Smriti Daniel is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Caravan, VICE, and elsewhere. She is a Gabriel García Márquez Cultural Journalism Fellow for 2017.
Once frowned on by authorities, dance parties centered on thumping sound systems are slowly going mainstream.
You hear El Jude before you see it. Its music fills the streets around Mario de Moya’s cantina in Malambo, an hour outside the Colombian port city of Barranquilla. Mario has just returned from a two-hour stint at a local radio station. A big bull of a man, he’s a DJ, but could easily be mistaken for a bouncer. He has been on his feet all day, and his left eye is bloodshot. But tomorrow there is a big party, and El Jude is already demanding his attention.
El Jude is a sound system, or picó, spray-painted in shades of neon, edged in glitter, and lit with multi-colored lights. A picó (from the English “pick-up”) consists of multiple speakers of varying sizes which, when connected, can deliver Afro-Caribbean beats at the desired chest-pounding, eardrum-shattering volume. A DJ who owns and runs such a system, like Mario, is called a picotero. Currently, El Jude has 12 speakers. The biggest—around 6 feet tall—sits on the pavement outside, overlooking a crossroads. A web of smaller speakers is distributed throughout the cantina.
El Jude was baptized with the first syllables of the name of Mario’s father: Juan de Moya. Juan is in his eighties now, and fragile. He sleeps through the music booming out of the sound system he bought from his brother in 1972. Mario took over from Juan in 1984. Mario’s two sons, Pacho and Mario Jr., are also part of the business. Pacho met his wife at a picó, and now their 16-year-old son Eduardo is the fourth generation of de Moyas to be a picotero. El Jude has been at the center of this family for 44 years.
Since the 1950s, picós have been a fixture at parties all along the sun-soaked Caribbean coast, home to much of the country’s Afro-Colombian population. The two towns most famous for them—Cartagena and Barranquilla—are just a few hours apart, but boast their own distinct cultures. The former has tourists flocking to its historic walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The other is a working port town, known for its industry and its annual carnival.
The earliest versions of these sound systems were hung from trees. But over time that became impossible. “In the ‘90s, the picós grew disproportionately in size and power; it was the time of picó concerts, and they could only be used in very large spaces,” says filmmaker Roberto de Zubiria, who made a documentary about the subject. Nostalgic picoteros still remember when the sound systems were so powerful that turning them on at full volume would break water jugs, blast open roofs, and give you a toothache. Mario boasts that at one time El Jude could deliver a sound loud enough to kill a man.
Each speaker, big or small, is guarded by a mesh that doubles up as a kind of banner for the DJ. They all have names and taglines that proclaim legends of prowess. El Jude is immediately recognizable to all by the picture of a debonair young Juan framed by neon lights.
In fact, the picós are the heart of a social and economic network that links DJs with audiences. There are builders who create the systems by hand and artists who decorate them; there are record store owners and collectors of vinyl records. If the picotero is also a producer, as is common in Cartagena but not in Barranquilla, then there are singers, musicians, sound engineers, and visual artists on his roster. A team to transport and assemble the picós is a must, and then there’s event security to consider. Each person is a player in this micro-economy geared specifically toward building, transporting, and operating what have been called mobile cultural spaces.
For the de Moyas, being a family business gives them an edge in a competitive market. For one, they’ve spent decades amassing their vinyl collection. “Music is the most important treasure of each picó,” says filmmaker de Zubiria. “It is the heritage that goes from generation to generation.” The de Moyas’s collection is now at 4,000 vinyl records and counting.
The music that is infamously associated with picós— champeta—has divided Colombian society along lines of race and class. Lucas Silva, a DJ, producer, and the founder of Palenque Records, still remembers the first time he heard it. “It was ‘96 or ’97, and nobody knew anything about champeta, other than that it was out of the ghetto. Everybody was afraid of it; they thought it was dangerous music,” Silva says. It wasn’t played on the radio and many fans were too poor to afford their own collections. Instead, if you wanted to dance to champeta, you went to a picó.
Picoteros can find sweet rewards: fame, wealth, and adoration follow the most successful wherever they go. However, picós are the subject of an ongoing debate in Colombia. Critics allege that champeta is misogynistic and promotes promiscuity, especially among the young and impressionable. At parties, the sound blasting out of the speakers is so loud it raises issues of noise pollution.
But what really tainted the reputation of the picós was a surge in violence. Gang members started bringing knives and guns to events; alcohol and drug abuse made evenings dangerously unpredictable. Seeking a culprit, critics have often looked no further than the music the picós play. “Champeta is blamed for being sexually explicit and promoting violence through its lyrics,” says Joaquín Sarmiento, a photojournalist who has covered the parties for years. “But the same has been said of reggaeton, rap, and hip-hop. You can’t blame lyrics for knife fights.”
The response of the authorities has been to clamp down. In Cartagena, attempts were made to ban champeta. There are strict time limits for parties, and police can now pull the plug if one goes on too long, or if violence breaks out nearby. Clashes between officers and revelers in this city have resulted in deaths.
Mario thinks DJs must adapt to combat the violence. His solution is not to face down aggressors, but to soothe them with music. “The job of the picotero is to make you feel good,” he says. “The right programming can keep people calm.” Some DJs even make “peace announcements” every half-hour, reminding people they are here to have fun and not to fight.
In April, Viviano Torres, a champeta producer and singer, went to a picó party in Cartagena with 10,000 people, and there wasn’t a single outburst of violence, he says. “It was because the state was doing their job, and the venue was well covered. Picós are stereotyped because it’s where poor people, who can’t afford a fancy nightclub, go to have some fun … If they ban it, they will be forbidding the community a moment of joy.”
Torres was part of a group that tried unsuccessfully last year to convince the government to declare champeta an “intangible heritage of Cartagena.” (The group submitted a new proposal this year and is awaiting the verdict.) Torres is glad to see champeta become increasingly popular in bars and clubs in Cartagena’s most touristy, expensive neighborhoods; now more people will separate the music from the violence. Still, he is simultaneously resentful of how all traces of the poor Afro-Latino population that makes champeta is being scrubbed out. “They hire white, blonde dancers to perform instead of people from our community,” he says.
In Barranquilla, an experiment is underway. Recently, Juancho Jaramillo, the cultural secretary of Barranquilla, invited picoteros and key members of the community to discuss the future of the industry. “We asked them, ‘Why have the picós become so violent?’” Jaramillo says. The answer threw the spotlight on the “animators.” At a picó, it is the animator’s job to pump up the crowd. Their announcements are thick with superlatives and promises of amazing entertainment. The picoteros told Jaramillo that when the animators began to trash-talk their competition, it led to tensions between gangs. The violence also seemed to stem in part from people simply getting drunk, staying out too late, and picking fights.
Based on these talks, the authorities in Barranquilla introduced more stringent regulations around the sale of alcohol—now none can be served after 2:30 a.m. After prolonged negotiations, the picoteros also reluctantly agreed to turn down the volume on their sound systems.
Barranquilla’s huge annual carnival took place over four days in February, drawing an estimated 1.5 million visitors. It’s traditionally a period of intense revelry, and Jaramillo’s office thought it was the perfect time to further their collaboration with the picoteros. They chose five neighborhoods and allotted spaces to picós there. Security was provided, and the picoteros abided by the new rules, even reining in the enthusiasm of the animators.
“There was no violence, and there haven’t been any incidents in Barranquilla since then, either,” Jaramillo says. More and more picoteros are signing up to collaborate with city hall now, he adds. He hopes over time that the city will truly celebrate the picó culture. As third-generation picotero Pacho de Moya says, “We grew up with picós. They are our culture. They are in our blood.”