Pop: The village voice returns!

The singing, dancing Toto La Momposina headlines a festival of Colombian music at the Barbican this weekend. Philip Sweeney wonders whether her traditional cumbias and porros are the best reflection of her country's taste
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The Independent Culture
In seeking to diversify away from "high Western culture" and targeting local ethnic communities, the Barbican Centre should be commended for turning the spotlight on Colombia. In purely musical terms, Colombia is an extremely significant chunk of Latin America, being the third largest record market after Brazil and Mexico and rich in both traditional styles and modern pan-Latin popular stars. London's Colombians are a significant community: they form the capital's biggest Latin American population and the largest Colombian community outside the American continent, having swelled to more than 50,000 since the first arrivals (mainly from the region of Cali) were recruited for menial hospital and catering jobs in the early 1970s.

Whether this weekend's mini-festival, "Colores de Colombia", is quite what London Colombians, as opposed to London world music fans, need is less clear. The two constituencies have their own tastes, which overlap but don't coincide - the diet of the latter being selected in a haphazard fashion by festival organisers and record companies like WOMAD and its Real World label.

Toto La Momposina, the headlining artist of "Colores de Colombia" (ads for which currently adorn the pages of London Latin papers like Cronica Latina), is essentially a traditional performer. Above all, London Colombians like salsa, the modern, industrial pan-Latin dance form whose Colombian centre is the city of Cali and they get a steady live supply of this, via erratically organised concerts from visiting American, Puerto Rican and Colombian star bands. At London Colombian clubs like "Bilongo" in Green Lanes, more interest was expressed in the salsa ball at Olympia next weekend, which will include the band of Tito Gomez, formerly lead singer in Cali's top salsa band, Grupo Niche. Eyebrows have also been raised at the Barbican's inflated publicity description of Toto as "one of Latin America's greatest singers", while her special guest, lower down the bill, the veteran Cuban country singer Celina Gonsalez, is considered of far greater stature.

So who is Toto La Momposina? A singer, dancer and researcher, daughter and mother of musicians, named after the Caribbean coastal island of Mompos where she was born, with almost 30 years' work, mainly outside Colombia, behind her. The first time most London Colombians heard of her was in 1992, on an evening still remembered for the coup de theatre of Toto's performance. Joe Arroyo, one of Colombia's biggest tropical stars, was billed at the Empire Leicester Square, and Toto, who had been adopted by the WOMAD organisation the previous year, was in the UK between world music festival dates. Toto's tour manager suggested to the organisers that she open for Arroyo, and the audience was knocked out by this unexpected traditional drum group and its folklorically dressed leader, wailing out the old cumbias, porros and bullerengues homesick Colombians still love to dance to in the breaks from modern dance music at parties. Hands were held aloft in simulation of the lit candles the white-dressed women brandish in the traditional cumbia dance, more aguardiente was consumed, and an elated Toto barged back on stage later to duet unannounced with a surprised Joe Arroyo.

Toto repeated the act at Arroyo's next London gig the following year but the surprise element was lost, and after playing a few London Colombian parties, Toto went back to the international concert and festival circuit with increasing success. A sold-out South Bank performance last year led the Barbican to contract her as the star and artistic director of its "Colores de Colombia" package.

If Toto La Momposina's figurehead status does not make "Colores de Colombia" a true picture of modern urban Colombian music, it does nevertheless offer a fascinating insight into traditional styles that are surviving - just - but need all the help from artists like Toto they can get.

Toto learned her art in the villages of Colombia's Caribbean coast, crucible of the dance and song forms that resulted from the mixture of African, Amerindian and Hispanic ingredients, and where the local cantadora and her flute and drum accompanists were still on daily call for courtships, weddings, funerals, spontaneous merrymaking and doubtless the occasional bar mitzvah. Although modern bands from the 1940s to the present day, have adapted the traditional rhythms, notably the cumbia, it is only a dwindling population of country dwellers who espouse the full range of authentic old styles. And another minority audience at the opposite end of the social spectrum, intellectuals: one of Toto's most prominent gigs in 1982 was in Stockholm, for the Nobel Prize ceremony, at the invitation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was receiving that year's award for literature.

Toto has selected half a dozen interesting, varied artists as supporting acts for the "Colores" weekend: from Cimarron, a septet specialising in the joropo plains harp music, to the Manga Brothers, roots practitioners of the wild vallenato accordion music made massively popular in rock form by the current Colombian megastar Carlos Vives. Why not someone like Vives himself? Because she does not want commercial music, as purveyed by the big record companies, Toto says. There are financial reasons too, the promoters add. It was felt that the limited budget should go on Toto's own show, and a good selection of back-up acts.

Never mind, "Colores de Colombia" will act as an eminently satisfactory introduction to Colombian music, thanks in part to the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers, who subsidised the weekend. Maybe next year some Cali narco-philanthropist can be persuaded to stump up a little cartel petty cash, which should comfortably cover the mega-fees demanded by Carlos Vives, and then we can see the rest of the picture.

n 'Colores de Colombia' runs Sat-Sun, Barbican Centre, London, EC2; Toto plays 7.30pm Sun. Booking and information: 0171-638 8891