Totó la Momposina is a one-woman walking encyclopedia of Colombian musical folklore. She's also something of a perfectionist. A band with the chops and horn section wielded by her ensemble could easily have cranked out an entire disc of the blazing, salsa-influenced rave-up that opens Pacantó. The title cut transforms a traditional song from San Basilio de Palenque on Colombia's northeast coast into a huge call-to-party that evokes the glory days of cumbia-derived big-band styles. Instead of strip-mining the mainstream, Totó and her crew labored three years on this CD, which delves into the African, Spanish, and Indian roots of her country's music, often plumbing unfashionably deep into a ritualistic vein.
If that implies an academic exercise, like a CD of Sardinian swordfish-monger shouts, first consider that Totó has been placing forgotten Colombian genres on the front burner throughout her 30-year career. Second, wrap your body around the Afro-Indian spine-buster "Milé (El Hombre Borracho)," a wife's complaint about a husband who spends his family's money on drink as fast as he earns it. The narrator's searing accusations bounce off hand claps, wailing horns, a battery of percussion, and sassy background voices. But just as the coda coasts within earshot, the piece suddenly glides into rumba territory via a tightly wound guitar solo from sexagenarian Papa Noel, whose credits include the lead guitar slot with the legendary Congolese bandleader Franco's OK Jazz. Noel's driving rainstorm of notes not only meshes seamlessly with the rhythm, but his appearance also taps into the love of African soukous that permeates Colombia's Caribbean coast. "Acompáñala" leaves the city lights behind for a folkloric piece welding gorgeous vocal harmonies to West African Manding guitar flavors and furious drumbeats hammering out a traditional Afro-Indian cadence. The quasi-ritualistic air achieves full throttle on the next cut, "La Ripiá," a fiesta song from the village of San Jacinto on which exuberant las gaitas pre-Colombian-style cactus wood flutes stand in for ecstatic voices, pushing us even farther from the village and closer to flickering firelight.
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Most big bands concentrate on either folkloric or urban genres, with city styles usually getting the nod. Totó's crew tears into both worlds with equal expertise. Enlisting lots of young musicians keeps the performances lively even when reviving long-forgotten Colombian genres. Funeral song "Bozaa y Media" sports dub basslines, while "El Poro Magangueleño" plays with a porro rhythm from Magangue. The flute, bass, and drum arrangement is on the sparse side until Totó takes charge of a vocal traditionally sung by men. Her grace and energy are the invisible powers that unite the jaw-dropping array of styles on a disc that blurs tradition and modernity so that, as the banda song "Goza Plinio Sierra" puts it, even the dead feel like dancing.