Words by Camila Navas Röthlisberger
Photos by David Micolta
Cumbia and champeta are some of the rhythms that come to mind when people think of music in Colombia. Nowadays, however, reggae and dancehall are also becoming familiar sounds for many Colombians.
While dancehall can now be heard across the country, its arrival in Colombia can be traced through San Andrés and Isla de Providencia (also known as Old Providence), islands on the Northern Coast of Colombia that were once settled by the English, and which retain a distinctive Creole culture.
An English-based Creole continues to be spoken on the islands, centuries after control passed to Spanish hands. As such, many islanders identify with music and culture from other parts of the Caribbean, sometimes more so than those of Colombia. Ask an islander about their favorite music, and they will likely offer a lengthy list of classic reggae, soca, calypso or zouk songs.
Music is never a pure entity, always picking up from other sources, and the music that has emerged from Colombia’s islands is no exception. But how did islanders start a dancehall movement, and give it their own mark?
Colombian deejay Big Mancilla performing at Jump Fest in Bogotá, in May
As Caribbean sounds made their way to San Andrés, for many fans of the music, their interest grew beyond merely swapping CDs and enjoying the sound at parties. It became a question of soul, beats and rhythm. Soon, local artists were making their own music in both Creole and Spanish, influenced by dancehall pioneers such as Yellowman, Patra and Shabba Ranks, among others.
Out of this, a revival arose. In 2005, Heartan Lever (also known as Jiggy Drama) teamed up with producer Benny Bajo and deejay Curry G to form S.A. Finest, and began producing their own music. Later, DJ Buxxi and the duo Hety and Zambo joined this musical movement. At first, the sounds the collective created were referred to as dancehall, but later they came to be known as Mode Up, a mix of dancehall with styles of music that were being produced in continental Colombia.
With this, these musicians created what people in the rest of the country could identify as San Andrés dancehall, and they began traveling within the country to promote their creation. In more recent years, dancehall from the islands has expanded even further, as local artists have spread their sound through social media, and taken their music on the road to shows outside of the country.
Stylo G with Andrés Shaq of El Freaky Colectivo
One act in particular that has emerged as ambassadors for dancehall and global bass culture in Colombia is Bogotá-based El Freaky Colectivo.
El Freaky is an audiovisual collective comprised of MC and VJ Andrés Shaq; DJs Mike Style and Kmmy Ranks; and visual artist Fat Sugar. (Production for much of El Freaky’s original tracks is handled by Benny Bass from San Andrés, while Frank the Doctor out of Puerto Rico often handles engineering duties.) Their own original musical productions, which combine Latin folklore, dancehall and African influences, including soca, calypso, champeta and other sounds deeply rooted in the cultures of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, have gained a following both inside and outside of the country.
El Freaky has also asserted the place of the DJ in this burgeoning culture, putting their own Colombian spin on the traditional Jamaican sound system. In 2008, they began presenting parties, with a collective principle in mind: thus, a single party could include MCs, DJs, audiovisual creations, and both hip-hop and dancehall dancers. The group has brought such well-known international artists such as Shaggy, Kafu Banton, Calle 13 and Tego Calderón, among others, to perform with them at events in Colombia. El Freaky has made it to musical melting pots such as New York (where they worked with pan-tropical DJ crew Que Bajo), Miami, and Boston, where they played at the party of a Harvard professor known for his work in beat research.
San Andrés’ DJ Sammy Proo works the turntables at Jump Fest in Bogotá
Recently, El Freaky has launched a festival concept that gathers dancehall, hip-hop and alternative bands into one party. Jump Fest was launched in February of this year in Medellin and Bogotá, with the presence of famed hip-hop DJ and engineer Young Guru, of Roc-A-Fella Records fame. Three months later, on May 2, the second edition of Jump Fest in Bogotá included presentations by UK-based Jamaican dancehall artist Stylo G, French DJ Wax Tailor and local acts such as Hety and Zambo, Kings of Creole, Sammy Pro, Mike Style and Sir Phillis. (Busy Signal was also scheduled to perform, but was ultimately unable to). Locals, islanders, tourists—whatever the origin of attendees, the infusion of energy, joy and music was universal, thanks to Freaky-style beats and the collaboration of the artists.
El Freaky—who just teamed with Gyptian for their latest creation, the single “Summer Now”—promise more editions of Jump Fest later this year in Bogotá, Medellin and San Andrés, with guests including Just Blaze and A-Trak. Meanwhile, in September, one of the most important events for Caribbean music in Colombia, the Green Moon Festival, takes place in San Andrés. With a lineup that has included such artists as Morgan Heritage, Edwin Yearwood with Krosfyah and Kassav over the last few years, this long-running annual event ensures that island music culture will continue to be well represented in San Andrés for a long time to come.
Stylo G gets the Colombian mamis wining up at Jump Fest, Bogotá
Hety and Zambo take it to the air at Jump Fest
UK dancehall artist Lisa Mercedez at Jump Festival in May
DJ Mike Style of Freaky Colectivo holds up some prized vinyl