Lucas Silva, who also goes by his DJ alias Champeta Man, has pioneered record production and cultural promotion for the Afro-Columbian community in Colombia since 1996 with his label Palenque Records. Already with a catalog of close to twenty releases and several more in the works, the label focuses primarily on Afro-Columbian projects while also extending to champeta, Pacific and African sounds. Silva is passionate about finding music that’s forgotten by the record industry or that has never been studio recorded, and reaching out to the communities where those musical traditions still thrive. Throughout his projects, his work centers on enabling Afro-Columbian musicians to become working artists and to have a global platform to share their traditions.
With champeta and Afro-Columbian music now in the national eye with recent commercial hit’s, Silva finds himself with an expanding audience. Prepared with versatile production style, the majority of his records follow the format of classic studio sessions with live musicians while others are produced digitally with remixes solicited from electronic producers worldwide. His work continues to evolve as he experiments with the label, with new albums by Sexteto Tabulo, Faraon Bantu and Son Palenque in the works. Future projects may soon extend to the likes of a dub champeta album inspired by Jamaican soundsystem styles to highlight dialogues between musical communities in Colombia and worldwide, as he pushes for innovation in the sound he’s championed for the past fifteen plus years.
With an eye for unearthing cultural movements that have been more or less undocumented, Silva also extends his practice as a filmmaker to produce musical documentaries. For his next production, he hopes to focus on the psicodelia movement in Barranquilla in the 70s and 80s, a musical phenomenon still relatively unknown in comparison to the afro-psychedelic sounds of Brazil’s tropicalismo, for example. At-large, his work is interconnected by a focus on finding projects where he can bring together African and Colombian sounds and musicians.
Press play to listen to a set of recordings from Palenque Records’ collaboration with son palenque / champeta artists Batata y Su Rumba Palenquera, and read below for the full interview (more music also available here, here and here!):
Sara: What inspired you to create Palenque Records?
Lucas Silva: I lived in France about fifteen years and that’s where I started my record label in 1996. I started recording an album then from San Basilio de Palenque with a group called Sexteto Tabala. At the time they were a group that would play for wakes, weddings, burials, funeral music. They were a completely traditional group. I liked them a lot so I decided to record them.
One day I listened to a record of Sexteto Tabala on vinyl, they’d recorded a track on a compilation. I liked it a lot and so I went to Palenque and asked for the group. If I didn’t record them, nobody else was going to do it. At this time I also started to collect champeta, editions of records by Batata. I released it in Europe on a label from there and mine as well. And that’s where it began– I entered this for the music, because I like the music, for passion. I didn’t know anything about the business side of the music, in the sense of a record label for selling music, distributing; I had no idea about the complete process but I learned through doing.
Sara: Being that champeta’s begun to attract so much attention on a national and international scale, what were your first few years like with Palenque Records in the late 90s/early 2000s?
Lucas Silva: When I released the second Palenque Records album it was called El Vacile de la Champeta Criolla, Volume 1. It was the first compilation of this kind made in the interior of Colombia, in Bogotá as well as France. No one knew this music and it was something really strange for them. There were people who liked it and people that hated it; there were a lot of really contrasting reactions. I’ve always been sure of what I do. I know that it was a question of time because it’s something that comes off as really crazy– Afro-Columbians playing African music, soukouss or highlife or afrobeat. In ‘96 and ‘97, it was still really early.
For the Colombians living in France, or really for the Latino community, it seemed really strange to them, they didn’t understand it. Now in 2014, a lot of time has passed but we’ve fought a lot for it, me among a lot of other independent cultural managers, and have changed that. These days the picó is something well-known, but in this time it was really just something anonymous and no one knew of the picó. Now it’s changed to become something kind of fashionable, it’s become a little hipster as champeta becomes more and more known.
Sara: How did artists respond when you initially approached them to record and collaborate?
Lucas Silva: Really good. I work with difficult groups. Difficult in the sense that they were people that had never recorded, that lived on their farms and with their culture, and so at the beginning it seemed a little bit strange to them. A lot of anthropologists in Colombia had gone to record music in the 50s, 60s, 70s. They recorded music but then they kept it to themselves. And they recorded a lot of good things. But they kept it and never published it. So I went and recorded, because I wanted for these groups to be known, that they could have lives as artists. At first they were a little perplexed, some of them. It seemed really crazy to them…now, not so much. A lot of time has passed and now they know that this is an industry, it’s business, that they’ve involved themselves as a group and now they aren’t just in music for the ritual. So there have been really good reactions. I do everything I can so that they can be happy and work hard, and I’ve brought groups to France, Africa, Germany, Holland, Belgium on tours. The exchange has always been really interesting.
Sara: You place a lot of importance on using the term “Afro-Columbian” to describe the musical communities you collaborate with. Why is it important to fight for this term’s recognition?
Lucas Silva: When I started, people didn’t use the term Afro-Columbian; this phrase didn’t exist. People would say coastal music, and to me this didn’t seem right so I always fought for this term. When I was in France and I’d be on the radio to present the champeta criolla album, since Afro-Cuban music was so in fashion at the time, and when the journalists started off on the radio, they’d always started by saying, “Here we are with a man that brings us Afro-Cuban music, ah pardon, pardon, Afro-Columbian music.” So it was a battle because in this era in Europe they weren’t aware that in there is such a big population of Afro-Columbians or Afro-Columbian culture in Colombia. So that’s what I focused on and the music I’ve produced has always been Afro-Columbian because it was completely forgotten.
Sara: How can independent labels support and sustain artists that haven’t been valued by major label institutions?
Lucas Silva: When I started, Discos Fuentes was practically already not producing anymore. The greatest labels from before had stopped and it was a transitional time between two periods of our music’s history. Now I think the hope of music is the independent labels because now the music world is in reverse. Before the majors, the biggest record labels are up top and we were below. Now it’s more balanced and the big labels have fallen, and we’re rising up. The advantage I have is that I have a small label. If I want to do something, it’s just me alone.
When I make a production and I don’t have the money to release it myself, I license my production to another label in Europe so that they can release it. For example there’s records like Colombiafrica’s La Orquesta Mistica that were published in England on the World Music Network label, later another with Soundway Records. The second album of Sexteto Tabula was published with the Buda Musique label in France. The goal is to make alliances with labels that have distribution and things like that. But I’ve released a lot of albums under my name– it’s a small label but a lot of people write me, there’s a lot of people that like it.
I’m working with a concept; not just a concept to sell a cheap product but rather something more defined. No one had done it and in Colombia there wasn’t support for the music. So for traditional music, I think that now a lot of people speak of Afro-Columbian music, champeta music, palenquera music, picó music. I like that it’s becoming fashionable, hipster; it doesn’t matter to me. We fought a lot for this so now I’m not going to have a problem with it. Things take their own course and if you fight a lot for something, for something small to grow, then I’m not going to try to change the course of things and try to influence it so that it’ll go another way. I don’t want to control anything.
Sara: Did your years living in Paris’ diaspora communities serve as a inspiration for your work as a cultural promoter?
Lucas Silva: Quite a bit. I had a great teacher, my great brother named Ibrahima Cisse, or MC Iba, from Ghana/Senegal. I met him in ’98 in France and we made the Champeta Criolla, Volume 2 compilation together. He was a seventy year old man and was a disc jockey in African in the 70s and 80s. So I learned a lot with him. That’s to say in Colombia in the networks of African music, and in Cartagena…the first time that I got to know African music was in Cartagena. In Cartagena a lot of people told me about it, and in ’96 was the first time that I got to know champeta, and I made a documentary called los Reyes Criollos de la Champeta. When people in Cartagena realized I lived in France, they’d bring up that all of the African musicians are living in France, and there were people in Cartagena that knew a lot about the African music scene in Paris. And I had no idea that Paris had an African music scene that was so strong.
So they’d say to me, when you go to France look for this album. Look for albums by Pepe Kalle, Papa Wemba, many, many names. I’d go looking for that music and send it to them. I’d send music to the picós too, the most exclusive tracks. I’d do all of this just because I liked to. I started to produce music and I had a dream of making an album where musicians from Palenque and African musicians would play together. It had never been done. That’s when I made the Colombian-African connection for the Orquesta Mistico, which is an orquestra where half are African musicians, the other half Afro-Columbians. And on this path I met a lot of African musicians, many from the Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon, some that played soukouss, others highlife, others afrobeat, others that played more roots or folkloric styles. So I started to get to know African music, and later went to live in an African neighborhood in Paris called Château Rouge. I lived eight or nine years in this neighborhood and learned a lot because this place was a kind of African Harlem in Paris, full of music and DVD stores with video clips and all that.
When I’d go out on the street everyday I’d see the music that Africans listen to, things that we liked as well. In Colombia it’s different that in Europe; in Colombia we like the rumba, the golpe of the picó and all that. That’s why we like soukouss, música del peluque. I found a lot of that there. At first I didn’t understand a thing about African music. And thanks to all of my friends there, they taught me everything, and also about Colombian music as well; because African music is quite complex, it spans a lot of countries, territories, ethnicities.
It has a lot of branches. And my teacher always reminded me of that, he’d say– you Colombians are always about the party, the fast parts of the songs. Listen to the music. In life it’s not always just partying, so listen to things. The picó has it’s limitations because it’s always high-voltage music. And life is not just high-voltage.
Sara: How did these lessons shape the way you structure your record label?
Lucas Silva: I wanted my label to give the other side of champeta, done my way. Something really close to the Palenquero spirit, the African spirit. You have to put yourself on the other side of things because music isn’t always just pure happiness. African music around the world always has a side for lamenting, for sadness, mixed with happiness…so for that reason I wanted to go farther out. An easy example of this that everyone knows is Fela Kuti. I always look to work with the more unknown artists. Champeta gives something special because I think you can go a lot farther out with it and be really artistically ambitious.
Sara: While you experiment and go farther out with your productions, how do you stay rooted in Colombian musical traditions?
Lucas Silva: The power of Colombian music, of cumbia, is that it feels like music from the earth. It’s music from the campesinos, the people that live in the jungle, and it feels like a part of our history. It’s not music for business but rather music for feeling, for singing when working in the fields, for burials, for heavy things. That’s why it’s so strong. I found a lot of Afro-Columbian ritual music that doesn’t have a modern equivalent. It’s not used for anything, it’s just folklore. I want to take that music and record it so that it doesn’t die.
Sara: What do you hope your practice of cultural promotion and, in the long-term, preservation through documentation will achieve?
Lucas Silva: Music helps for a lot of things– because recording music is inclusion, inclusion of Afro-Columbians within the country. It’s having fun together. Because of a lot of racism, there’s prejudices against those from the lower social stratum. It’s a good thing this has changed but it’s taken a lot of time. There’s a lot to study from this side of history; La Mojarra Electrica was an interesting group that formed in Bogotá in the ’90s and was one of the first of my generation that mixed afro sounds with bogotano musicians. They were bogotanos that were playing music of the Pacific. This happened in the ’70s as well with Vela de Fuego, or there were people from the era of the hippie movement that played music from the regions, friends like Mario Galeano that have done their research.
So us, the meztizos of the country, to play music that’s mixing and taking music from our Muddy Waters or Johnny Hookers, roots music from Colombia, was something really delayed. It’s still a process, and something that has to be understood through the context that in Colombia, in the ’70s, ’80s, there were almost no Afro people in the cities. These days in Bogotá there’s a million or more. People mix, but before it was something very separated. Cumbia was music of the poor. Champeta was music of the poor, of the ghettos. Popular music, la raspa, chucu-chucu, was music of the first, second, third stata. It’s an apartheid, a complete apartheid. Culturally, in the brain it’s divided South Africa-style. And the reaction is, and the style that people dance, each strata dances a certain way. This is changing, depending on where you are.
So, for that reason I had problems at first when I brought back champeta albums in the 90s to Bogota. I was in a college here, and with blessings with a middle-class family, we had the capacity to live here more or less well. All of my friends that were intellectuals would say that this music is a vulgarity. I really like that in France I learned that sometimes in Bogotá we have problems; people haven’t reached the point of considering themselves universal people. Rather here in Colombia people from the coast consider themselves costeños, people from Cali are caleños, people from Bogota are bogotanos, people from Medellin are paisas. I’m bogotano but for me this doesn’t mean anything. I think I am, or I try to be, universal. The notion of colombianness doesn’t exist for me.
Sara: What are your hopes for the artists you work with and for your projects at-large?
Lucas Silva: I want that these artists can be self-sufficient through their work. That they can live from their music and that they won’t need me. I want to enable a lot of producers. Ambulancia already produce themselves. What I want most is that people self-produce and that there’s already many people can do it. In champeta, a lot people are doing this. But with folkloric music it’s different because there’s a lot of musicians that are completely isolated, in villages, with no money, in really difficult conditions. So they can’t record themselves.
I don’t make music for it to be the hit of the week or the month. Rather I make music to look for something, something that’s really satisfying from the percussion, the vocals, that breaks boundaries. I’m passionate about champeta because when I got to know it in ‘96 it was a very special moment for it; it was a child, a small child. And I realized that it would be a worldwide hit for us. Little by little it’s become a bigger movement.