December 4, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
EARLIER THIS MONTH the Colombian band Aterciopelados performed live on the telecast of the Miss Colombia pageant. In some ways their presence was unremarkable (Colombia's most popular alt-rock band gracing the stage of the country's most popular televised event), but in others it was scandalous. With lead singer Andrea Echeverri cloaked in a pair of flowing white pants and a baggy poncho that obscured her long and wiry body, the band sang their 1998 sleeper hit "El estuche," a song that launches a pointed assault on the conventions of female beauty that the pageant flaunts. "Look at the essence, not appearances," she sang only minutes after the bathing suit walks and the ball gown struts and only one commercial break away from this year's teary-eyed and hand-quivering crowning. "The body is only a shell ... what's inside is what matters."
The pageant took place in the coastal city of Cartagena, a two-hour plane ride from Bogotá, the more urbanized and landlocked city where Aterciopelados began their career in the early '90s. "El estuche" is included on Evolución: grandes exitos (BMG U.S. Latin), a dazzling overview of their career that shows them playing bare-boned rock melodies and also using those melodies to reinvent traditional Colombian music (styles like bolero, porro, vallenato, jaropo) for mosh pits and electronica lounges. In that way, Aterciopelados have always added rock and electro faces to the stories embedded in these sounds and rhythms: Colombia's centuries-old musical mestizaje, the collision of Spanish, African, and Indian that has existed since conquest hit the country's Caribbean coast at the beginning of the 16th century.
That Aterciopelados are more, as Colombians put it, "claro" (so white, they're clear) than "azul" (so dark, they're blue) should be no surprise throughout the Americas, when mestizaje goes multinational, the hues of its Billboard-charting ambassadors usually tip the mestizo scale to the Euro-white side. Look at Colombia's other global pop exports: Juanes, Cabas, Carlos Vives, Shakira. While their sounds are rooted in African and Indian music from Colombia's Caribbean, Pacific, and Atlantic coasts, the musicians don't look African or Indian enough to make teen consumers in Los Angeles or Tokyo actually confront the racial margins of Latin America. It is one of the grand stories of commercial music as it travels through the Americas: how African and Indian music can be audibly present only when they are visually obscured, the dark shadows buried in a lightened mix that wouldn't be possible without them.
The day before the Miss Colombia pageant, also known as "the National Contest of Beauty," was taped in Cartagena's main civic theater, another pageant was held miles away in the city's bullring, "el reinado del pueblo," the beauty contest of the people. While most of Miss Colombia's participants are light-skinned, the women of this crowning are more pueblo, representatives of Colombia's darker and poorer regions who get cheered on by hundreds of their neighbors spilling out from stacked rows of bleachers. The two beauty contests held in Cartagena the city that for years was South America's main port of entry for African slaves reflect the two Colombias, "national Colombia" and "popular Colombia," the Colombia that gets seen and the Colombia that remains hidden (despite being the South American country with the highest African-descended population after Brazil).
Joe Arroyo, Colombia's leading salsero and a native of Cartagena, made the split clear on his song "La rebelión," which told the story of black slaves revolting against Spanish masters. "My brother, I want to tell you a little piece of black history, our history," he began, leading his band La Verdad (the Truth) in refrains that repeated the phrases "perpetual slavery" and "don't hit the black woman." Nina, a new Afro-Colombian pop singer from the Pacific Coast, is a product of that hidden Colombia. Her eponymous debut for EMI comes straight out of the porro tradition of laying swinging brass ensembles of trumpet, tuba, and clarinet over thumping tamboras and crackling snares. But Nina does porro for the global moment. Flowing sung and spoken verses like a Colombian Missy, she plays with it, tweaks it, and makes it her own, leaving hip-hop and ragga footprints wherever she goes. When Nina turns out the folkloric standard "Kilele" she tells us, "It's a dance from the Pacific, but it's my style!" Sequenced beats flutter beneath rollicking clarinets and trumpets as she sings, over and over, "This is the land where I was born."
The Miss Colombia pageant happened the same week as Colombia's independence day festivals. Up and down the beaches of Cartagena, Colombians celebrated the liberation of their country from Spanish colonialism with carnivalesque parties that parodied the era of conquest, complete with men painting their faces black with burnt oil. Everywhere you went there was music, towers of speakers blasting from front porches and transistor radios blaring from restaurant kitchens. Up and down the beach there were huddles of people most of them dark, some light dancing around snare drums and clarinets, wet from the sea that centuries ago turned this old world into a new home.
E-mail Josh Kun at email@example.com.