At 82 years of age, Totó La Momposina has a musical repertoire that can keep audiences dancing in the aisles for hours, and powerful voice that for more than a half century has graced the stage with Colombian song. On Saturday, the country’s leading lady of cumbia ends her legendary musical career with a farewell concert at Festival Cordillera.
As the daughter of shoemaker and drummer, and mother who taught her how to dance and sing to the Afro traditions of the coast, Sonia Batanza Vides was affectionately known to the villagers of Talaigua Nuevo as “Totó” – word that describes someone “small in stature, but big at heart.”
Talaigua Nuevo, a fishing community and trading post located on an islet within the convergence of the Magdalena River, some 200 km south of Cartagena, provided “Totó” with a stage on which to perform, and early start for a singer songwriter who would go on to release Grammy award-winning albums, and perform alongside world renown recording artists, among them Peter Gabriel and his Real World Records.
Inheriting a five-generations deep musical lineage, Sonía was displaced from Talaigua with the rural violence that erupted during the 1950s. From Barrancabermeja to Villavicencio and Bogotá, Totó began touring internationally during the 1960s, and reached international fame when she joined the 1991 WOMAD tour across three continents. At home she is best remembered for accompanying Gabriel García Márquez at official ceremony in Stockholm in 1982 where the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude received his Nobel Prize for Literature.
Known as the “Queen of Cumbia” or “Voice of Colombia,” for Totó, the “stage is a temple. You must respect it. Give one’s heart to the audience. It is a commitment.” From Mompos, the humble origin for hundreds of genres of music – including chalupa, mapale, and bullerengue – to performances in New York, Paris, and Glastonbury, Totó “never lost her sense of belonging,” or global stature as Colombia leading lady of song.
Cumbia is one of Colombia’s most beloved rhythms and dances. A powerfully hypnotic rhythm that along with the dance and costumes is a mixture of Indian, Spanish and African influences. A courting dance that originated between African men and Indian women at a time when the two communities began to mix in the Lower Magdalena Basin. In the gentle, sensual movements, women hold up lit candles as the pairs weave in and out.
But it was the “cantadoras” of cumbia, the women who sang about everyday life, who commanded Totó’s admiration. She studied these women as they sang about mashing corn, washing clothes in the river and growing cassava and plantain behind their huts. This was the music Totó introduced to the world. “My music is at heart of tradition,” believes Totó. “A tradition that like the Magdalena has been flowing and evolving from generation to generation.”
As the recipient of the 2013 Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Totó’s contribution to Colombian song, will resonate beyond her final concert on Saturday. A final farewell yes, but her stage presence will always be embedded in a voice that gave Colombians a cause to celebrate their rich cultural and musical ancestry.
Read the full interview in The City Paper, and cover story.