The Chocó region of Colombia sits in the South American nation's northwestern countryside. Bordered by the mountains of neighboring Panama and the waters of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, this small, rural locality is one of the poorest places in the entire country.
Yet it is culturally rich. And it is the birthplace of Latin Grammy-winning rap crew Choc Quib Town.
"We wanted a name that represented where we came from," says rapper Carlos "Tostao" Valencia. "Chocó is the state, Quibdó is the capital, and Town is like the pueblo."
This week, Tostao and his bandmates -- wife, Gloria "Goyo" Martínez, and her brother Miguel "Slow" Martínez -- will be bringing their self-described fusion of "folclor del Pacifico Colombiano, hip-hop de East & West" to Miami for the 2014 edition of the Virginia Key Grassroots Festival. Now in its fourth year, the late-February bash aims to bring "traditional and contemporary roots music and dance from all over the world" to our sunny shores.
Adding a modern, urban twist to Chocó's traditional sounds of chirimía, tambora, and other ritmos influenced by its predominately Afro-Colombian population, Choc Quib Town has been spreading its "rumba, flow, y mucha energía" since the turn of the century.
Tostao and Goya met when they were muchachos in Chocó. Like most neighborhood friends, the two grew apart. They rekindled their friendship years later in 2000 in Cali.
"I already had the idea of starting a band that represented the sound of our region, our upbringing, and told her about it," he recalls. "We told her brother and that's when we reunited, brining together our energies for the project, and here we are."
With an artistic vision and the skills to back it up, the three embarked on a musical journey to Bogotá in pursuit of their dream.
"We were always involved with music," explains Tostao. "But then we started getting involved with rap.
"That's when we noticed that [our] stories were very similar to that of New York -- the streets, the ghetto -- but for us, we wanted to tell the story of our pueblo, a place where there's not much infrastructure, just small towns."
After a decade of hard work, including the release of their second album, Oro, in 2008, which was sold in the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as performances at SXSW, the UK's Lovebox, Netherlands' Parkbox, and other major music fests across the globe, Tostao, Goya, and Slow finally saw their dedication pay off.
In 2010, Choc Quib Town was awarded a Latin Grammy for Best Alternative Song of the Year, among other nominations, for "De Donde Vengo Yo" ("Where I Come From").
"I feel that song describes the situation of the people where we come from," Tostao says.
And much like the meaning behind Choc Quib Town's moniker, their music is more than lyrics on paper.
"'De Donde Vengo Yo' is a song that symbolizes struggle, not only of the people of Chocó, but of Latinos everywhere, Latinos who come to the U.S. It's stupidity to put human and political boundaries on a land where we should live freely.
"I think the U.S. should open its doors to everyone, because we all helped develop the country to what it is today. The U.S. was made by immigrants. Now, it's disrespectful to say 'You're not allowed' to those who helped build the U.S."
Politics aside, Choc Quib Town's music is, as Tostao insists, about "teaching the world our culture and spreading positivity."
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That's exactly what the rapper hopes he, Goya, and Slow will bring to the Grassroots fest, which happens to be their first major headlining event in the 305.
"For us, it's very important. We've had the opportunity to play in many festivals in Europe, Australia, India," Tostao says. "But we've never headlined a mass crowd in the U.S., and the fact that it's happening in Miami, it's a great motivation. It's something beautiful. We hope people enjoy it."
Choc Quib Town. As part of Virginia Key Grassroots Festival. With the Del McCoury Band, Sie7e, Donna the Buffalo, Jim Lauderdale, Locos Por Juana, Spam Allstars, Afrobeta, Driftwood, and others. Thursday, February 20, to Sunday, February 23. Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Beach Drive, Key Biscayne. Four-day festival passes cost $100 and up via grassrootsstore.org. Call 786-409-5261, or visit virginiakeygrassroots.com.