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"India Song by Mariana Montalvo" from Women of Latin America
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"Todo Sexta-Feira by Belo Velloso" from Women of Latin America
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"Yo Me Llamo Cumbia by Toto la Momposina" from Women of Latin America
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Colombian Diva Toto La Momposina Unites African and Amerindian Roots

The great Magdalena River starts high in Colombia’s Andes Mountains and, on its 1000-mile journey to the Caribbean, the river surrounds the island of Mompos. Though originally inhabited by indigenous people, Mompos was seized by Spanish conquistadors 500 years ago and became a major launching point for the colonization of Latin America. The “Indians” were forced to move inland to the dense forests. But once the Spaniards left, the Indians returned to Mompos, and, soon after, escaped African slaves made their way down the river to Mompos too.

Out of this cultural mix, comes Colombia’s folkloric diva, Totó La Momposina whose Pacantó CD on World Village was released in 2002. The recording puts an updated spin on two historical moments in Colombian musical history: the early melding of Indian and African cultures, and the golden era of Colombian big bands which made cumbia the most important music in Latin America.

Momposina joins Putumayo Presents Latinas: Women of Latin America, a 28-city tour with Chile’s Mariana Montalvo and Brazil’s Belo Vellôso, running from October 8 through November 23, 2004. The three are also featured on a new Putumayo CD, Women of Latin America, that will be released on September 21, 2004.

Born into a family of musicians spanning five generations, Totó learned to sing and dance as a child in the village of Talaigua on the island of Mompos (hence “La Momposina”). Her father was a drummer, her mother a singer and dancer; their household lived with the musical traditions of “la costa.” As a young woman, she traveled from village to village along the Atlantic Coast researching the various rhythms and dances and studying the art of the cantadora.

The cantadoras play a central role in the village culture. These women grow yucca, plantains, and pumpkins in the patches of land behind their huts. Ramona Ruiz—a fine cantadora now in her eighties who tutored the teenage Totó—continues to keep this tradition alive in Talaigua. In this community of peasant farmers and fishermen, Ramona dispenses everything from marital advice to herbal medicine and, as a vivacious chande leader, is able to rustle up a full compliment of drummers, singers, and dancers at a moment’s notice.

In the 1950s and ’60s, some of Colombia’s finest musicians took rhythms they learned along the Atlantic Coast and made cumbia the most important music in Latin America by integrating them into the big band sound of the day. As a result, cumbia is one of the better-known rhythms and dances of Colombia. By some accounts, cumbia originated as a courting dance between African men and Indian women at the time when the two communities began to intermarry. In this gentle, sensual dance the women hold up lit candles as the pairs weave in and out. The dance’s characteristic shuffling steps are thought by some to have evolved from the time when slaves would attempt to dance with shackled legs.

Pacantó is a celebration of both the golden age of the Colombian big bands and earlier melding between Indians and Africans. Tracks alternate between the blasting horns of las bandas and percussion heavy accompaniment of cactus wood flutes, named las gaitas by the Spanish for their sonic resemblance to Galician bagpipes. “The music I play has its roots in mixed race,” says Totó. “The flutes are pre-Columbian, the drums of course are from Africa, and the guitar from the conquistadors.”

Other highlights of the disc include a cameo by Congolese guitar extraordinaire Papa Noel and the rarely heard marimbula (giant thumb piano) plucking the bass lines.

Then there is Totó’s unyielding yet dulcet voice.

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Colombian Diva Toto La Momposina Unites African and Amerindian Roots

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