Totó La Momposina: Latin Legend and Hip-Hop Muse
You may have never heard of Totó La Momposina, but you have heard her sing. Although her face might not be familiar to average modern-day music listener, her ethereal chants were featured prominently on JAY-Z’s 4:44; No ID sampled “La Verdolaga” on “Blue’s Freestyle/We Family,” and harked back to her on countless other songs. Listen to our Tracks & Traces playlist below to hear cuts from artists as diverse as Pacha Massive and Rich Boy — all inspired by La Momposina.
Born in the village of Talaigua on the island of Mompos, the legend began singing in the late ‘60s in and around her hometown. In 1982, she gained international attention when she performed at a celebration for Nobel Prize winner and Colombian literary icon Gabriel Garcia Marquez. La Momposina’s debut, Totó La Momposina y Sus Tambores (1985), and her subsequent album, La Candela Viva (1987), became instant classics upon their release.
Still, La Momposina’s not just the sum of her samples. Minimizing her impact on current day music would be a disservice to her far-reaching influence. The 78-year-old Afro Colombian folk singer took ancestral Colombian music and made it accessible to the masses. Her Andean nation’s biggest exports carried on this tradition: Shakira, Carlos Vives and fellow Latin Americans such as Residente and Lila Downs.
One of the last lyrics of her classic song “La Verdolaga” is “Hay yo la sembré/There I planted it.” No truer words have ever been spoken; thanks to Momposina, music keeps on growing.
Read on for TIDAL’s interview with a legend.
Who inspired you to first start making music? Family members? Which artists?
In my case, good artists inspired me: bolero singers as well as La Sonora Matancera. Daniel Bazanta, who was my father, and the music that my mother brought, which was from her pueblo. My mom was Liba Vides. For me, the woman I most admire is Tina Turner.
[Growing up] there were a lot of accordionists who went to our house so we were always surrounded by music.
When did you know that black is beautiful? Did someone in your family instill you with that sense of pride?
My African decadence comes from my grandfather, Virgilio Bazanta. My grandfather directed a band in Magangué. He was black, well dressed with style and a great musician. Then you start discovering your roots through music — Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, the dynasty of the batata, the dynasty of Paulino Salgado, and others. It’s an infinite number of musicians.
Your music has shown the world the beautiful African and indigenous cultures of Colombia. Who are some current Colombian artists you think are following in those same footsteps?
That’s a really hard question, because, in this moment, I travel a lot and I am looking at new groups, but I don’t know how close they are to the real attitude of defending ancestral music. Also Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto are doing their job.
But I do know there is a group of people proposing to do a festival in Puerto Escondido. I once met a woman from a pueblo and she told me she was a cantadora [female peasant singer]. I asked, ‘Where are the rest of the singers?’ She told me, ‘Nowadays they don’t want to sing this form of music.’ There are solo singers now but not groups of ancestral singers. I did music with a group of artists because ancestral music with tambores was running low and we needed to elevate it to where it would be heard.
How did JAY-Z sampling ‘La Verdolaga’ come about? How did you think the final product, ‘Blue’s Freestyle/We Family,’ came out?
I’m a woman who dreams a lot. So I dreamed that I was in a bar on stage where the girls were dancing. And one of songs was playing in the club. I thought to myself, if I dreamed this it’s because of something. Then, JAY-Z made the proposal and I told him, ‘Yes,’ because when you manage music with real respect then she lets herself be vulnerable. And the song came out really good.
How do you think your influence has impacted today’s artists?
When you make music with love and respect and sense of pertinence…you see ancestral music is given to us by the little birds. So if you deliver it with love and care then they’ll embrace it in any part of the world.
Latin music today is the world’s music. In the U.S. and Latin America, it’s often the voice of the voiceless. What would you want your legacy to be for our people?
I want them to ask themselves: ‘Who am I? Where do I come from? Oh, I’m Colombian. I’m French. I’m Cuban. I’m Puerto Rican. I’m Mexican. I’m English.’ And you’ll always find your ancestral roots. And with music, it’s the same.
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