Totó La Momposina puts an end to a legendary musical career

Toto la Momposina/Teatro Mayor

At 82, Totó La Momposina boasts a musical repertoire that can keep audiences dancing in the aisles for hours, and a powerful voice that for over half a century has graced the stage with Colombian song. On Saturday, the country’s leading lady of cumbia wraps up her storied music career with a farewell concert at the Cordillera Festival.

As the daughter of a shoemaker and a drummer, and a mother who taught her to dance and sing to the Afro traditions of the coast, Sonia Batanza Vides was affectionately known to the villagers of Talaigua Nuevo as “Totó ” – a word that describes someone “small in stature, but big in heart.

Talaigua Nuevo, a fishing community and trading post located on an islet at the convergence of the Magdalena River, about 200 km south of Cartagena, provided “Totó” with a stage to perform on and an early start for a singer-songwriter who would go on to release Grammy-winning albums and perform alongside world-famous artists, including Peter Gabriel and his Real World Records.

Heir to a deep musical lineage spanning five generations, Sonía was displaced from Talaigua with the rural violence that erupted in the 1950s. From Barrancabermeja to Villavicencio and Bogotá, Totó began touring internationally in the 1960s and has achieved international fame when she joined the 1991 WOMAD tour of three continents. At home, she is best remembered for accompanying Gabriel García Márquez to the official ceremony in Stockholm in 1982 where the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude received his Nobel Prize in Literature.

Known as the “Queen of Cumbia” or “Voice of Colombia”, for Totó, “the stage is a temple. You must respect it. Give your heart to the public. It is a commitment. From Mompos, the humble origin of hundreds of genres of music – including chalupa, mapale andbullengue – to performances in New York, Paris and Glastonbury, Totó “never lost his sense of place,” or his world stature as a great Colombian lady of song.

Cumbia is one of Colombia’s most beloved rhythms and dances. A powerfully hypnotic rhythm which, together with the dance and the costumes, is a mixture of Indian, Spanish and African influences. A dance of courtesy that was born between African men and Indian women at a time when the two communities began to mix in the lower basin of the Magdalena. In soft, sensual movements, the women hold lit candles as the pairs weave their way.

But it is the “cantadoras” of cumbia, these women who sing about everyday life, who command Totó’s admiration. She studied these women as they sang about mashed corn, washing in the river, and growing cassava and plantains behind their huts. This is the music that Totó presented to the world. “My music is at the heart of the tradition,” says Totó. “A tradition that, like the Magdalena, flows and evolves from generation to generation.”

As the recipient of the 2013 Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Totó’s contribution to Colombian song will resonate beyond his last concert on Saturday. A final farewell yes, but his stage presence will always be anchored in a voice that gave Colombians a cause to celebrate their rich cultural and musical ancestry.

Read the full interview in The City Paper and the cover story.

Totó La Momposina: the Colombian queen of Cumbia