recording Engineer Richard Chappell

Mix Engineer Richard Blair; remixed for Tambolero by Oli Jacobs

Musicians Totó la Momposina: lead vocals; Eurídice Oyaga & Angélica María Oyaga: backing vocals; Paulino “Batata” Salgado, Marco Vinicio Oyago, Rafael Ramos, Dario Castro: tambores.

Totó la Momposina: The Flower that Appears and Disappears

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


An 18-hour exercise in minimalist production

For Phil Ramone, the approach to producing the session was very different from what he was used to. In an interview on the morning of the session, he said:

“This is like coming to music camp. Normally for me there would be weeks and weeks of talking to someone and getting to know them. You come here, get introduced to the artist, and the information you have beforehand is amazingly minimalist: just a cassette of some recording they made before. That’s it.”

Phil Ramone prepares to produce Totó la Momposina's live session in The Wood Room at Real World Recording Week. Photo credit: Pete Williams.

“What I’m trying to do today is to come up with an orchestral setup that will give me both the intimacy and the communication that she has with the musicians. I’m not going to record it in the usual way with a lot of separation and try to be cute and clever. I’m going to capture whatever appears to me in that room.”

“I don’t want them to feel like they are restrained, playing to a mic. I’d rather have them play to an audience. What I’d like to capture is both the essence and immediacy of what happens in a group like this. The drums talk to each other. There is intricate stuff happening all the time. For whatever lack of knowledge I have, I hope to find out what they are saying, and I’m going to try and make those drums appear in such a way that they are hypnotic and they do what they are supposed to do on tape.”

Phil Ramone

Totó la Momposina and Phil Ramone talk about the 1991 Wood Room session

An afternoon which changed Richard Blair’s life

Richard Blair, who mixed the finished album later in 1992, remembers the The Wood Room session as being a monumental experience for him:

“There was a fateful afternoon some twenty odd years ago that changed my life. I was working as an engineer at Real World Studios when they put on a festival of recording— Real World Recording Week. Musicians would wander from room to room and end up in the most inspiring cosmic jam sessions, grinning from ear to ear. I was working in one of these sessions, up in Peter’s Work Room, and was sent out to get a microphone. I went down the stairs past the main live room where I heard something that caught my attention. Inside were Totó and the tambores in full swing, making a record with an invited audience, so I crept in quietly at the back.”

"It was one of those quantic moments when everything explodes into fragments and reveals a whole new world." Richard Blair, mix engineer, La Candela Viva
Totó la Momposina in The Work Room at Real World Studios in 1992 with producer John Hollis and Richard Blair.

“I can remember now the shivers going up my spine. Just drums and vocals, a beat that sounded Caribbean, a bit like reggae, but somehow deeper, wilder and a whole lot looser. There were many things I didn’t know then, among them that the lead hand drummer was a guy called Paulino Salgado, better known as Batata, a legendary musician whose influence is still felt here in Colombia. They were obviously playing cumbia, which I didn’t know either, and he was repicando, or popping off solo licks and making that drum bark and shout. I was transfixed. It was one of those quantic moments when everything explodes into fragments and reveals a whole new world.”

“Something began that day that’s still going on for me. I’m writing this in my flat in Bogota, having just finished a new Sidestepper record, using those hand drums I heard Batata playing that afternoon. I’ve spent the best part of the last 20 years in Colombia, having a lovely time. I’ve just felt at home here, welcome, and amongst good spirits. The call went out that afternoon and I’m so grateful I listened— it changed my life.”

Richard Blair

Following the 1991 session, Totó returned to Real World Studios again in 1992 for a session in The Work Room with producer John Hollis, recording a selection of songs with a more layered approach and featuring additional instrumentation. The fruits of both sessions were finally released as La Candela Viva in 1993. The international success of the album, and the subsequent releases Carmelina (1995) and Pacantó (released on MTM/Colombia), would ignite Totó’s career in Colombia and finally see her recognised as a star in her own country.

In 2015, as part of the Real World Gold series of re-issues, John Hollis and Real World engineer Oli Jacobs undertook the mammoth task of revisiting the original 1991/1992 multi-tracks in order to present the music in fully-restored, high resolution audio. The original album was remixed and ‘re-imagined’, opening up the warm sound of the tambores and incorporating additional backing vocals by Totó’s grand-daughters Maria del Mar and Oriana. It was renamed Tambolero as a tribute to the musical contributions of the late tambores player Batata, whose wonderful performance and presence was such an essential part of the album.

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The entire 1991 recording session for La Candela Viva was filmed. You can watch a selection of four songs from the performance on our YouTube channel:

  1. El Pescador
  2. La Candela Viva
  3. Julio Moreno
  4. Tu Tambor

Watch on YouTube

'Julio Moreno' recorded in The Wood Room at Real World Studios

To mark the 25th anniversary of Totó la Momposina’s album La Candela Viva, we have released Fuego: an EP of four previously unheard tracks recorded at the 1991 and 1992 Real World sessions.

Listen to the Fuego EP

Featured Release

  • La Candela Viva

    Totó la Momposina

    Released 09 September 1993

    La Candela Viva was the album that ignited Totó la Momposina’s international career and saw her recognised as a star in her native Colombia. It was partly recorded during the Real World Recording Week of 1991 and partly in 1992 with legendary producer Phil Ramone, and presents three distinct musical styles - Tambores, Sextetos and Gaitas – in a set of inspired performances.

By Oran Mullan

Main image: Totó la Momposina records live in The Wood Room at Real World Recording Week 1991. Photo credit: Andy Caitlin.

Published on Sat, 22 September 18

Further reading

Real World Sessions: Remmy Ongala & Super Matimila, 17 August 1991

Rupert Hine and Stephen W Tayler look back on the 1991 session which yielded Remmy Ongala's 'Mambo'.

Totó la Momposina: The Flower that Appears and Disappears

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

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