“I am not seeking to be a star on Earth but rather a star in the universe,” once said the living legend of Colombian cumbia, Totó la Momposina. For more than three decades, Totó's voice has floated heavenward. A Latin Grammy nomination this year for her album Pacanto just might bring her the recognition she deserves on terra firma as well.
Totó was born into the fifth generation of a musical family in the Mompos region of northern Colombia. As a teenager in her tiny native village, Talaigua, Totó studied with the village cantadora, an 80-year-old matriarch who gave counsel, performed herbal cures, and led the community in dance and song.
Since the 1970s Totó has toured the world as a kind of global cantadora, promoting Colombian folklore at events ranging from the 1982 Nobel Prize ceremony for Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Tour led by Peter Gabriel in 1991. In the past decade, she has released three of her own albums and lent the reedlike clarity and range of her vocals to a dozen more compilations. The Miss Colombia beauty pageant, an event that rivals that nation's presidential elections in importance, has featured her performance as the epitome of national culture and grace. At long last she is making her debut in Florida.
Well established in contemporary world-beat circuits, Totó performs the music created by the collision of cultures at the arrival of Europeans in the Americas centuries ago. In slavery days the descendants of Africans all along the Atlantic coast married indigenous Cuna and Kogi people. Cumbia was the music of courtship. Dancing with outstretched arms in candlelight, the women swayed their hips to powerful congo drums while waving their skirts to the mournful flutes of the Andes. The men circled around them.
One thing led to another and cumbia gave birth to other genres, such as the bullerengue. Believed by some folklorists to be a fertility dance, others argue that the bullerengue gave women something to do in the aftermath, when pregnancy confined them to closed patios and their condition prevented them from lifting their arms above their heads or swishing their hips with abandon. Almost pure percussion, the bullerengue is a spirited conversation between drums and clapping hands. Adding to that conversation is the slower rhythm of the porro, the erotic frenzy of the mapalé, and Totó's Colombian interpretations of Cuban rumba and son.
“The music I play,” Totó has explained, “has its roots in a mixed race, African and Indian; the music is completely percussive.” As famous for her dancing as for her singing, Totó's body speaks the language of the drums. Folklorists flock to study her every move while audiences sit spellbound by her simplest gesture. As she sings herself: My porro tastes like everything.