The Hi-Fi DIY of Colombia's Bass Lords
Late nights street dances have gone down on Colombia's Caribbean coast since at least the early 1950s, when picó sound system culture was born.
The Scorpion Disco Show sound system set up at the velodrome in Barranquilla. Image: author
It's 2 AM on a Sunday on the outskirts of Barranquilla, Colombia, and hundreds of revelers are dancing in the streets to the rhythms of three competing picó style sound systems. Up close, each picó is loud enough to drown out its neighbors, but between them is a soundscape as psychedelic as the neon airbrush paintings covering the grills of the towering speaker stacks
New reggaeton hits released just last week blend with Nigerian pop from the 70s and the native sounds of champeta. Lasers, deafening pitch-shifted DJ drops, copious rum and cheap bottles of the light local Aguila suds all add to the intensity.
Late nights street dances called verbenas have gone down like this along the Caribbean coast of Colombia (minus the lasers) since at least the early 1950s, when picó sound system culture was born in Cartagena.
When picós were first being built, everything from the massive speaker boxes down to the tube amplifiers were entirely custom-made. Each working class neighborhood might have a single picó owner who would throw street parties with small bars being run out of the owner or a neighbor's house. Each picó's bass cabinet was painted with an iconic tropical mural and given a badass name and tagline. (My favorite from the 70's is the "Solista" picó whose single bass cabinet reads "La Nave Salsosa / La Potencia Nuclear".)
Today picó culture lives throughout the coast with an especially heavy presence in Barranquilla, a sprawling industrial port town and likely recipient of the first shipments of West African records that would, along with Caribbean and local LPs and 45s, become the soundtrack of a sound system culture unlike any other in the world.
Earlier this summer I traveled to Colombia to produce a film directed by the Italian art duo Invernomuto on picó culture as it lives and breathes today. What is most stunning to me about the picó scene isn't the dope murals, but rather realizing that sound system culture didn't just emerge from Jamaica and spread to the world. Africans and Afro-Latinos in Colombia, also reacting to post-slavery colonial experiences, invented a complex new cultural form centered on sound systems that is nearly identical to Jamaica's.
Both worlds showcased unbelievable creativity, combining DIY electrical engineering, heavy bass, and DJ cultures of competition and secrecy to create art forms alongside emerging technologies. Street parties created entirely new categories of economic opportunity, served as a space for social and political commentary and allowed for blissful respite from harrowing daily struggles.
The sound system-powered street dance, in both Jamaican and Colombian variations, are examples of deeply creative and rebellious African liberatory technology at its most accessible. They are more than parties, they are an ancient alchemical ritual of Word, Sound, and Power, radical spaces where intricate new narratives of agency are written and rewritten between bodies through and beyond the trans-Atlantic diaspora.
If you're into this sort of thing, or traveling to Colombia and want to experience the picó scene yourself, it's essential that you link with Fabian Altahona, who has devoted his life to documenting and connecting this incredible Afro-Colombian culture to the world. Another great entry point is the essential work of DJ, writer and all around hood antropólogo Boima Tucker.
Despite the deeply troubling appropriation of street dance cultures by international trend setters and monocultural advertising types (think an army of Diplos in suits and fitted safari hats), the essential localized power of the picó party as a site of transformation remains nearly 70 years since their invention. As an outsider, you can do your best to find a ride on a Drexciyan wavejumper and go deep into the ancient and arcane roots of these rituals, or just grab a drink and get to dancing. The party will always take you just how you are. Born of brilliance and necessity, sound system culture in Colombia is a powerful testament to black ingenuity and is a historical signpost in an ongoing global struggle against white supremacy and colonialism.