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Son Batá

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Apr 06, 2014
Location: Colombia
Topic: Interview with Son Batá
Interviewer: Raquel de Anda

LatinArt:  Let’s start with a little background information. Who is Son Batá, when did it begin and what are the group’s different projects?

Son Batá:  DJ Sprint: : Son Batá came out of an initiative launched by Nene, John Jaime and myself in the 90s and of a rap group we formed in 1999. We started playing songs by Spanish-language artists like Vico C, and we also began learning about rap culture by making a lot of music. At that time we decided we wanted to be the best in Comuna 13 at making music…

That was an incentive and provided the motivation for kids to do other things and look for other options. We decided to apply for a grant from the Medellin city government to make music from the Colombian Pacific region. We never got the grant, but that’s how the whole Son Batá process began (laughs)!

Our first name was Afro Renacer de la Juventud (Youth’s Afro Rebirth), a group that was into doing different chores in the neighborhood – washing stairs, looking after the Nativity scene, and also conducting ethnic studies, investigating where we’d been born and our roots. That’s when we started studying folk music and mixing it with hip hop. Then some other kids who studied dance showed up. At that time we didn’t have any aspirations, just different influences -- we danced, played, sang. We got together and said, "everyone has their specialty and their group, so why don’t we do something where we can all join in?" We started the non-profit group in 2008 and called ourselves Corporación Afrocolombiana Son Batá (Son Batá Afro-Colombian Corporation).

The corporación has three strategic lines. One is the Son Batá group; there’s Bantú, which is a group that plays a blend of typical Colombian Pacific music and world music. Then there’s Kilombo Crew, which is a dance group that does dance shows using both traditional and modern choreographies. There’s a hip hop group, Son Batá Music, which is made up of John Jaime, Nene and me, and then there’s the artistic orchestra, which is a salsa-type lineup with Chirimia fusions. And we’re also doing theater work with some kids who are starting out in the group, kids between 10 and 14. The theater work is a very beautiful thing.

There are other lines too, like the Son Batá art school where we create dance, music and Son Batá workshops. We have more than 300 children taking part all over the neighborhood. We go to different parts of the community to do workshops. We call them Son Batá cells… At the end of the year we put on a big performance in which they’re the stars of the show, stars of the moment. A lot of families come and it’s a beautiful thing, a very special occasion for them.

LatinArt:  How do you incorporate the educational side? You work a lot with young people, spreading the ideas of multiculturalism and non-violence – how do you include this in the practice of holding discussions, workshops and events with children?

Son Batá:  Bomby: It’s something that’s beginning to stand out because we, the basic members of Son Batá, are producers. It’s something that’s always been there: from the beginning of Son Batá, Nene, John and Sprint sought to create something that we’d all consider a dream scenario. But rather than a dream, it was a life plan.

So this is taught to the children through art, which is a universal language. It’s a kind of knowledge that’s bound to be useful to you wherever you go. Art and culture have definitely made us stronger.

The children don’t realize that they’re being taught to value and respect, to value their lives, to have a life plan, to do everything they can to be someone in life. It’s something that’s found in the methodology of Son Batá, in art. It’s something we work with and it’s taking shape here at Son Batá every day, because people begin to realize that you really can accomplish your dreams.

DJ Sprint:That’s very important, and so is the cultural and ethnic side. We were born in this city but our roots are in the Pacific. Our parents and grandparents are from the Pacific, from the Choco. And when we embarked on this musical and cultural quest for our roots, we conducted a series of exchanges. We went to Quibdó, to Cali, and Palenque, San Basilio de Palenque. We also went to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to witness the very important Afro-reggae cultural movement in the favelas. We visited Carlinhos Brown in Salvador de Bahia, all the while searching for our identity and roots to be able to teach our kids their Afro origins: to respect and feel being Afro.

It was torture back in school. It was really tough. They told us we were black and didn’t fit in, so we were always trying to be something we didn’t want to be, trying to be white, of mixed race. What started happening through Son Batá was very important because it meant recognizing that we have curly hair, thick lips, a little more, I don’t know… (laughs), finding oneself through one’s traits – one’s virtues and shortcomings. And this has been very important to our growth as people. It’s defined our personality a lot because we relate to each other not just as young people, but as young Afro people in this city which is very racist. Very racist…

Bomby:We’ve always said that abundance doesn’t come to you; you have to create it yourself. It’s not about where you’re born; it’s about what you make of yourself.

DJ Sprint:Your life isn’t written for you, you walk your own path. You have to find your own path, shape your own destiny, despite all these adversities. And what we’re trying to say is that it doesn’t matter that our environment is telling us we’re doomed to be poor, because we must focus our mentality on moving forward. The path we choose in this life can bear fruit too.

Now we’re fortunate enough to be in a position to travel, to visit other countries, to come out on TV and say hi to the kids. This is another point of reference that we create in their imaginary, because they’re always exposed to other things, bullets, shootings, etc. In Son Batá we always try to teach them that they need to get out of here, and those who do get out take on a commitment in some way to help those who live here.

LatinArt:  The perception of Medellin has changed from being the most violent city to the most innovative. What are your views on this transformation? Just a few weeks before the Urban Forum, there was a great effort to change and paint the roofs of the Comuna 13 neighborhood houses near the electric stairways as part of the Medellin Tells a Story project. What has been your experience of these government projects in Comuna 13?

Son Batá:  DJ Sprint: When you go to the stairs the city looks very nice. Let’s say the idea is a little, I don’t know, it’s a little pretentious for Medellin to propose the idea and make it out to be more than it actually is. I don’t know if these building proposals will bring development, but things do look a little prettier. And it is important because some things do improve, to be sure. Let’s say that for the people who live in that area getting around is now easier for them with the Metrocable or with the electric stairways. It’s a two-pronged project, in that it beautifies the landscape and also helps people, but I think it’s also important to take the community’s points of view into account.

Medellin experienced an initial building phase with the Fajardo administration. Now it’s going through a second phase with the city government trying to reach out more to people, to find out how they imagine the city and how they want it to be. This is really important because that’s how people’s interests are being taken into account and people are beginning to feel that the city is theirs too. Sometimes the places that are built in Medellin are designed from other perspectives and benefit the community very little or not at all. I feel one has to be wary of this kind of thing, with this business of beautifying the city.

I think what’s happening now with beautifying the city for the World Forum because of all the people visiting the city is a little like taking the clown’s clothes off (1) It’s manipulating the situation to make it look like something it isn’t. We’re not in agreement with that kind of development.

LatinArt:  Yes, this is something we’ve been talking a lot about with Casa Amarilla: although projects are carried out in conjunction with larger institutions, we need to find an approach to development plans that will highlight the essence of a place and the people who live there. What do you feel are the strengths of Comuna 13? What are the ideas that go beyond projects like Medellin Tells a Story and the stairways.

Son Batá:  DJ Float: What’s most clearly evident and continually forming is that we work within an artists’ territory. This is what we’re working on within our own strategy, and with all the kids in all the workshops. Everything is based on that approach: Comuna 13, a territory of artists where the dreams of these kids are forged, where we help them shape their life plan through art and culture. This is one of the most powerful elements in our community.

DJ Sprint: And another very important thing that’s been happening is that everyone, from the youngest kids to senior citizens, is very organized in this community. It’s a neighborhood with a lot of conflict, but this has also led to a feeling of solidarity in different areas – sports, culture, theater, art, and social life. You see it in many settings. So, even though it’s sometimes been difficult living here, it’s also been a privilege. That’s why we often say we don’t know where we are going to be tomorrow; we work every day to come out ahead, but we never forget where we’re from.

LatinArt:  Tell me a little about the upcoming UN Urban Forum event. There are people here from all over the world talking about the city and you’re playing at the opening ceremony. How do you view the importance of the event?

Son Batá:  Bomby:I think we’d seen it coming. Every day we get up with all the love in the world, saying we’re going to show the world that there are parts of Medellin that standout -- start showing the other side of Medellin. You know, the pretty face. Tell the whole world that we’re Son Batá, that we create art to change the reality we live in. Show kids in every corner of the world that it’s good to dream, it’s unlimited and it’s free.

The whole world’s coming tomorrow and we thank God they invited us to open the World Urban Forum. The organizers wanted to show something that characterizes what’s happening in Medellin. They chose the Son Batá show, which is not only coming up with good art projects, but is also showing that we’re working on a par with the ideas of the Urban Forum and their theme for this conference, Cities for Life -- every day people are wanting to move forward with better things for humanity.

I’ve always said I love music. For me what’s important is the moment when we can transmit this to other people. And for people to become impregnated with this skin color that we all love so much. This means a great deal to us.

DJ Sprint: Yes, the important thing is to do away with the mental limitations of the people who live here. The system is designed for you to do the same thing as always and remain stuck in the same situation. And our idea is "BOOM!" to change that at its roots.


1) "quitarle la ropa al payaso" is a saying in Colombia that roughly translates into "making something look like what is not".

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