Interview: Totó La Momposina (April 2017)

She rarely visits and performs in London, but when she does, she’s always keen to bring the Caribbean sun and enthusiasm with her. A few days ago, on the eve of her gig as part of La Linea festival, we had the honour to meet and have a chat with Totó La Momposina. Her smiles and positive attitude warmed up a cold London afternoon and her words revealed to us; how much tradition is at her core, and how she inspires the Colombian music scene.

Let’s start from the beginning. I, (at the age that I have- 76), came from a family of musicians and that was my first academy and reference. It’s there that you have to find your future, that’s simple, because family is your first school and from there you need to grow.

You firstly receive the information from your family; it is transmitted from generation to generation, so that knowledge is marked upon you forever. Only having that essential knowledge, you can become a real artist”.

Totó explained to us that music, like a true Muse, has guided her throughout her career and life. It has showed her the way and for this reason Totó feels that she owes a debt of gratitude. Like her musicians, she has to be honest and authentic in respect of her tradition.

I built the relationship with my audience like pregones do. There are many pregones (street sellers but also storytellers) still living in the place where I come from. So, I begin to interpret traditional music like them, allowing it to shine. Because it’s not about me, but it’s all about the music itself: she’s the star!

The music I play has indeed a long history. The virtue of ancestral music is that it comes from the heart, it comes from the sense of belonging and that will always come out, because it is an energy that instinctively emanates from you, and which the public naturally receives. You are there in front of them to say: ‘this is the music of my country, this is the music of Colombia’. That’s simple and we as musicians have to demonstrate that: all the musicians who are on stage need to demonstrate that they are people who belong to the people and who studied music in order to be there”.

Music and dance have always been participatory experiences for Totó. Since she moved to Bogotá, when she was 5, she constantly desired to share her roots with people and take part in a never-ending give and take cultural process…

When we left our town [Talaigua, not far from the Colombian Caribbean coast] and arrived in Bogotá, we were displaced, and when one arrives displaced, one still keeps a sense of belonging to one’s hometown. Since there were no cultural centres in Bogotá, we lived in a big house, and we had parties there, and people from all over the town used to come to dance at our place. We used to share our music, dance, everything… For example, I remember that there was a group of dancers and if you wanted to dance with them, you could take part in dance classes to practice. We were offering what we had, sharing it with others and enriching each other”.

As a matter of fact, the same happens when Totó plays abroad, outside of Colombia and South America. She invariably wants to be true to her tradition:

In my daily process of spreading music, I have discovered that the world needs true references. Those true references, without imitating anyone, are delivered by the people who play ancestral music. For example, I can’t sing in Brazilian nor sing Brazilian music, because that is not mine. I can’t sing Cuban music and I can’t sing a bolerito, because I’m not from Cuba. I do not have those influences. I can’t sing German music because that’s not my job either. While African music, yes, there are some points of reference that link us through the percussions; even if percussions are not the same. Anyway, people in Colombia still receive African percussions as something exotic. Over time, they’ve understood that it is not entirely exotic because they can find them in Colombian music, but they’re still not entirely into them. So that’s why my music embodies the Colombian tradition”.

That’s arguably the reason why her shows are unique experiences. The audience is genuinely moved by her and her musicians’ performances because they’re dealing and listening to an authentic and original concert, different from the music they listen to on an everyday basis.

There are some people who weep, others who shout. Then, there are others who remain doubtful and ask ‘Where does this come from?’. Finally, there are others who are not unsettled, but still very surprised by my music, because those are new sounds for them and they aren’t used to listening to them. That’s very common nowadays, because of the music they play on the radio. They only play commercial music and people are used to that kind of sound. Since it is commercial, it is very far from the music that comes from contemplation, from reflection. They are two types of music that are totally unrelated. One is commercial, it always tells you the same things and gives you the same sound, while the other one is not repetitive at all: it keeps flowing and delivers its messages.

The easiest way to relate to Totó’s music is to fully embrace it: you need to imagine yourself on a calle of her tiny hometown and listen to all the sounds, notes, voices and noises coming from all around you…

If I have to introduce my music to people who never listened to it, then I have to do it pregonando. I’d shout: ‘Come and listen to the music because it’s the only way you can discover it!’. It’s hard, it’s really hard to introduce it using words, because it’s a music that can’t be described: it has to be experienced, felt! You have to listen to it and receive it. It’s almost like when you visit Colombia and you’re from Europe or the US. Before you go there, you are told that it’s a dangerous country and that you risk your life, and there’s a lot of violence. But once you arrive there, you can see how life is, how things go and you finally find the truth, which is completely different to the one you’ve been told. In some ways, that’s the same for music: so, come and listen to my music because it’s the music of the people”.

To close our interview, Totó felt the need to make a final call to her audience and to the people around her. She was keen to highlight how much we are giving up our humanity. We need to recover it by slowing down our lives, rejoicing in the small things around us and instinctively interacting with nature once again.

I think that at this moment in history, we have to make the movement of transmitting the sense of belonging, not only with music, but with all the values that human beings must have. Because at the moment, it is not only Colombia that is convulsed, but the whole world. It is the whole world that has lost its sense of belonging, which is a sense that each country manifests in its own way through its ancestral heritage. That has to start working again, because with modernism and the advance in technologies, students and all the scientists have discovered so many secrets, first and foremost in technology. But, at the same time, we have lost the most important thing that is human connection and contact. We even lost the participation in the happiness and pain of others, we don’t know how to help each other anymore.

For example, if in my case, I arrive here in London to perform and I want to introduce people to my tradition. To do that I need to express the joy connected to my tradition and that joy comes with good food, dancing, music, poetry, colours and everything that Mother Nature offers. You can go to the woods or the park to see the importance of having colours. I say this, because it happened to me when I went to Cuba. When I was there, I saw all the trees and flowers shining when the sun rose. They’re shiny because they had no air pollution. It was wonderful. Sadly, nowadays, everything can be polluted, culture in particular. That’s why we need more colours, music and dance around us. Today more than ever”.

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