Totó la Momposina: The Voice of Tradition

There was never even the slightest doubt in her mind. From the moment of her birth, Sonia Bazanta Vides, much better known by her preferred moniker Totó la Momposina, was destined to be a musician.

Of course, her assuredness seems only natural considering that Totó, born in 1948 in Talaigua Nuevo, a town on the Magdalena River in the Caribbean department of Bolívar, became part of the fourth generation of a deeply musical family.

“It’s like I’m in the middle of a continuation,” says Totó, who sees her prolific five-decade career as a highly personal expression not only of respect for her family, but also for the culture of her region. “We have to continue with a musical dynasty, and that’s why I do this; not for fame.”

Her words ring true as she sips on a warm glass of orange juice at a hotel café in Bogotá, soft-spoken to save her voice and with fiery eyes that contrast with her gentle presence, each anecdote underscored by a genuine passion for Colombia and the Caribbean.

Though her music resonates with the pulsing drumbeats, expressive accordions and exotic gaitas of the nation’s northern coast, Totó spent little time living in the region. As a young child, she moved around, settling briefly with her family in Villavicencio before they were displaced to Bogotá after her father received threats for his political leanings.

Ironically, her geographical removal from the Caribbean played a key role in solidifying her musical connection with that culture, as the family house in Bogotá became something of a hotel for a virtual “who’s who” of Colombian folk music, most notably a host of legendary “Costeño” performers.

“The house in Bogotá was a refuge for the Costeños. Many musicians passed through to dance and play music,” she remembers. “My mother brought musicians from our hometown– drummers, accordion and gaita players.”

While receiving a traditional education that focused on skills like growing crops, raising animals and sewing in addition to reading, writing and etiquette, Totó also began her musical education performing with her family as part of a group called Danzas del Caribe (Dances of the Caribbean).

“My first musical studies were in the home. In a family like mine, one simply has musical notes inscribed in the mind and body,” she said.

Eventually, the family began appearing on television, helping the young performer reach an ever-broader audience or “spreading spectacles to the barrios,” as Totó put it. Nonetheless, she maintained a desire to formalize her musical education.

Totó enrolled at the Sorbonne to study music in 1982, a decision that would radically influence her career, honing and expanding her talents outside of the comfort of her home country. Though Parisian culture could hardly be further removed from that of Bogotá, much less the Colombian Caribbean, Totó remembers the French as particularly open to the discovery of new art and music and she found herself exceedingly well received.

Indeed, her first album was recorded in Paris, but her true love remained sharing the music of her roots with new audiences wherever and whenever the opportunity arose. “I sang in the streets, in restaurants, in the metro in Paris– that was always the joy for me– spreading the culture of Colombia,” she recalls.

Officially a published recording artist, her musical growth continued throughout Europe. While Totó refers to Paris as her education, she considers Germany and England to have provided her discipline, and “La Colombí,” as she was referred to in France, gave a myriad of tours around the continent, including more than a hundred in the USSR.

Her career already on an unquestionably upward trajectory, Totó’s most important breakthrough came when Peter Gabriel overheard her singing at a world music concert in France. At his request, she later recorded an album in his home studio, a move that helped propel her to true stardom around the world and particularly in her beloved Colombia.

“I’ve always loved recording– that’s how you really know whether or not you can sing. But I really felt like I was an artist when I recorded with Peter Gabriel,” notes Totó, who described Gabriel as surprisingly shy but overwhelmingly welcoming.

With the backing of such a prominent musician, Totó’s star began rising faster than ever, but throughout it all she remained strikingly humble, always quick to turn the discussion away from herself and back to the music and the culture of her region.

“When you have love for a culture, a country, you’re not thinking about your own impact, but rather the happiness you can bring to people,” she mentions when asked about the impact of fame on her life. “The music is the famous one.”

True to her words, the cantadora remains content playing the role of musical ambassador rather than diva despite her status as a musical legend in her home country. In fact, her only apparent indulgence of showiness comes via her vibrantly colored clothes and headdresses, a reflection of her Costeña heritage and effervescent personality and a sharp contrast to Bogotá’s sea of grays, blacks and browns.

Defying her years, Totó shows no signs of slowing down, having recently given various concerts around Colombia in addition to beginning work on a new studio album and finalizing plans for a German tour this summer. She also boasts some recent high-profile collaborations, notably with Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Calle 13, whose hit song Latinoamerica, for which Totó provided additional vocals, won two Latin Grammys.

“At this moment I’m between the past and the present,” she said. “Ready to place my voice at the service of an entire continent and explain that identity music doesn’t have national boundaries. It’s open space, like a spiritual truth.”

In an impressive continuation of tradition, Totó’s children and grandchildren carry on the family’s musical legacy. All of her nine grandchildren are performers, and she remains optimistic for the future of traditional music in Colombia, a movement she sees as growing thanks to popular interest, despite the setbacks of a mainstream culture too often focused on quick money and short-term projects.

Of course, Totó’s life could hardly be further removed from the concept of instant gratification. Her lifelong dedication to her music and her unwavering assurance of purpose seems refreshingly, uniquely clear, an echo of a simpler era. After all, envy and greed come only when people do something that isn’t right for them, she says.

And music is undoubtedly “right” for Totó la Momposina. By any standard, Totó can consider herself more than a success– a singing, dancing monument to one of Colombia’s most vivid and exuberant cultures and an assurance that the primal, percussive rhythms of the Caribbean will reverberate across a nation for generations to come.

Colombian folk singer Totó la Momposina in concert

Totó gives a concert performance in her typical outfit and characteristically animated expressions.

This text is the property of The City Paper Bogotá and cannot be reproduced or translated without permission (but feel free to share the link!). The photos and videos are used under creative commons. 

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