Most of coastal society despised the idea of champeta. Natives preferred dancing salsa, vallenato or the traditional cumbia. Champeta was the music of thugs, a vulgar expression — the music you hid from your parents and rarely admitted to liking if you weren’t from the slums.
The music itself is loud, with a heavy bass. Sure, there are hints of reggaeton, rap and whatever it is Shakira does. At its roots it is distinctly polyrhythmic, similar to jazz or funk. Unlike similar genres, champeta relies on frantic trance guitars, syncopation, metaphysical harmonies, and harmonies that create a feast for the ears.
When champeta record producer Lucas Silva of Palenque Records first heard the sound on the beaches of Bocagrande, which he wrote in a short memoir for Noisey, he felt, “as if the Gods had assembled in a mystical moment to show me the way of the revolution that was brewing.”
It wasn’t until the 2000s, 30 years after its inception, that the omnivorous genre broke out of Cartagena — much like how jazz spilled out of New Orleans and punk out of New York’s lower Manhattan — and overtook Colombia. Record companies began bootlegging albums. Labels mimicked the styling and released records by the emerging Afro-Colombian artists (like Wganda Kenya) and even created their own Spanish renditions of popular songs — Fela Kuti’s 1972 hit “Shakara” became “Shakalaode.”
Today, some 20 years after Silva discovered the rhythms along Bocagrande, champeta has revolutionized modern Colombian music. It’s in commercials, all over the radio, and a handful of the country’s most popular songs of 2016 were champeta hits. Slowly, the genre is occupying the pop-culture spaces reserved for salsa and reggaeton.
Although it is still a relatively new trend in cities such as Bogotá and Medellín, Colombians are finally embracing it — similar to how it took decades for rap music to become mainstream in the U.S. Progressive social clubs like Cartagena’s Bazurto Social Club, Bogota’s Bomba Estéreo, and Medellín’s Champetesburgo are helping the cause.
“You want to listen to champeta, you go to Bazurto,” said Juan Pablo Gaviria Muñoz, a coordinator for Colombia’s tourism board, “Go Thursday. We dance all night.” In June 2016, the government of Cartagena affirmed the genre’s musical significance by officially recognizing champeta as “the music of the region.”
“I believe that the history of music in Colombia is divided into two: before and after the champeta and picó,” wrote Silva, “And if you do not believe it, turn on the radio.”