6 Times Champeta Stole our Hearts

Posted: 07 Jun, 2016

Ask a foreigner what salsa is, and you can bet your bottom peso that the majority of people could hum a few chords off that Buena Vista Social Club album they got their parents one Christmas, a couple might even surprise you with some rigid steps they picked up from a dance class.

Question them about their knowledge of Champeta, and you’re most likely to be met with a blank gaze or some vague assumption its like reggaeton (it’s not).

Born in the early 70’s, Champeta music established itself on the Caribbean coast as a distinctive urban genre with strong Afro impulses from the Palenque of San Basilo region.

Characterised by a heavy base which enthusiastically blasts out of the picos (loud sound systems), the perreos (parties) have traditionally been regarded as more of a musical mob than a civilised fiesta. In the 80’s Champeta was the outlaw your parents wouldn’t want you listening to: too dirty and depraved for the clean-cut ears of middle class youth.

The city has slowly been changing its tune, with a notable migration to the city centre that’s helped broaden its musical audience. Forward thinking joints such as Bazurto Social Club and Champetú have been tempting the younger generations to get in on the groove.

In June 2016, Champeta music sealed its social-climbing status by being officially declared as the music of the region and the event was marked with a celebration in the centre of town. A huge feat for a musical style usually sniffed at by the elite.

The following photo series, part of an on-going project by photographer Joaquin Sarmiento, charts the most famous pico’s in the barrios of Cartagena and offers a visual slice of life few are exposed to when they pass through town.

1. Party Promotion


In Design who? Champeta promotion is cheap and old-school. People find out about the latest parties passing by hand-made posters in Bazurto Market, through their friends or on the radio.  Local hero, El Runner, ( pictured ) is widely regarded as ‘el artista de las carteles’ (poster artist) of the biggest champeta parties in the city.

2. Champeta Street Style

El Rey de Rocha en Chambacu

You are what you wear at a Champeta fiesta. Clothes express the culture just as much as your dance moves do. So keep your Hollister T in your backpack and go as local possible. Colour, swag and a snapback of course.

3. Youth

La Rumaba Sana, barrio Canapote. La Rumba Sana es un baile para menores de edad donde no se vende licor. Los promotores cobran la entrada y venden Gatorade y bebidas energizantes. Siempre hay un grupo de hombres que consigue encaletar el trago.

La Rumba Sana, meaning the healthy rave, is a youth friendly version of the older pico where they don’t serve alcohol, but the dancing is just as up-close-and-personal as its more adult senior and beer usually mysteriously appears at some point.

4. The Pico

Champeta parties are referred to as Picos, a reference to the most important part of the fiesta: the soundsystems. Which are 6-feet tall, throbbing ghetto blasters. Delicate eardrums, you’ve been warned.

5. Challenging Perceptions

Baile con el Pico el Conde

Champeta is lovingly humble. Languishing on the periphery of society in the not-so-colonial parts of town. Charles King, an icon for the genre describes it as an ‘identity of a community that was stigmatised by the high societies in Cartagena whose judgement was meant to submit this community to social slavery.”

6.Be Part of a Local Tradition

Baile con el Pico el Conde

If you want to get out of your Cartagena comfort zone and see where it all began, head to the Palenque, a place ripe with African spirit, rhythms and culture. Bazurto market  also has plenty of Champeta classics on vinyl/CD if you want to take a piece of the city home with you.

Written by: Clementyne Chambers
Photography by:
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