This project is an ongoing exploration of the soundsystems of Colombia’s Caribbean littoral, known as picós, or picoteros, which developed from early 1950s and 1960s console home stereos into, by the 1990s, vast walls of bass cabinets transported by truck and powered by racks of amps.
The topic remains the subject of drunken, late-night arguments in sultry verbenas, the outdoor patio bars of north-coastal Colombia. Clutching cold Aguila beers, sitting in white plastic chairs under the palm trees, old-timers still debate how it was that the first slabs of West African vinyl made it across the Atlantic Ocean and onto the ghetto turntables of the sound systems of Cartagena and Barranquilla. Some say the music arrived via a Congolese seaman who once came ashore to enjoy some R and R, but which of those two rival Caribbean cities did he visit, and who got their hands on one of his records and played it first?
The definitive truth of how recordings of West and South African music became the rage of Colombia’s Caribbean coast in the 1970s, 80s and into the 90s has likely been clouded forever; it has been absorbed into the creation myth of more than one of these gigantic and rabidly competitive mobile discotheques. What is certain is that by the 1980s these “orchestras of the poor” each had arsenals of carefully guarded exclusive records, procured by various means from all corners of Africa.
Fanatical crowds of followers supported their favorite sound systems with the religious devotion of football fans. Thousands went to parties just to hear obscure African records converted by the deejays into indigenous hits, and a pico with a great selection of otherwise unheard music was assured of fame and respect all along the costa. In the pre-internet period, dealers traveled to Lagos, Kinshasa and Johannesburg in search of fresh stock, scraping the labels off of the vinyl they brought back so that often not even the sound system owners and the deejays knew the true titles and origins of their own hit tunes. One-of-a-kind records traded hands for princely sums.
As these systems came to dominate the weekend social life of the popular quarters of Barranquilla and Colombia, a rich visual language emerged in tandem with this overwhelming auditory phenomenon. Particular sound systems, like El Guajiro and El Conde of Cartagena (the “indian” and the “count,” respectively) and El Rojo, El Gran Che, and El Timbalero of Barranquilla (the “red one,” the “Great Che,” and the “Timbale Player”) came to be perceived as representative of particular barrios. In addition to their exclusivos, the competitive currency of these systems included raw power and volume, clarity, song selection and the personality of the deejays as expressed on the microphone.
Gigantic towers of sound, the picos are decorated with ornate day-glo murals, projecting a kind of super-hero iconography of cartoon warriors marching off to do musical battle. There is “El Guajiro,” depicted as a savage Indian from the remote and untamed province of La Guajira, shown shooting an arrow at a supplicating colonial in a top hat, which happens to be the emblem of the competing sound system “El Conde,” shown as a refined Spanish count, with a monocle and waxed mustache. “El Rojo” of Barranquilla, the red one, is represented by a coiled and snarling, cobra, ready to strike.