From Cartagena, with Love from Congo

May 27, 2020
Charles King
Photo credit: Rafael Bossio

It took Charles King thirteen years to become an overnight sensation. 

At first, I see him from a distance, standing by himself, at the entrance of Plaza Santa Domingo, waiting for me and the translator. He is not alone for too long. As I approach, people do so as well. Some reach out with a handshake and a smile, offering pleasantries. Some go for a hug. Some are content with a pat on his  shoulder. King seems at ease with the attention of – presumably – strangers. He exchanges smiles, conversations and questions. He makes eye contact. 

The people know Charles King as one of the progenitors of Champeta – a subgenre of Colombian music that borrows heavily from African subgenres – predominantly soukouss, juju and highlife to create something new and unique. Today, it is now globally known. 

Well, almost. 

The sound has found fame in Europe and in the Americas but it is curiously the least popular or arguably fairly unknown across the African regions whose music are its source. 

Colombia and Congo DRC – where soukouss originated and Champeta draws heavily from – do not share an embassy or official diplomatic relations yet the ties that bind them goes back decades and have endured longer than a visa stamp ever could. A Google search trying to find relations / histories between both countries won’t produce much. At best you might find some comparisons on internal conflicts, restorative justice processes that both have experienced. But the common factor between these two isn’t in an academic paper. It’s on the airwaves. It is played every evening, night and into early mornings at the Bazurto Social Club, Kilele or Awa Coco. If the Congolese heard it, they might see the obvious Soukouss connection. Even Nigerians might too. 

Charles King
Photo credit: Rafael Bossio

When Charles King decided to make Champeta, these Central, Southern African sounds were popular in his Palenque neighbourhood. But they were certainly not commercial or mainstream. He stuck with it. The music, he told me, felt like home. 

“I made music from my savings. Champeta was the music that I liked, that I felt passionate about. I grew up listening to Papa Wemba, Bopol Mansiamina, Pépé Kallé. When I heard them it was an instant connection. It felt like it was my music even though it came from Africa,” King says now that we are sitting in one of the Plaza’s office buildings. 

King, on closer inspection, projects this connection. Well, in his own way. He wears three beaded bracelets on one arm, tiny dots of green, red, black that make an indiscernible pattern. Around his neck is a beaded necklace, in similar colours, with a map of the African continent as a pendant. The artists Charles King mentions previously are Congolese and play the Soukoss genre that he adapts into his music. 

The sounds share similarities and are yet different to the discerning ear. 

Soukouss music usually starts off with a medley of guitar strings. First, the bass. Then the electric or acoustic. The sounds lay over themselves complementing, contrasting themselves. There could be a hint of drums. In Champeta, strings are secondary. Drums are significantly more prominent. Overwhelming the sound of strings even. The tap tap tap of Bongo drums. Snare drums. 

Soukous depends heavily on the artist’s voice as an instrument. The usually unmistakable voices of artists like Remy Sahlomon, Diblo Dibala, Bozi Boziana match the pitch of the guitar strings they sing over. That is to say, if the guitars suddenly turned off as they sang, it would not be a drastic change. In Champeta, there seems to be a commitment to beat making – between drums and strings – over singing that rises to the occasion. 

But for the rhythm, cadence and pace of the music, the sounds are more or less the same. Though to note, where the Champeta has remained in flux incorporating the Soukouss, the snare drums, kick drums of reggaeton, highlife, and so on, the soukoss sound has remained largely the same. 

“Champeta is not meant to connect to African roots,” said Rubén Darío Álvarez, a journalist and author, The escape of splendor: Conversation with the Cartagena music of the 80s, in a conversation at his office, El Universal. I had asked whether Afro-descendants living in Cartagena saw the genre as a way of connecting or staying in touch with an ancestry they had been divorced from through slavery. 

“We are influenced by different African expressions of art. We were meant to like African music. Champeta is the way people from Cartagena interpret African music.” 

Mr. Alvarez further explained that Champeta’s existence today was incidental. 

“It came from people trying to differentiate themselves from other sounds that played at picos” (street parties) 

Party promoters – usually black or of mixed race – at the time tried to outdo themselves per who had the best, newest, weirdest sound. Cartagena being a port city was home to ships that had travelled to the African continent and brought back vinyls from Southern and Central Africa. 

The promoters immediately took to these sounds from the other side. 

Chalres King disagrees with Álvarez. He illustrates with a burial ritual – Lumbalu, in Palanque that he shows me on his phone. I see a sea of people, in what appears to be a field, in different colours of clothes. There’s less black than you might expect at a funeral. What’s immediately prominent is the sound of drums. Of strings. Of the foundation that Champeta builds on. 

“It’s actually religious music. They do dances, choreography. The people feel like it’s something from Africa, it’s remembering their heritage…” 

Through music. A celebration of life, and of death. The procession is familiar to me. When someone dies – and before death has lived up to an old age – in Nigeria, there is fanfare, there is drumming. There is dance. 

“Champeta – for me – is combining African sounds and making a revolution of them,” King says. He, dead-pan, told me he identifies as African. And because of his music, and its popularity, others are increasingly too.  

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