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Barranqilla's Unique Soundsytem Culture 


Barranquilla is located on Colombia's Caribbean coast where for centuries, both indigenous and African cultures have been living side by side. In the beginning of the 16th century, slaves from across West Africa were brought into the country to replace the rapidly declining Native American population. In the turn of the 17th century, Spanish colonial law promoted (and enforced) mixing ancestries of different races born during the post-conquest period thus blurring existing racial lines. Throughout the entire Caribbean coast of Colombia, an African influence is still strongly felt even though not many African descendants identify as such. Music is where this influence is most prominently felt. The city of Barranquilla, home to the second largest carnival in the world (after Rio De Janeiro), was instrumental in breeding the genres of Cumbia, Porro, and Champeta which heavily rely on repetitive African drumming. Bustling neighborhoods such as Santo Domingo and Soledad have been relentlessly blasting this music out for decades non stop. In striking resemblance to nearby Jamaica, an outdoor soundsystem culture has steadily developed in Barranquilla since the 1950's, championing the Afro-Colombian sound. More than 200 soundsystems (or PICO's as they're called in Barranquilla) exist in the city, with hundreds more scattered across the neighbouring areas. These picos preserve the rich Afro-Colombian culture which could have easily disappeared otherwise. You find them anywhere, in billiard halls, bars, restaurants and just out in the streets. With carnival weekend as a their nucleus, picos play loud, round the clock music, every day all day. Pico owners flamboyantly decorate their sonic beasts with hand-painted fluorescent artwork, revealing even more on one of the world's most intriguing culture-clashes. These paintings bare the faces of local heroes, american 90's action film scenes, memorialised family members, political affiliations and even heroic Viking imagery, all masterfully hand-painted by specialised pico artists.

Interestingly enough, picos still predominantly play vinyl records, as they have been since their humble beginnings. While Cumbia and Salsa music are the country's most predominant genres, in Barranquilla Picos have to play original African music. The genre of choice is Soukous, a Congolese rhythm, which for decades has dominated the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Demand for these records was so strong, French sailors would bring crates of vinyl from the African colonies filled with hot Soukous, Afrobeat, and Highlife gems, which were quickly snatched by Pico owners trying to quench their audience's musical thirst. In Barranquilla, these very same records are still being played rigorously to this day.


These are the picos of Barranquilla.

Click on each photo for additional information, quotes, favorite records and more.

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