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Colombia's Pacific Port City Of Tumaco Is Home To Currulao Music

Apr 9, 2020
Originally published on April 9, 2020 8:51 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Before the country of Colombia largely shut down due to the coronavirus, reporter John Otis visited a town there notorious as a shipping point for cocaine. As John discovered, though, it's also home to a hidden treasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Here in the Pacific coast town of Tumaco, these kids are playing drums made of tree trunks, marimbas and percussive shakers filled with seeds.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OTIS: The result is currulao. It was developed by African slaves, who were first brought here in the 1500s to cut timber and mine gold. Today their descendants sing currulao songs that lament Tumaco's status as a violent hub for drug smugglers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: This song describes how local farmers who once harvested coconuts now grow coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: "As a result," the song goes, "we no longer have peace in our paradise."

In truth, Tumaco seems about as far from paradise as you can get. It's a network of crime-infested slums, like this one, sprawling across several islands just off the coast. The area is a jumping-off point for boats and submarines taking tons of cocaine to Mexico and the U.S. Besides fishing and farming, there are few legal jobs here, so many teenagers drop out of school and find work in the cocaine trade. That nearly happened to local musician John Jairo Cortez (ph).

JOHN JAIRO CORTEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says he was tempted to join a drug trafficking gang to seek revenge after smugglers killed his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OTIS: Instead, he got involved in a Tumaco music academy known as the Southern Pacific Folk School. That's Cortez on the marimba, which he now teaches at the school.

CORTEZ: (Speaking in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

CORTEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "The project," Cortez says, "shows that kids in the barrios can escape the violence." The school's mission to help vulnerable youngsters proved irresistible to Harold Tenorio.

HAROLD TENORIO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: After growing up here, Tenorio managed to escape Tumaco by way of music scholarships that took him to Burkina Faso and France.

TENORIO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But he says he felt guilty living abroad and hearing about all the bad things happening in Tumaco. That's why he returned home four years ago and became a director at the folk music school.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MAS VELORIO")

PLU CON PLA: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: Tenorio also plays bass with a band he formed called Plu Con Pla. That's slang for a local dish that combines fish with plantains. The band's music is a fusion of currulao and reggae.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MAS VELORIO")

PLU CON PLA: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: These days, currulao is everywhere in Tumaco...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OTIS: ...Including at this high school gymnasium, where Plu Con Pla shared the stage with the kids from the folk school and performed to a packed crowd.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Tumaco, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.