From Colombia: Secret Service exploits, and the sound of champeta

Way cool parties, a driving beat -- and a highly suggestive dance to go along with it all

By Michael May

In Cartagena, a wall covered with posters for champeta shows. (Lombana)

There’s no excuse for the embarrassing, extremely unprofessional conduct of members of President Barack Obama’s Secret Service team, who cavorted last weekend with prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia.

No doubt these men are regretting the moment they ordered that second bottle of Absolut vodka in a Cartagena nightclub. Perhaps men trained to defuse bombs and shoot a mosquito at 200 yards were not prepared for the influence, or ramifications, of Cartagena’s party culture and the local booty-shaking rhythm known as champeta.

Cartagena sits on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and its people are largely descended from slaves brought over  from Africa. The word champeta means, literally, a large knife like a machete and has been used in a derogatory manner to describe coastal villagers as poor and working class. In the 1970s, the people here developed a unique musical style that combined elements of African music with salsa and funk.

The locals named it champeta, turning a source of shame into an expression of pride. The area became a destination for huge dance parties where DJs would stack up multicolored speakers and blast champeta till dawn.

The music inspired its own very sexy dance form. Warning: do not watch these videos or attempt these moves if you are supposed to be protecting the president of the United States.

Like all great genres, the music continues to evolve, bringing in influences from far and near. The evocatively named Elio Boom has added a healthy dose of Jamaican dance-hall.

The music, like the region, seems to have been fairly resistant to outside influences. Champeta remains a homegrown phenomenon that one probably should experience at one of Cartagena’s legendary parties in the barrio. But in the past couple years, the sound has started to spread, along with the Colombian diaspora, who have infused the music with electronica, hip-hop and even some avant-garde stylings.

Here’s Los Reyes del Perreo taking some euro-dance music conventions, mixing it with champeta, and inventing new things to do with a laptop and a set of digital drums.

And, from a group of Colombians in the U.S., the group Plastic Caramelo has invented a champeta-influenced melange called glampeto that evokes M.I.A.

And, finally, the DJ Qurrambeat is bringing champeta, already, into the 22nd century.