How Indie Record Labels Reinvented Colombian Music

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The musical soundscape of Bogotá, Colombia is remarkably diverse. This is thanks, in large part, to the work of independent record labels over the past two decades who have expanded their recordings to include the sounds of rural Colombian beats. 

Although curiosity for regional sounds had been a source of musical inspiration since the 1940s, a revival began to take place in the early 2000s with the emergence of bands like Curupira, Mojarra Eléctrica and Puerto Candelaria. Curupira made use of traditional Caribbean instruments like drums and gaitas (long cane flutes), while Mojarra Eléctrica and Puerto Candelaria blended traditional Afro-Colombian music from the Pacific region with jazz, rock and funk. 

According to musician and musicologist Andrés Gualdrón, “The emergence of these bands coincided with the birth of independent labels that made their own recordings, some of which achieved international visibility.” Labels like Palenque Records (1996), La Distritofónica (2004), Llorona Records (2007), Festina Lente Discos (2009) and Sonidos Enraizados (2012) became vital supporters, curators and archivists of the evolution of this scene. At the same time, they helped circulate the music of local and rural artists to urban centers around the world.

Some of these labels have taken advantage of the “world music” market to sell their albums abroad.

Some of these labels have taken advantage of the “world music” market to sell their albums abroad. This is certainly the case for Llorona Records, an 11-year-old independent label that aims to showcase the musical richness of Colombia by building bridges between traditional sounds and contemporary musical languages to appeal to younger audiences. 

“Llorona Records arrived at a moment when a movement was developing in the Colombian music scene that wanted to hearken back to our musical legacy,” says label co-founder Diego Gómez. Llorona Records’ catalog ranges from the calypso sounds of Elkin Robinson, a musician from the Caribbean island of Old Providence, to Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, one of the most important and long-standing gaita ensembles in Colombia. But Llorona is more than a record label. In Gómez’s view, “A label is like an umbrella. We have produced events, concerts and festivals, and worked on entrepreneurial projects for more than 10 years.” 

Some of these labels began as a reaction to the emerging scene of new Colombian music, while others resulted from individual artistic searches. In the mid-1990s, filmmaker Lucas Silva traveled to San Basilio de Palenque, a town located in the Bolívar region of northern Colombia, to shoot a documentary. His focus was on champeta, a kind of dance music based on the various African rhythms that arrived via LPs in the ‘70s and ‘80s to the Colombian Caribbean coast. 

Silva ended up meeting Afro-Colombian bands from Palenque and Cartagena – including Sexteto Tabalá, a group that combined traditional Cuban son (or sound) with Afro-Colombian drums and claves. At the time, the band predominantly played at funerals and parties; they were almost unknown in other regions beyond San Basilio.

Silva brought Sexteto Tabalá to Bogotá for a performance and then recorded their first album, releasing it on Radio France’s Ocora label in 1998. The record gave visibility to Sexteto Tabalá and their music, which soon became popular among young urbanites.

That was also the beginning of Palenque Records, which aims to promote contemporary Afro-Colombian music. Now, after more than 20 years since its inception, Palenque Records is responsible for releasing 18 records of classic champeta and cumbia music by artists like Son Palenque, Michi Sarmiento and Abelardo Carbonó, the godfather of champeta.

“Now is a very good time to [make music] in
Bogotá. There are more opportunities and spaces
in the market.”
—Alejandro Forero

One of the most persistent music collectives that both organizes music festivals and produces its own recordings is La Distritofónica. Back in 2004, eight musicians realized that if they worked together, they could produce their own projects. Member Alejandro Forero says La Distritofónica “is a way to have a historical memory of our music, but [it’s] also a project where friends get together.” He notes that over the last 14 years, the music venues where they played were just as fundamental as the recordings in bringing together musicians. 

The audience for La Distritofónica has grown along with the collective’s curiosity. Forero notes that it’s interesting that their “records have created an audience which is small, but [which] has grown during the past years and been relatively stable.” Beyond their audience, the larger scene is going strong. According to Forero, “Now is a very good time to [make music] in Bogotá. There are more opportunities and spaces in the market. We see that the bands are already organizing more tours, applying for grants, traveling abroad or making local tours.” 

For years, Luis Daniel Vega, music journalist and radio director of Señal Cumbia, has followed the jazz and experimental scene in the Chapinero locality of Bogotá. As a music collector, he always wanted to know who was behind a record label. In 2009, he and another friend created Festina Lente Discos, a label that started to document a particular sound arising in Bogotá. They produced their debut album, “Meleyólamente,” by pianist Ricardo Gallo and guitarist Alejandro Flórez, in a friend’s living room; Festina’s work emphasizes a mobile approach to recording, one that results in professional quality music but that doesn’t strive for perfection. 

“We are fetishists: We like the objects, the records,” Vega says. More a passion project than a professional label, Festina Lente aims to record a wider spectrum of music than just jazz. They now have 25 records on their catalog, including works by instrumental tropical punk band Los Pirañas; Las Áñez, a vocal duo of twin sisters that mixes rural sounds with contemporary music; Mugre, an experimental, post-punk duo and the aforementioned Curupira. They have also recorded chamber music and experimental tropical music.

For Vega, independent labels help to “balance the giant monopoly of [mainstream] record labels that dictate what has to be heard. It is good that many current manifestations of popular music in Colombia have arisen from independent initiatives.”

That was certainly the case with Sonidos Enraizados, a label founded in 2012 by Lucía Ibáñez Salazar, a researcher, videographer and cultural manager of traditional music, along with Urián Sarmiento, a percussionist, producer and researcher who has recorded many traditional Colombian musicians since 2003. The label focuses on recording musical communities in remote areas of Colombia, such as the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the eastern plains, the Amazon forest and the Andean region. This effort has produced recordings by artists like Paito, the last living performer of the black gaita tradition in Colombia, and Carmelo Torres – Torres is the living legacy of Cumbia Sabanera, a rural accordion-heavy style of cumbia from San Jacinto, and successor to the ”King of Cumbia” Andrés Landero. 

Sonidos Enraizados has three approaches to their music: research, production and circulation. Since its founding, this label has acted as a guiding light in Colombian traditional music – reflecting traditional music as an evolving art while making unknown musical communities visible at both local and international levels. 

Recently, Sonidos Enraizados partnered with four other independent labels that all emerged around the same time (Polen, Llorona, Palenque and Tambora) to make a compilation called “Meet the Colombian Music Powerhouses Vol. 1.” Now available online from several different platforms, the collaboration sought to disseminate their online and physical recordings to broader audiences. 

The emergence of online platforms has opened up considerable opportunities to expand marketing at the international level. Now, music streaming has taken over physical sales, but these independent labels still try to maintain their creative independence. After all, their dual support for rural and urban creators alike has been fundamental to creating a new kind of Colombian music – and one with growing global influence.

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Ana Luisa González

Ana Luisa González is a bilingual arts journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia. She has collaborated for various publications in the U.S. such as Fusion, …more 

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