By Rebecca Bulnes
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Along the Pacific coast of Colombia, where waves crash on the shoreline and the sun bakes the sandy beaches, there is a region known as the Chocó Department. The sounds of a largely Afro-Colombian population fill the air, and they are driven by music. There are, of course, the main staples of the country — salsa, cumbia, and vallenato. But there's so much more.
Chocó boasts an array of exotic and unexpected rhythms unknown to outsiders, such as bunde, currulao, bambazú, and aguabajo. In fact, some are so obscure they aren't even known to all natives. And every day, little pieces of these sounds risk being forever lost in the shuffle of generational progress.
Bridging that gap between old and new, between tradition and vanguard, between Afro-Colombian music and the modern bustle of hip-hop and dancehall, there is another place, known as Choc Quib Town. It's one hell of an interesting find, a state of musical creativity built by three natives fusing their country's most traditional sounds and modern flavors. The trio is as much a product of its geographical location and cultural identity as a representative of it.
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"The Pacific coast is Africa within Colombia," explains Tostao, a member of the groundbreaking act. "And it's the central reason we have a group that sounds the way it does today." Though one-third of Colombia's people are of African descent, many, including these rappers, believe they are not represented in the country's national identity. This was a major driving factor in the formation of Choc Quib Town, which, along with Tostao, comprises brother and sister Slow and Goyo.
"The idea behind the group," Tostao explains, "was to put our Pacific coast on Colombia's musical panorama. You hear about the cumbia and the vallenato, but the Pacific coast region is hardly ever recognized for its music. So we wanted to put our region on the map musically."
In 2000, they formed the group with that goal in mind. It's one they continue to achieve, though the task of defining the group's sound is not exactly cut-and-dried. "We're not a salsa group," Tostao says, "or a folkloric group or a group who does funk or hip-hop. But rather we're a group that fuses those four main elements."
It's a combination he reasons is organic. "It's a totally natural blend. At the end of the day, they're from the same family, those Afro rhythms from Colombia, those of Africa, and those from the rest of the Americas. They all subscribe to the same logic," he says. "Likewise, those Jamaican sounds continue to reflect Afro rhythms. So you see, they all gravitate around a common nucleus."
That resulting fusion is nothing if not harmonious, a perfect marriage of the Latin, urban, Jamaican, and African-derived styles that reached the group members via cities farther inland and from neighbors to the north in Panama. "In those days, when we were younger, we'd hear the music of Renato and other music coming to us from Panama — Panamanian reggae," Tostao says. "Plus there was always salsa. If we hadn't been born and raised in a town with these characteristics, we wouldn't have been able to form these associations and create the music and the fusions we create. It's all related."
But the urban flavor stays front and center despite the far-flung influences that inform the trio's sound. And there's no debating it's the essence of their lyrical approach, in terms of both delivery and substance. "Urban music most typically has a position of relating the black experience and the happiness we experience in our communities," he says. "But it also conveys things with which we're unsatisfied. It also conveys revolutionary thoughts. So we're always posing themes we consider appropriate and of interest to those experiencing them in society at present."
The conscious approach, as well as searing sounds, drew the group enough attention in its homeland to allow a deal in the United States, with indie powerhouse Nacional Records. The imprint boasts a substantial stable of Latin alternative acts, such as Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Los Amigos Invisibles, and Aterciopelados. And it has just released Choc Quib Town's American debut, Oro (Gold). It's a combination of two previous Colombian releases, Somos Pacífico (We're Pacific) and Oro.
"For us, this is something very important, something that was necessary for us to achieve. We've been seeking to release in the U.S. for a long time," he says. "Succeeding in that gives the group a different air. It helps a lot to internationalize us."
So far, so good. Though the album dropped only last week, it has already earned Choc Quib Town an iTunes Featured Latin Track of the Week, a host of critics singing its praises, and a Latin Grammy nod. And if the group members have anything to say about it, which Oro's 16 tracks do in spades, this won't be the last you hear of their gospel of Pacific coast pride.