Champeta Criolla

champeta star Louis Towers


Champeta Criolla (criollo and criolla means Creole) is an Afro-Colombian music style and dance from Cartagena and Barranquilla, in the Caribbean coast.

The champeta is a hybrid style made up of the rhythms of the Caribbean, Cumbia, Compás, Soca, Calypso, Reggae; combined with the sounds of several countries of the African continent, such as Soukous, Mbaqanga, Bikutsi, Highlife, Juju and Congolese rumba. They were intertwined and gave way to a new style in the barrios (districts) of Cartagena (Colombia).

The lyrics are usually satirical. It is also known as terapia criolla. Its birth was favored by the Festivales de Música del Caribe (Caribbean Music Festivals) that were held in the past. Also, in the 1960s, sailors coming from Africa arrived to Cartagena, bringing with them albums bought at various ports during their nights of folly. There were recordings by Prince Nico Mbarga (Cameroon-Nigeria), the Oriental Brothers (Nigeria), Tabu Ley Rochereau & Mbilia Bell (Congo), and a long list of the Highlife masters. Thanks to these anonymous travelers, coastal Caribbean Colombia had thousands of youth who dreamed of forming their own groups to play Soukous and Highlife in the streets.

Local DJs added their influence by playing original African hits, combined with champetas, in the parties where they turned tables.  “Picos,” sound systems, sometimes mounted on trucks and vans introduced introduced recordings from Africa and the Caribbean, genres such as highlife, afrobeat, compas, and soukous.  Later, the AM and FM radio stations began to do the same during their regular programming or with specialized shows.

The first Champeta pioneers appeared in the 1970s. During the Golden Age of the Colombian hippy movement, Wganda Kenya was formed. The leader was one the current international salsa kings, Fruko. A few years later, Joe Arroyo arrived with his La Verdad orchestra. It took over and continued the exploration with a fusion of salsa, soukous & Haitian compas.

Champeta, as a musical phenomenon, began to be accepted by the remaining social strata of the city, different from the one that gave it birth. The social prejudices of the people who form those social circles are giving way in the face of the overpowering force of this rhythm. The most famous champetas are listened to and danced to with less modesty in the social clubs, discos and family dances in the great city of Cartagena.

The name of this musical movement, Champeta, was demonized in its early stages by some of its critics in Cartagena, due to the social prejudices that through time have been rooted in it. Champeta came from the lower classes and critics alleged that even its name came from the brawls, that with a knife known as champeta, were started by people attending sound system dances in the various barrios.

Another version is that its origin comes from the Creole language. Champeteaux means something characteristic of the people. It would be reasonable to say, therefore, that the musical movement known as champeta means Music of the People.

Champeta is a sleeping giant that woke up in the face of the music world, without any backing from the cultural authorities. Today, champeta is part of the hits in the playlists of several tropical format radio stations in the Caribbean city. Even if only a few admit it, Joe Arroyo  is the king of Champeta because most of his inspiration comes from African music. However, the irrefutable fathers of this music are the black maroons from the San Basilio village of Palenque, near Cartagena. Viviano Torres with his group Anne Swing, Justo Valdés & Son Palenque, the group Kussima with Hernán Hernández. Without them, this musical movement would not exist today.


Vacile Efectivo de la Champeta Criolla: A New African Music from Colombia


In 1998, Palenque Records was formed with its first album, Champeta Criolla- New African Music From Colombia- Vol. 1. It was the first Champeta record published outside the Caribbean.

A group known as Champeta All Stars has toured Europe since 2002. Some of the bigger names are Boogaloo, Louis Towers, “El Razta,” and Melchor Perez.

The Dance of the champeta

In their public performances, each artist is usually accompanied by female Creole dancers who, initially, learned to dance soukous, influenced by African artists (Yondo Sister one of the best) who came to the Festival de Música del Caribe and by watching the music videos brought from Africa, Europe and United States brought by Cartagena music producers, who traveled to those places to seek original recordings that they later used in the picós (sound systems) and turned into exclusive songs that could not be found in the local record stores. Later, these Creole dancers opened the way to their creativity and they invented their own form of dancing the champeta, with novel forms such as la camita (the bed), la borracha (the drunk), etc.

Champeta recordings

* Vacile Efectivo de la Champeta Criolla: A New African Music from Colombia ((Palenque, 2003)
* Champeta Criolla, Vol. 2 (Palenque, 2003)
* Reyes De La Champeta (Yoyo, 2005)
* Colombiafrica – Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land by Mystic Orchestra (World Music Network/Riverboat, 2007 )
* Palenque Palenque! Champeta Criolla & Afro Roots in Colombia 1975-91 (Soundway Records, 2010)

This article includes material kindly provided by Mr. Manuel Reyes Bolaños, translated by Angel Romero. Additional sources include Champeta Criolla International, Soundway Records, and World Music Central. [updated January 3rd, 2018]

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.