Totó la Momposina: The Flower that Appears and Disappears

Totó la Momposina could have been a Colombian Celia Cruz. Instead she has chosen a different path, one which continues the musical traditions of her birthplace, the Atlantic coastal region of Colombia. In this feature written during the period in which she and her band recorded the seminal album La Candela Viva, we see how Totó's artistry connects with a life philosophy and spirituality that has been handed down through the generations.

“Bananas! Avocado! Oranges!” Angélica entices people to come and look at the fruit in the basket she balances on her head. The turquoise, red and orange of her dress radiate the heat of the Caribbean as she strolls barefoot, swishing her full skirt playfully with one hand. Crossing paths with Rafael, who is displaying a fine set of straw hats, she pauses and they chat for a moment. Marco Vinicio rolls up the sleeves of his white shirt. Warming up his drum, he rubs its smooth surface with circular movements. “Tambores! Tambores!” Meanwhile, Batata surveys the scene, pushes back the brim of his straw hat and takes of his shoes. People shout to be heard over each other: “Maize for sale!”, “Tasty yucca”, “Tambores! Tambores!” Amid the hustle and bustle, Euridice keeps a watchful eye on her little daughter who totters about, staring at everyone. Totó La Momposina waits in the wings.

“When I’m on stage I pretend that I’m singing in the streets of Talaigua, the way I’ve always done since I was small, when my mother taught me everything— how to cook, how to make a wood fire, how to kill a chicken and how to walk barefoot.” Totó acknowledges the power of positive memories. With her group of singers, musicians and dancers, she recreates the everyday life of these streets at the start of each performance. Their inspiration comes not only from performing these songs, but from feeling part of this living heritage.

A street in Talaigua, Mompox, Colombia.
 

Talaigua is where Totó and her ancestors were born: a village at the heart of the fluvial island of Mompós, in the Magalena river of northern Colombia. Once inhabited by Indians, the Spanish invasions of the sixteenth century forced the original people of Mompós into the island’s dense forests. In later years, runaway African took refuge in Talaigua and intermarried with the Indians. As Totó explains “The music I play has its roots in a mixed race; being black and Indian, the heart of the music is completely percussive. In Talaigua during November and December, the drums play. In the evening around six o’clock they begin. People hear and come to join in: young and old, black and white. Because it’s happening in the street, everyone participates.” No Silver Jubilee street party or once-a-year carnival is needed for them to have a good time with their neighbours.

Totó represents the fourth generation of her family to make music. A powerful sense of continuity binds together her extended family, friends and the community (el pueblo). The past is ever present and the possibilities of the future are always in view. In Totó’s case, her son and daughters are following in her footsteps as members of her group, while the sixth generation is already underway in her grand-daughter, two-year-old Maria del Mar, who wanders around the stage with obvious relish during their performances.

Totó's grand-daughter, Maria del Mar, on stage at WOMAD Rivermead 1991. Photo credit: Andrew Kingsbury.

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Totó feels very happy with her inheritance. “It makes me feel that I’m carrying out a mission in life, not only in Colombia, but on a universal level. When you are a real artist, in any discipline, you know that you came into life to do something specific. The gift you have grows with all that you learn about life, its potential maturing with time. I have learnt to respect all of this and channel it through my work.”

The key is that for this gift to flourish it must in turn be given away. For Totó this means, “self-respect, respect for others, for people to whom you should always show respect like your grandparents, older people, people who know about life. I have learned to respect everything surrounding my voice since that is my gift.” Totó’s speech patterns echo the call and response of the songs she sings, carrying the music in their rhythm and intonation. “If its harmful to me to smoke, I never smoke. If it’s bad for me to stay up all night, I don’t. If I have to go to voice classes, then I do. If I have to rest after a concert and prepare myself for the performance the next day, well, I do it all because it signifies respect. It’s a way of projecting this respect onto yourself and onto the people listening to you; also onto those who hear of you— your future audience.”

"When you are a real artist, in any discipline, you know that you came into life to do something specific. The gift you have grows with all that you learn about life, its potential maturing with time. I have learnt to respect all of this and channel it through my work." Totó la Momposina
Totó la Momposina y sus Tambores, 1991. Back: Batata, Angelica, Dario, Totó, Marco, Maria, Euridice. Front: Rafa, German, Gustavo. Photo credit: Andy Caitlin.
 

Totó’s group itself functions like a family unit —from Batata, in his seventies, to Maria del Mar— and each member has their place. The generations are not separated and isolated as in so many western societies. Phil Ramone, a veteran in the pop industry and producer of the group’s first album with Real World Records, picked up on the rapport that is their strength. “Totó, in herself, is so strong spiritually and mentally. She gives you tremendous vibes of affection and love. Then you see a chemistry between the musicians: there is an intimacy that goes on in their eyes. Somehow something happens, seemingly unrehearsed, where a smile, a genuine smile, comes out of one of them and then the next, and a pattern develops. I suspect there is a great depth in what they’re communicating.” This human connection is the science behind their art. “I work within a discipline that is connected to everyday life,” explains Totó, “My work is the interrelation between myself and the people watching me.”

While their repertoire could easily be categorised as ‘Colombian folklore’, Totó adamantly defines it in different terms: “While I respect the word ‘folklore’, to me it means something that’s dead— in a museum. Traditional music, or the music from the old days, is still alive: many people are working with it and it’s always evolving. The people of the pueblo don’t know about ‘folklore’. They say ‘música antigua’ or ‘la música de antes’ (from before). Even the word folclor has modified over the years to become conflor —literally ‘with flowers’. This change could be put down to a phonetic misinterpretation passed down orally in the way of the tradition. However, “If you analyse the word romantically,” suggests Totó, “it could mean ‘with flowers’, as if every song is a different flower, and I like this interpretation better. It refers to the role of nature in a person’s existence— that relationship between a human being and the earth. It may be that traditional music is not performed regularly but when people in the country give parties they bring it out. Whether or not the music evolves at that moment is unimportant: it’s happening! It’s not just on a record like Michael Jackson or Madonna. It’s there in the earth, and like the flowers it will appear out of the earth for a moment and then go away!”

Photo credit: Josh Pulman.

Totó has observed that city people wanted to deny the natural abundance of Colombia’s soil, but since it is there, the people in the country, who are in contact with the earth, have entered into a dialogue with this wealth and they sing to it. “Having worked for twenty-seven years with a musical heritage that stretches back one hundred and fifty-seven years, I still think that the real representatives of a country are those who show the feeling of the pueblo— of a peasant, a worker, a craftsman. I’ve learnt from personal experience that diplomats have their own way of working, governed by their own concepts, but I still think that a better job of international relations is done by the artists who are working with the real traditions of the people.” The image speaks for itself: men in safe, grey suits and constricting neck ties beside Totó in a dress of vibrant, sensous colours that celebrates the body and its movements.

Traditionally the cantadora is the people’s diplomat. She is a woman who has acquired an intimate knowledge of the politics of her village and the needs of her community and is a central figure in the life of the village. A practical as well as an intellectual figure, the cantadora is also well versed in natural medicine. The music is one aspect of the spiritual dimension. The ‘captain’ of her group, she improvises and directs. “Everything that I’ve said refers to the role a woman can play within the family and society at all levels. The people who walk this earth come from your belly, you known them intimately, and you naturally have a sense of leadership from being a mother.” While Totó does not talk in politically feminist terms, she lives out her views for others to learn from.

Totó and the band at Real World Recording Week 1991. Photo credit: Andy Caitlin.

Doña Ramona of Talaigua is a cantadora to whom Totó gives thanks and respect. At eighty-five she still walks over five kilometres a day and cooks on a wood fire for a large household. Her teachings refer to a lifetime of history in the making. They are profound, while often taing the form of a simple observation, as Totó illustrates from a recent visit to Talaigua: “Doña Ramona opened the cupboard and showed me some dresses that I had given her. ‘You gave me these dresses thirteen years ago. Today we can say that they are the dresses we used to wear and these,’ indicating the clothes they had on at that moment, ‘are now the clothes of today.’” Totó is obviously on the road of the cantadora. When asked whether she considers herself as such, however, she humbly says, “I only know that I know nothing!”

"You have to be a warrior or a gypsy to research this music, so that it doesn’t matter where you sleep, what you eat or how hot it is." Totó la Momposina

Private: 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.

 

It was with the cantadoras of Colombia’s Caribbean coast that Totó la Momposina continued her education as a young woman. From village to village she went, during all seasons, sleeping rough, enduring whatever conditions where necessary to learn. “You have to be a warrior or a gypsy to research this music, so that it doesn’t matter where you sleep, what you eat or how hot it is.” Sometimes during winter, when the rivers flooded, she’d reach billages by wading up to her waist in the swollen waters. Totó values these experiences for having taught her to surmount physical hardship, which could otherwise detract from her carrying out her vision.

Totó la Momposina has all the qualities that could have made her a “star” in Western terms. With her energy, charisma and beauty, she could have challenged Celia Cruz for the title of ‘Queen of Latin Music’ and it is not for lack of trying on the part of Colombian record companies. While she has rejected the commercialisation of her music, she has always worked towards excellence. Studying dance and voice technique have been useful tools to achieve this. “You enrich what you know, clean it up a bit, because when you’re in the country you express yourself in tune with the land. On stage you have to use the same strength and the same movements, but present them with a little more grace and beauty.”

Totó la Momposina y sus Tambores perform 'Mapale/Prende la Vela' at Real World Recording Week 1991.

This level of commitment and professionalism acts as the bridge by which the spectator, unfamiliar with her appearance and sound, can enter into her world. The drums that echo the pulse of blood in the veins, provide the catalyst to get the energy and emotion flowing. “The music of the drums makes your body vibrate and react in an instinctive, spontaneous way. Then you come out of yourself and forget everything around you. You don’t mind any more. You are you.” If the listeners let go of their inhibitions, the drums will re-connect them to the values that society has pushed out of sight and mind. On stage, Totó is like a book that opens of its own accord, its pages turning to reveal certain truths about humanity, if the spectator cares to read.

As the performance comes to an end and the group takes a bow, the street scene returns. Totó la Momposina y sus Tambores come down off the stage and weave their way through the crowd gathering dancers as they go. Surging around them, the people step out of the role of spectator: there is a subtle difference in the way they clap and dance. It makes you wonder why the stage was put there in the first place, why separation rather than participation was encouraged. The smiles on the faces of the people make it clear how they feel now, and how they would like things to be.

Special Offer

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Totó la Momposina’s seminal album La Candela Viva, the 2015 re-issue of the album, Tambolero, and remix vinyl EP The Garabato Sessions are available with a 20% discount via the Real World Store. You can also download the album in hi-res 24-bit 96kHz via Bandcamp.

Buy Tambolero + The Garabato Sessions

Download high-res audio of Tambolero

Featured release

  • Fuego

    Totó la Momposina

    Released 07 September 2018

    Fuego features four previously unreleased songs from the original La Candela Viva 1991/1992 sessions, which were discovered in 2015 when the original master tapes were restored and digitally remastered.

By Tatiana Spencer

Published on Wed, 25 November 92

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