Meet Totó la Momposina: A Colombian Music Icon

Photo courtesy of Belatina, Latinx
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Totó la Momposina, one of the best-known matriarchs of Colombian music, has helped turn her country’s sounds into humanity’s heritage.

I remember the very first time I heard the voice and saw the figure of the Great Totó la Momposina. It must have been 1999 or 2000, and my family took me to one of her concerts. I was nine or eight years old. Truth be told, there was a lot I didn’t understand about Colombian music or music in general. Hence it is no surprise I didn’t enjoy it.

Back then, my idea about good music was Britney Spears (I remember my brother saying, “Am I really going to give this to my sister as a birthday present?” when I chose Britney’s Oops!… I Did It Again at the record store, and he did buy it) and Shakira for Spanish music. So, when Totó la Momposina came out to the stage and began singing, her music seemed noisy to me, the drums chaotic, and I didn’t understand why someone would sing about fishers. 

Totó’s mother, Libia Vides, an older woman, came out to the stage and sang as well, pushing her daughter to the side. She sang with the broken voice age give those who have been singing their whole lives from the gut. She sang in the “odd” tunning of traditional music, which has not been touched by pop. Of course, she didn’t sing oddly: I had no idea of what I was witnessing. 

As the Ecuadorian cartoonist, Alberto Montt put it recently in his podcast, La vida es increíble, Colombia did with its music what Peru did with its food: turn it into a matter of national pride and humanity’s patrimony. And Totó la Momposina was a crucial character in that process. 

Having her mother sing on stage, being surrounded by drummers playing for hours non-stop, her colorful dresses, everything I didn’t understand back then, was part of the world that makes Colombian music what it is. A world of which Totó la Momposina has been a guardian for over half a century. 

Totó la Momposina was born on August 1st, 1940, under the name of Sonia Bazanta Vides in the Mompox Island, from which she took the name “Momposina,” meaning “from Mompox.” At an early age, the country’s violence forced her family to move to Bogotá, where she began singing and dancing in a folkloric group her mother created. 

By the 1970’s she was touring internationally, and her fame grew so much that in 1982 she traveled with Gabriel García Márquez to Stockholm for the reception of the Literature Nobel Prize. That ceremony was a statement: “This is Colombia: stories, sounds, and colors. And we are proud of it.” The contrast between the other attendants’ dresses and those of Totó la Momposina and García Márquez is staggering in the recordings from the ceremony.   

In the same ceremony, Macondo was crowned as humanity’s treasure, and Totó la Momposina said: “Our music is a treasure as well.”

Her music honors the Indigenous and African descents of the region where she was born. In songs such as “El pescador,” the dialogue between the different drums (bombo, llamador, and alegre), the maracas, and the choirs (almost hypnotized as they sing) are a direct inheritance of Africa. In her song, Totó la Momposina talks to us about the intense relationship between a fisherman, his work, and the nature surrounding him.  

El pescador

Habla con la luna 
Habla con la playa 
No tiene fortuna 
Solo su atarraya

Regresan los pescadores 
Con su carga pa’ vender 
Al puerto de sus amores 
Donde tienen su querer

(The fisherman

Talks to the moon 

Talks to the beach 

He has no fortune 

Only his fishing net

The fishermen return 

With their load to sell 

To the port of their beloved ones 

Where they have their love)

In others, such as “Dame la mano, Juancho,” the encounter between the African and Indigenous cultures is felt in the African drums and the gaitas: a Colombian wind instrument with its own non-Western tunning.  

Totó la Momposina’s legacy made possible the next significant steps of Colombian music: form Grupo Bahía to Puerto Candelaria and Systema Solar, all of them have drunk from her work. 

Nowadays, when I hear her voice and go back to when I first saw her, I am thankful because I know I am listening to something deeply rooted in my blood, which has no other name than the sounds of my country’s music.