A report by Saeed Saeed for The National.
Toto La Momposina wants to go outside.
We are seated in the lobby of the Abu Dhabi hotel for our interview when she abruptly stands up and strides to the outdoor patio.
Once the gentle sun raise hits her face she breaks out into wide nostalgic grin.
“It reminds me of Colombia,” she says. “The weather is really beautiful and it makes me think of home. This is a good feeling to have before the show. It is like a premonition.”
For the last five decades La Momposina has been taking a piece of Colombia with her with tours of Australia, Europe, North and South America.
It is a storied journey which took the 77-year-old from the villages of Colombia to the bright lights of New York City and, tonight, the Louvre Abu Dhabi where she will perform a career retrospective of the various folk songs and dances of her homeland.
“I don’t really approach the shows differently,” she says. “And that’s because everything about the music is very interconnected. All I do is perform the best that I can and I hope the people will enjoy it.”
Chances are they will as La Momposina’s show is more than a mere cultural showcase.
Performed with her eight-piece band, the material stem from intensive deep research into her homeland’s indigenous culture with its mix of African, Caribbean and native Indian influences.
Born in the island of Mompos in Colombia’s mountainous Bolovar region, her father was a shoemaker by day and in demand percussionist at night; while her mother was an accomplished singer and dancer. Determined to instil pride in the family’s African-indigenous ancestry, jam nights with local musicians were hosted every weekend which often ended at dawn.
The approach worked; from her teenage years La Momposina dedicated herself to reviving Colombia’s indigenous songs and dance after decades of neglect.
“A lot of it has to do with colonisation,” she explains. “And then there was the governments in Colombia who never acknowledged them as actual dances. It was viewed like something from the past and not relevant today.”
La Momposina’s career was formed after undertaking an almost year long trek in across the mountains and coastal villages of Colombia, in the early 1970’s, as part of a study group researching the way of life by indigenous communities.
It was an odd crew, she recalls with a laugh: “There was a researcher, a photographer, a film maker, some students and then there was me, this dancer.”
But La Momposina appearance served a purpose, she would go to each village and learn their songs and dance. In return would teach the cultural traditions of the prior area visited.
When asked to explain the key characteristics of some of the unique songs and dance of Colombian villages, La Momposina is hesitant.
“It’s not really as simple in that you explain it in with words. You can tell the difference in the sounds and sight” she says. “For example, some of the drum rhythms change from village to village, which makes people dance in a different way but still they are linked together. There is no point where you say, yes this is clearly African influence there. It is like many of our faces. I mean, if you look at mine you will see African, Indian and even Chinese parts. It all comes together.”
Taking all that knowledge, coupled with La Momposina’s skill in performing bailes cantados – a form of music made of heavy drum patterns, palm claps, repetitive choruses and every day lyrics – she took her performance abroad; the first stop was none other the famed Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
“This was the late seventies and we had a residency at Radio City Hall,” La Momposina recalls with excitement. “Colombia’s coffee federation sponsored our show as a way to show our culture and we would play four shows a day over a couple of month. It was really interesting because people never really saw anything like what we did before. They really enjoyed it and it was the same for us.”
While the Colombian government still not fully acknowledging the cultural practices of its indigenous communities in that period, it was up to one of its biggest cultural exports to showcase it on the world stage. La Momposina remembers receiving a phone call from author Gabriel Márquez’s management with an invite to accompany him to Stockholm to receive 1982’ Nobel Prize for Literature.
“He was a very deep thinker,” she says. “Gabriel was humble and easy going. What he wrote in his books, if you noticed, is that he often writes about the daily lives in the villages. That’s why when he wanted that prize he want to show people the things he was writing about.”
La Momposina’s growing acclaimedinternational tours dovetailed nicely with the emergence of world music as a bonafide music genre. 1991 saw her hitting countries such as the UK, Japan, Germany, Spain and Finland with the Womad Festival. After the trek she recorded her debut international La Candela Viva at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in the UK.
The association didn’t hurt, the 1993 album reached high in the world music charts and remains a distillation of La Momposina work. El Pescador, a fisherman’s tune, is propelled by incessant percussion and passionate vocals. La Sombra Negram, which pays tribute to the music brought over to the Colombian villages by black Cubans, is a heaving mass of rhythm while La Acabaciónis funeral song with a swaying rhythm used by villagers from San Basilio de Palenque to accompany the dead to the grave.
With the album receiving a re-release, under the title of Tambolero, La Momposina is excited that a younger generation discovered her work. Among which are a legion of DJs and hip-hop producers who laced some of those heady rhythms into their own work.
The latest artist dabbling with La Momposino’s work is none other than Jay Z. The hip-hop titan sampled La Momposina’s song La Verdolaga for Blue’s Freestyle/We Family, a bonus track on this year’s acclaimed album 4:44.
“I haven’t heard it,” she says with a laugh. “But I will tell you something. I had this dream once where I am in a big club and I was dancing in one of the cages before I slide down this pole and into the dance floor. Well I will not be doing that now, but maybe someone else will. The dream could have been a premonition.”
Toto La Momposina will performing the plaza of Louvre Abu Dhabi on Tuesday at 9pm. Tickets are from Dh200 from www.louvreabudhabi.ae