CityLab / Dancers / DJs / Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cultural Journalism Fellowship / Musicians

Picos in a time of violence

You hear El Jude before you see it. Its music fills the streets around Mario de Moya’s cantina in Malambo, an hour outside the Colombian port city of Barranquilla. Mario has just returned from a two-hour stint at a local radio station. A big bull of a man, Mario is a DJ, but could easily be mistaken for a bouncer. He has been on his feet all day, and his left eye is bloodshot. But tomorrow there is a big party, and El Jude is already demanding his attention.

The sound system or picó—spray painted in shades of neon, edged in glitter, and lit with multi-coloured lights—pulses with the sounds of Afro-Caribbean beats.  Each picó (from English for “pick-up”) consists of multiple speakers of varying sizes which, when connected, can deliver music at the desired chest-pounding, eardrum-shattering volume. A DJ who owns and runs such a system is called a picotero. Currently El Jude has 12 speakers. The biggest—around 6ft tall—sits on the pavement outside, overlooking a crossroad. A web of smaller speakers is distributed throughout the building.

El Jude was baptized with the first syllables of Mario’s father’s name: Juan de Moya. Juan is in his eighties now, and fragile. He doesn’t speak. Instead he sleeps through the booming music pouring out of the sound system he bought from his brother in 1972.

It’s been awhile since Mario took over from Juan in ‘84. Mario’s two sons, Pacho and Mario Jr., are part of the business. Pacho met his wife at a picó and now their 16-year-old son Eduardo is the fourth generation of de Moyas to be a picotero. El Jude has been at the centre of this family for 44 years.

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Since the 1950s, these picós have been a fixture at parties all along the sun-soaked Caribbean coast, home to much of the country’s Afro-Colombian population. The two towns most famous for them—Cartagena and Barranquilla—are just a few hours apart, but boast their own distinct cultures. The former has tourists flocking to its historic walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The other is a working port town, known for its industry and its annual carnival. “The picós have more than 60 years of history and yet are little known and little accepted in the rest of Colombia,” says filmmaker Roberto de Zubiria, who made a documentary about the subject in 2013.

He has been fascinated by how these massive sound systems have evolved. The earliest versions were hung from trees. But over time that became impossible. “In the 90s, the picós grew disproportionately in size and power, it was the time of picó concerts, and they could only be used in very large spaces,” says de Zubiria. Nostalgic picoteros still remember when the sound systems were so powerful that turning them on to full volume would break water jugs, blast open roofs and give you a toothache. Mario boasts that at one time El Jude could deliver a sound loud enough to kill a man.

Each speaker, both big and small, is guarded by a mesh that doubles up as a kind of banner for the DJ. They all have names, and taglines that proclaim legends of prowess. El Jude is immediately recognizable to all by the picture of a debonair young Juan framed by neon lights on it.

In fact, the picós are the heart of an informal social and economic network that links DJs with audiences. There are the builders who create the systems by hand and the artists who decorate them; there are the record store owners and collectors of vinyl records. If the picotero is also a producer, as is common in Cartagena but not in Barranquilla, then there are singers, musicians, sound engineers and visual artists on his roster. A team to transport and assemble the picós is a must and then there’s event security to consider. Each person is a player in this micro-economy geared specifically toward building, transporting and operating what have been called “mobile cultural spaces.”

For the de Moyas, being a family business gives them an edge in a competitive market. For one, they’ve spent decades amassing their vinyl collection. “Music is the most important treasure of each picó,” says de Zubiria. “It is the heritage that goes from generation to generation,” he says, pointing out that El Jude’s collection is now at 4,000 vinyl records and counting.

Beca GGM 2017

Today, the music most (in)famously associated with the picós— champeta—has divided Colombian society along lines of race and class. Lucas Silva, a DJ, producer and the founder Palanque Records still remembers the first time he heard it. “It was ‘96 or ’97, and nobody knew anything about champeta, other than that it was out of the ghetto. Everybody was afraid of it, they thought it was dangerous music.” It couldn’t be found on a radio station and many fans were too poor to afford their own collections. Instead if you wanted to dance to champeta, you went to a picó.

What was once an underground movement has changed lives. “The DJs have helped bring modernity to Colombia,” says Silva. In exchange, picoteros can find the fruits of victory sweet: fame, wealth and adoration follow the most successful wherever they go. A lot of people make a good living out of this. People have come out of poverty, and have left street crime and the gangs because of champeta and the picós.”

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However, picós are at the heart of an ongoing debate in Colombia. Critics allege that champeta is misogynistic and promotes promiscuity, especially among the young and impressionable. At parties, the sound blasting out of the speakers is so loud it raises issues of noise pollution. But the thing that has really tainted the reputation of the picós is a surge in violence. Gang members bring knives and guns to events; alcohol and drug abuse driven misconduct make evenings dangerously unpredictable.

“The violence comes because these spaces are the meeting point for people who have been carrying this violence all their lives; it comes from their histories, from their lack of access to education and opportunities, from the social injustice they face every day,” says Joaquín Sarmiento, a photojournalist who has covered the picó parties for years.

The response of the authorities has been to clamp down. In Cartagena, attempts were made to ban champeta. Stricter timings are in place, and police can now pull the plug on a picó if the party goes on too long, or if violence breaks out nearby. Clashes between officers and revellers in this city has resulted in deaths.

Seeking a culprit, critics have often looked no further than the music the picós play. “Champeta is blamed for being sexually explicit and promoting violence through its lyrics,” says Sarmiento. “But the same has been said of reggaeton, rap and hip-hop. You can’t blame lyrics for knife fights.” Silva agrees: “People have been fighting but music has nothing to do with that. It is not the fault of the music, it is the fault of misery.”

A light sweat beads Mario’s face as he recalls how the violence began to become a serious issue at the picó parties in the 90s. It meant that it was no more possible to run the really big shows, ones where thousands attended. The impact on El Jude was immediate. The enormous sound system proved simply too overwhelming for the smaller parties that were the new norm. The de Moyas had to break El Jude up and it is a much reduced creature from the one Mario remembers; down to a mere 12 speakers, from what were once well over 20.

Mario thinks DJs must be aware, and must adapt to combat the violence. However, his solution is not to threaten the aggressive but to soothe them with music. “The job of the picotero is to make you feel good,” he says. “The right programming can keep people calm.” Some DJs even make “peace announcements” every half-an-hour, reminding people they are here to have fun and not to fight.

The other day, Viviano Torres, a champeta producer and singer, went to a picó party in Cartagena with 10,000 people, and there wasn’t a single outburst of violence. “It was because the state was doing their job, and the venue was well covered,” he says, adding “picós are stereotyped because it’s where poor people, who can’t afford a fancy nightclub, go to have some fun and escape the grind of everyday life…If they ban it, they will be forbidding the community a moment of joy.”

Torres was part of the movement that tried (and failed) in 2016 to have the state declare champeta an “intangible heritage of Cartagena.” They intend to submit a new proposal this May. Which is why Torres is glad to see champeta become increasingly popular in bars and clubs in Cartagena’s most touristy, expensive neighbourhoods; surely now people will separate the music from the violence. Still, he is simultaneously resentful of how all traces of the poor Afro-Latina population who make champeta is being scrubbed out. “They hire white, blonde dancers to perform instead of people from our community,” he says. It’s why he never fails to stress that the music is “a rhythm that is pride, identity and heritage.”

Beca GGM 2017

In Barranquilla, an experiment is underway. Beginning in the January of 2017, new regulations have been brought in to help manage the picós. Juancho Jaramillo, the Cultural Secretary of Barranquilla invited picoteros and key members of the community to discuss the future of the industry. “We asked them, “Why have the picós become so violent?”” says Jaramillo.

The answer threw the spotlight on the animators. At a picó, it is an animator’s job to pump up the crowd. These announcements are thick with superlatives and excited promises of unique and amazing entertainment. The picoteros told Jaramillo that when the animators began to trash talk their competition, it led to tensions and fighting between gangs loyal to various picoteros. The violence also seemed to stem in part simply from people getting drunk, staying out too late and picking fights.

Based on these conversations, the government is trying to explore a range of solutions: they have had workshops that bring together picoteros from Cartagena and Barranquilla and introduced more stringent regulations around the sale of alcohol—now none can be served after 2:30am at a picó. After prolonged negotiations, the picoteros also reluctantly agreed to turn down the volumes on their sound systems.

Barranquilla’s annual carnival —a UNESCO World Heritage event that drew some 1.5 million visitors in 2017—took place over four days in February. It’s traditionally a period of intense revelry and Jaramillo’s office thought it was the perfect time to further their collaboration with the picoteros. They chose five neighbourhoods in which picós were allotted spaces. Security was provided, and the picoteros abided by the new regulations, even reigning in the enthusiasm of the animators.

“There was no violence, and there haven’t been any incidents in Barranquilla since then either,” Jaramillo says. More and more picoteros are signing up to collaborate with the town hall now, he adds. He hopes over time that the city will truly celebrate the picó culture: “We can make this a symbol of the identity of the city, of the region and even of Caribbean culture.”

Beca GGM 2017

Back in Malambo, the de Moya’s have just wrapped up a large party. Unlike the much edgier, adult-only venues in Cartagena, this one was family friendly, complete with a pool and children on the dancefloor, giggling amid the intertwined couples.

“We grew up with picós. They are our culture, they are in our blood,” say Pacho, contemplatively. He has watched his son Eduardo take to the picotero life with pride. Eduardo has been around El Jude since he could crawl and now typically plays sets of an hour or two at their parties. The boy is unique among his friends as a picotero. At the party, he fist bumps all the adults, utterly at ease in his role as the scion of the family.

Eduardo says he waits for when he will run the party, and in the meantime wants to expand his knowledge of music from the 70s and 80s. Like his grandfather Mario, Eduardo has great trust in the power of the right music to capture an audience.

It is his father who recognizes most clearly the challenges of running the business. But Pacho is a pragmatic man by nature and has already begun to adapt. He is confident that El Jude will survive these years of tumult and that Eduardo will pass on the torch when he has a son of his own. “We just have to take care of it. If we take care of it, it won’t die.”

Beca GGM 2017

Published in CityLab on 20 July 2017. By Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Joaquin Sarmiento/FNPI

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