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

This July sees the release of a retrospective album which explores Colombian music legend Totó la Momposina's connection with France. In a career spanning more than five decades, it was the singer's arrival in Paris in 1979 as a refugee fleeing the conservative political forces in Colombia that proved consequential on her path to international acclaim.

Today, Totó la Momposina is regarded as one of the most important artists in Colombian music, but it was only through time spent outside of her home country as a performer in Europe during the 1980s and 90s that she earned her legendary status in Colombia.

Totó spent her young adult life travelling from village to village in her native region researching the local rhythms and dances, and studying the art of the female singer— the cantadora. Gradually, her voice and performance technique matured, and she formed her own group in 1968, honouring these musical traditions she had absorbed in the rural communities in her stage performances.

In June 1979, Totó and three of her musicians, including her longtime collaborator and friend Batata, suddenly found themselves in Paris, with nowhere to sleep, no money, and not a word of French. The singer had received a tip-off that she was on a blacklist due to her left wing connections in Bogotá and beyond, and if she remained in the country, her life was in danger. She fled the country, seeking refuge in France.

Totó and musicians, Paris 1981.

A mutual friend introduced Totó to a group of actors and musicians of the Collectif de la Rue Dunois, in the thirteenth arrondissement, who took her and the musicians under their wing. For a while they slept in the theatre, where Totó remembers using her mink scarf as a duvet. Places to lodge were soon found, and for Totó this meant a flat which belonged to Collective member Gérard lo Monaco. The apartment overlooked the Jardins de Tuileries, where Totó fondly remembers doing her morning exercises.

The Collectif de la Rue Dunois, led by Philippe Duval, Laurent Berman and Anne Quesemand, was made up of street performers, mime artists and musicians, and it wasn’t long before Totó and her musicians began to take part in their regular soirees.

"One day a Spanish speaking friend brings us a group that he has met. They are stranded in Paris, impoverished. To help, we programme them quickly in our space and they are a great success. Friends also help them with places to stay. We sympathise and they look for concerts here there and everywhere, holding out, just trying to survive." Laurent Berman, Collectif de la Rue Dunois
Montfuron 1979, Laurent Berman on the right.

The Collective eventually leave for Manosque, with Totó staying behind in Paris where she was performing regularly. However, their paths cross once again when Laurent receives word from a municipal employee in Manosque that a foreign group have taken refuge in the local train station and have been looking for ‘Lorenzo y Anna’ without any other clues or information.

“This is how we come to spend a month and a half together,” says Laurent, “playing in the streets, passing the hat round, looking for fêtes or festivals in certain villages.”

“Together we create a true festival, featuring French, Yiddish and Colombian music, a barrel organ, a children’s show with a merry-go-round, a moving cinema in a truck, an English double-decker bus, and even releasing a hot-air balloon. Sometimes Anne and I are alone with them and some of our Parisian and Yiddish airs for accordion and trumpet are accompanied by Batata and his ‘tamboleros’. He is both impressive and comical and it must be pointed out that Totó was a great success everywhere.”

Totó and Batata, Montfuron 1979.

Once the immediate danger had passed, Totó was able to return to Colombia. But she continued to travel abroad regularly with her band and came through Paris whenever the opportunity arose. At a festival performance in 1980 she met Bolivian musician producer Carlos Arguedas, who invited Totó to record. The following year, she and a band of five entered the Studio de la Comédie des Champs-Elysées, where she recorded her debut album. According to Carlos, it was the first disc of Latin percussion to be released in Europe.

In 1982, Totó settled in Paris for several years in order to concentrate on her career. First staying with Carlos and his wife Claire Lambea in their flat in Rue Leon Frot, she then moved into a flat opposite the Stalingrad metro station and signed up for a course at the Sorbonne. Supported by a concert agent and the album, performance invitations began to come in from all over Europe. Parallel to these developments, like many debuting artists, Totó had to work hard to survive and busking on the street or in the Metro was a useful option.

One day in the Flea Market a man gave her a fifty franc note, a considerable sum for a street performer, and told her he hoped the next time he saw her she would be on stage— where she belonged. Totó recounts this story now in giggles. The same man appeared at one of her shows in France in the 1990s and reintroduced himself, delighted she had made it to the big stage.

Totó and Batata, Montfuron 1979.

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For John Hollis, who has been Totó’s manager and producer since the early nineties, it was whilst travelling across France with Totó,  from Brittany to the Cévennes mountains in 2015, that Totó first told him about the time she had spent in the 1970s with the Collectif de la Rue Dunois. He eventually tracked down Laurent Berman and Anne Quesemand, who told him more about the time they spent with Totó and Batata.

“The image of them all travelling together performing through the villages of Provence that summer of 1979 with a double-decker bus, merry-go-round and and hot air balloon is truly wonderful. As Totó had remembered, each evening they’d present their free show of music and theatre to the public, turning the lorry into a cinema. They’d cook and sleep in the vehicles at night and went busking in the day to bring in money for fuel and food. It was also touching to discover that Laurent, on trumpet, and Anne, on accordion, had performed with Totó and Batata on their travelling adventures. Laurent remembered in particular the now classic song El Pescador.”

Later, in 1984, WOMAD’s Artistic Director Thomas Brooman would make a trip to Paris to secure a festival booking for Bolivia Manta. Instead, he would be convinced by a local record store owner to purchase an album by Totó la Momposina, and that same summer, she and the band would make a trip to the UK, marking the beginning of a long-term relationship with WOMAD and Real World Records.

Totó returned to Colombia in the late 1980s, to be reunited with her children, whom she missed very much. But the time she spent in France had opened the door to a fruitful career. Today, Totó is a legend worldwide and France, the country that first supported her musical development, remains close to her heart. In 2016 she was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

Oye Manita, a retrospective album which celebrates Totó’s relationship with France, is released on CD next month. 

La Verdolaga, a vinyl release featuring a selections from both Oye Manita and Totó’s seminal album La Candela Viva (released on Real World Records) is out today.

Purchase La Verdolaga on vinyl

By Online Editor

Drawn from sleeve notes by John Hollis and Thomas Brooman for Totó la Momposina's forthcoming retrospective album 'Oye Manita'.

Published on Fri, 22 June 18

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