Foremost figure in Afro-Colombian music and the last of a dynasty of master drummers
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The Independent Online

Paulino Salgado Valdez (Batata), singer, composer and drummer: born San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia 1929; (eight children); died Bogotá 24 January 2004.

Nine days of drumming in the Colombian village of San Basilio de Palenque marked the death of the foremost figure in Afro-Colombian music, Paulino Salgado, known as "Batata". Batata was a singer, songwriter and master drummer - the last of the Salgado Valdez dynasty of drummers.

They traced their ancestry back four centuries to Benkos Bioho, the former African king who escaped from the slave port of Cartagena with 10 others and founded San Basilio de Palenque, the legendary "village of the Cimarróns". In 1713 it became "the first free village in the Americas" when the King of Spain gave up sending his troops on futile missions to attack their fortified mountain hideaway.

Known to his friends as "la guanabana" (after a type of fruit), and as "Batata the third", he became steeped in the lumbalú drumming rituals handed down by his father and grandfather, both also nicknamed Batata. In 1961 Batata left his hometown in search of work, initially finding it in a café in the coastal city of Baranquilla.

By the end of the decade he was working as a builder and playing in local groups when the singer and folklorist Totó La Momposina first heard him perform. She soon invited him to work with her and took him to live with her family in Bogotá. She recalls that his contribution to her music was enormous:

At the time that I met him, I knew the bailes cantaos ["sung dances"] of my region, which are of Indian origin mixed with the African and Spanish. But when I came to know Batata's culture, it was a black tradition, and San Basilio de Palenque was one of the first villages where I worked in my exploration and study of traditional music on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

From the late 1970s onwards, Batata accompanied Totó and her group on international tours. They began with a long sojourn in the Soviet Union and then France, which they used as a base to tour Europe for several years in the early 1980s. They famously performed in Stockholm in 1982 when the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez received the Nobel Prize for literature.

Batata's drumming, voice and songs (of which he is said to have composed around 300) have appeared on most of Totó's albums, including La Candela Viva (1993), Carmelina (1996) and Pacantó (1999). However, by 1996 she had reluctantly ceased using him for international tours after drinking binges got the better of him once too often.

But he continued to play with her group whenever they toured Colombia and is fondly remembered as a hardworking, kindly, humorous and loyal man (as well as a notorious womaniser). The manager and producer John Hollis, who has worked with Totó's band for many years, found his absence showed. He said:

He had an incredible touch as a drummer - the sound was profound yet sensitive. He could draw heavy bass tones from deep down in the drum, yet at the same time would coax lighter harmonics from the skin.

Back in Palenque in 1997, Batata met the Colombian film-maker and producer Lucas Silva, who included him in his documentary Sons of Benkos (2000). The two worked for five years on Batata's début solo album Radio Bakongo, which combined Palenque roots music with the influence of the urban Afro- Colombian style champeta criolla and made the link with their African origins by including contributions from various Paris-based Congolese musicians. On its release in 2003, it was immediately listed by Songlines magazine among their "50 world music albums you must own".

Unfortunately, financial problems forced the cancellation of a European tour planned for last summer, and Batata was admitted to hospital in Bogotá in December, later suffering a stroke. As Lucas Silva notes: "The biggest shame is that he died when he was about to make a success. For me Batata was like a Colombian John Lee Hooker or Beny Moré - really a big master."

Jon Lusk