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World Music Features

Totó la Momposina

By Carol Amoruso
Published October 4, 2005

Totó la Momposina is not only standard-bearer of the musical wealth of her people, but a cantadora: traditional healer, midwife, arbitrator, farmer and folkwoman who celebrates her legacy through song and dance.

She appeared under the arch that dwarfed her diminutive yet sturdy frame, dressed casually in jersey, a gold silk scarf of raw silk tied loosely around her neck. Hesitantly, she took a step into the hotel café, then a step back. “It’s too cold in here,” said Totó la Momposina, icon of the Latin tropics. “It’s not good for my voice.” The temperature had barely scratched the fifties that early spring day, but New Yorkers, at the first sign of thaw, will turn up the Fedders full blast.

Totó had just come in from England and a week of touring Europe with her band, Los Tambores. She’d been sleepless on the plane and, slated to appear at Town Hall the next night, was fearful for her voice, a powerful but delicate instrument. She’d once said that rest for herself and her voice showed respect for her art, ultimately for her audience.

It was a shade warmer in her room, actually a mini-suite. Slipping immediately out of her shoes, she excused herself, taking some minutes to ceremoniously anoint her borrowed space with lighted incense and dried herbs, announcing, “I carry them all from Colombia.”

Todos somos iguales,” she volunteered, settled into a divan in front of the coffee table, home to her crackling herbal pyres. “We are all the same.” Her voice was positively dulcet throughout our chat, during which she veered frequently, but not far from, prepared questions to wax romantic, poetic and philosophical about her roots and her beleaguered but beloved homeland, Colombia. Listening to her speak, her quiet broken from time to time by a brief, hardy laugh, it was difficult to reconcile recollections of its power and projection from the stage with a voice so gentle now the mike had to be clipped just inches from her mouth.

Born on the island of Mompos, on the broad Magdalena River near the Caribbean coast (thus la Momposina), Totó is the proud product of an Afro-indigenous culture. Colombia’s indigenous were driven inland by the Spanish conquistadores in the sixteenth century, but returned some years later to find and cohabit the island with African slaves.

“Two races were mixed,” she recounts. “They were the indigenous and the African. These two races fell in love and united. And when two cultures fall in love, what is the result? A new culture but it will be a sweet, a soft one, una cultura dulce. And it will produce a very special music.

Although she moved from the Caribbean to Bogotá, Colombia’s capital in the mountainous interior, in order to raise her children, Totó is fundamentally costeña. “If you go from house to house on the coast you can ask anyone and they will give you coffee,” she