BOGOTA, Colombia - For the descendants of African slaves who populate Colombia’s poorest, most corruption-ridden corner, music has long been the most natural of distractions from a very hard life.
And so it is for ChocQuibTown, a soulful, hip-hop trio in the running for the year’s best Latin-Rock/Alternative Album at the Grammys on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles. Their music is a soapbox that you dance to.
“De Donde Vengo Yo” (Where I Come From), which won Best Alternative Song at the Latin Grammys in November, is a spirited lament of the hard-luck life: multinationals and corrupt politicians get rich off gold and platinum; poor blacks get run off their land by illegal militias.
Forty-five percent of the 450,000 inhabitants of the band’s home province of Choco, which is along Colombia’s northwest coast bordering Panama, has been uprooted, while 70 percent live on less than a dollar a day. Paved streets, electricity and running water are rare.
“Everyone drinks whiskey. Everyone rides a moto(cycle). Everyone wants a car - except us,” runs a refrain from “De Donde Vengo Yo.”
“Everyone wants to get out of here - but hasn’t managed.”
ChocQuibTown is a brother (Slow), sister (Goyo) and her husband (Tostao). They fuse traditional rhythms of the northern Pacific coast with urban hip-hop, salsa and other genres, from funk to reggae.
Their name is where they’re from: their province, Choco (Choh-KOH); its capital, Quibdo (Keeb-DOH).
Their Grammy-nominated album “Oro” (Gold) takes on the exploitative nature of the mineral trade: Most Chocoanos who mine it barely eke out a living.
“We are living the hardship of Choco’s ‘development,’ from the corruption to the natural disasters - and always molding our music with it,” the band’s leader, Carlos “Tostao,” Valencia said.
The group, which is attending the Grammys and performing during its pre-telecast ceremony, has released two records and is now finishing recording a third at the Hit Factory in Miami. The album, as yet untitled, is to include 10 songs and will feature the Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderon.
Gloria “Goyo'”Martinez, 28, and Miguel “Slow” Martinez, 24, formed the band with Tostao in 2000 after growing up together near Quibdo. The three are better off than most Chocoanos (they still live in the city, though they’ve toured Europe and the United States).
The Martinezes’ father is an electrician who specializes in sound equipment, their mother a well-known performer – “juglar” in Spanish - who preserves the Pacific region’s musical traditions, transmitting its oral history through song. Valencia’s mother is a school principal and social worker.
Goyo has a psychology degree. Tostao, who fell for her when the two were teenagers, studied communications, Slow sound engineering.
Slow was the neighborhood disc jockey growing up, thanks to his father’s vinyl record collection, which was heavily laced with the salsa of the group Gran Combo of Puerto Rico and Michael Jackson, a big influence on ChocQuibTown.
After a few years playing bars up and down Bogota’s 7th Avenue, often without pay, the band got its big break in 2004. It won a $5,000 prize at the Hip Hop al Parque festival and that bankrolled the musicians’ first record.
Mario Munoz, vocalist of the Colombian rock band Doctor Krapula, thinks it would be a great service to Colombian music if ChocQuibTown were to gain a wider international hearing.
And that’s not just because he’s pals with the band.
“We need to bring some recognition to our authentic offerings,” Munoz said. “The image Colombia has abroad is Shakira, Juanes and aguardiente (the anise-flavored local firewater), and that’s not all there is.”
To Tostao, it’s important to put a magnifying glass to Choco, a region whose suffering has long drawn the attention of international human rights groups and even the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus (blacks represent up to 18 percent of Colombia's 45.8 million people).
Choco, home of Colombia’s highest infant malnutrition and mortality rates, is running a $200 million deficit, says its interior secretary, Mauricio Pineres. Pineres estimates it only gets about 22 percent ($30 million) of the mining royalties to which it is entitled. The reasons: tax evasion and illegal mining.
“In the Pacific, we’re not asking for charity,” stresses Tostao in the AP interview. “We are only asking for the same highways that the rest of the country has, the same good health care system, a serious education system and decent-paying jobs.”
But don’t think ChocQuibTown is all about gloom -- just like “Colombia is more than cocaine, marijuana and coffee,” to cite a riff from the group’s “Somos Pacifico” (We are the Pacific).
In Colombia, laughter and levity have always co-existed with frustration and tears.
“We know that everything isn’t rose-colored, but there is also a Colombia that likes to party and dance,” Goyo says.
“And that’s part of our project.”
Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.