Picós Sound Systems: A Nostalgic African Sound in Colombia

Barranquilla has become a catalyst of African rhythms in the Colombian and Caribbean coast.

On January 1 the annual pre-carnival festivities officially began for the carnival that will take place this year at the end of March in Barranquilla, Colombia. Picós (from the English for “pick-up”) are at the heart of these parties taking place in the streets, houses and venues in various popular neighborhoods in Barranquilla and Soledad (a city on the outskirts of Barranquilla).

These retro sound systems, also called turbos, are decorated with fluorescent colors. They have been a symbol and identity of the city for a long time. The ethnomusicologist and musician Andrés Gualdrón says, “The picó sound system was used to musicalize parties, festivals and Carnival festivities in Cartagena and Barranquilla.”

“The presence of records from the African continent started in 1970 in various picós along the Caribbean coast,” says Gualdrón, who has been studying the origins of champeta music. In Colombia these vinyl arrived mostly to Cartagena and Barranquilla thanks to music collectors.

“There were plenty of people bringing African vinyl like Osman Torregrosa and Donaldo García who made a lot of trips into Haití, Guadalupe, Curazao and bought these records in foreign languages,” adds Gualdrón.

Music collectors usually removed their original names to make them more exclusive and avoid people knowing where they came from. Today many picoteros refer to African music as a general classification. However,“the origin of this music was mostly from countries like Congo, Nigeria or South Africa, as well as from the Caribbean – Haiti and French Antilles,” says Gualdrón.

“In Barranquilla the most popular (music) style was Soukous from Congo as well as Caribbean rhythms like Zouk and Soca. There are records that came from South Africa, Cameroon, Kenya, Congo and Central Africa,” says Gualdrón.

Today, more than 50 years since these sound boxes appeared, they still liven up parties in pool halls, bars, houses and streets along popular neighborhoods fostering cross-Atlantic connections with the African-rooted music genres.

OkayAfrica features three exclusive Afro-Colombian picós and picoteros (a DJ who plays this sounds system) to highlight not just the masculine world behind it –generally the owners and DJs are men and the picó names often refer to a male hero, war inconographies or fetichisms – but women ‘picoteras’ who reflects the diverse and a nostalgic feeling to bring back sounds of the African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms from the ’70s.

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