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Photos: Picó Is the Voice, Culture and Sound of Afro-Colombian Youth

OkayAfrica presents a photo essay from Colombia's Caribbean coast where Afro-Latino youth are reinventing sound-system culture for a new era.

COLOMBIA—The Urabá subregion of Colombia has many reputations but its choice of music is not one of them. Located on the Caribbean less than sixty miles from the Panamá border, for the past twenty years, it stood as one of the most contested strategic zones of the country's internal conflict. Its history is rife with violence, and many Colombians regard the subregion as isolated and backward.


Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, paramilitary and guerrilla groups fought for control over profits from the “banana axis," Colombia's enormous banana growing zone that comprises the municipalities of Apartadó, Carepa, Chigorodó, and Turbo. This is also the center of Picó culture—the regional music scene that combines Carribean, African and inland influences to create something unique to the region.

These municipalities have long been a center of resistance—the first settlers were freed black slaves and runaway indigenous groups who ultimately gave way to racially mixed descendants that have been historically left wing. Urabaenses could care less about how people from the inland of Colombia see them. To them, "inlanders," or cachacos, are people without rhythm or style; they are stiff, socially conservative, and penny pinchers. Urabaenses identify more with the great transcultural Caribbean than with the hegemonic Colombian national identity. This is by no means an overstatement if you think in terms of the musical influences Urabaenses have embraced as their own. This aspiration to form a cultural association with the Caribbean can be easily felt through Picó.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

For a native "inlander," Picó party scenes can feel distinct. Picós take inspiration from musical genres of African origin. From the 1960s throughout the early 2000s, people in Urabá listened to Jamaican dub and reggae; African soukous, highlife, and mbaqanga; and of course Colombian cumbia, vallenato, bullerengue, and porro. This variety of genres converged into the two genres du jour, known as reggaeton and champeta. What the scene nowadays lacks in its previous variety of rhythms it makes up in the pastiche of clothing styles that connections with new and vintage Latin American fashions.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Picó is transliteration in Spanish for “pick-up." I initially thought it stood for the Chevrolet pick-up trucks in which they transport the massive sound system from one location to another, since the scene is something of an itinerant road show. But it comes from the vinyl turntable pick-up needle, introduced with the electronic phonograph that the early set-ups used.

Whoever collected exclusive and popular hit records, while being able to mix them artfully, decorate their sound system with signature designs, and pump up the volume on boot-knocking speakers, would be king of the block party in lower-income neighborhoods. One could say that a Picó is as much of a get-together or a party scene as a deeply entrenched celebration of the region's trans-continental African heritage. Regions of Colombia that are of obvious Spanish descent unfortunately, often (or perhaps systematically) overlook this.

The youths I photographed—in typical too-cool-for-that fashion— didn't seem to know or care where the term came from. Every one of them had journeyed that day some hundred miles from Carepa to Necoclí to assist this one specific Picó. When I asked a young woman to summarize what their scene was about she pointed to Estiven, a tall-and-shy type who was in all appearances their wordsmith. He said in a somewhat casual tone: “Our way, our style, actively shifting. Never sad for our past, because this is our culture, it is the future."

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Playlist:

By their standards, these are some of the songs that are considered essential in a Picó:

- El Boy C, Que Hablen

- El Menor Menor, Prisión

- Akim, Así Nace

- Bad Bunny, Soy Peor

- Anuel AA, Sola ft. Daddy Yankee

- Ozuna, Dile Que Tu Me Quieres

- Dubosky, Con El Pa Que

- Japanese, Nos Fuimos

And this is the dance collective from the neighboring state of Chocó that they follow for inspiration on new moves: Jóvenes Creadores del Chocó (Young Creatives from Chocó)

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

Photo by Alejandro Jaramillo.

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