“As many as 20 million people in developing nations make a living hunting for gold. Small-scale and independent of big corporations, artisanal mining is a world in which men, women and children pan for the precious flakes, predominantly using hand tools. On the Pacific coast of Colombia, home to most of its 5 million Afro-Colombians, the rhythmic swishing of river water in the wide wooden batea, or gold pan, has for generations been the soundtrack to their working lives.
Rooted in a physical relationship with earth, sun, river, rain and ocean, this metronomic panning of liquid and sediment is at the heart of a potent musical culture. Its songs are driven by percussion and the hypnotic melodies of the marimba, its moods and messages a heady brew of indigenous Amerindian beliefs, African mysticism and the exigencies of the Catholic church. And while men keep the drums thumping, in Afro-Colombian music it is strong women who run things; above all creating the soaring harmonies that give it its magical quality. And the strongest woman of them all is Nidia Góngora.
Góngora is in the UK this week as part of a European tour with her group, Canalón de Timbiquí. At the weekend, she and her three female singers will bring to life the sound of the distant rivers at the Womad festival in Wiltshire. But for now the 37-year-old is sitting in a cafe in east London, looking less like an artisanal mining songbird and more like Mary J Blige – not just because of her angular beauty and rhinestone Adidas baseball cap, but the faint air of muted attitude that her 5ft 3in frame exudes. When I suggest the physical resemblance through our translator, she looks blank. “Mary qué?” Not the faintest.
But as we slowly surmount the language barrier, a softer and more approachable Góngora emerges and she warms to the subject of Colombian female supremacy in matters musical. “Women have always kept the musical tradition more than men,” she says. “Women take the initiative. They compose and sing when they are breastfeeding, cooking – they easily combine it with their domestic work. Men can only do one thing at a time. And it’s women who decide when they are going to ask men to provide the accompaniment. Men’s specific role is to play percussion, but women organise the whole festivity. They tell the men what to do. Like on this European tour.”
Evidently, the men who make up the rhythm section of the Canalón de Timbiquí show – a marimba player, two drummers and a percussionist – have been taking a passive approach to proceedings. Góngora rolls her eyes: “It used to be that women were not allowed to play any instruments apart from the guaca [the cylindrical shaker that makes the swishing sound],” she says. “The men were all pretty macho when it came to doing the banning, but not so macho when it came to doing the things it takes to be a man. If you dared to play another instrument, they would say: you’re a machorra [a dyke] – you just want to be like a man. And if a man played the guaca, they’d say: ‘Oh, are you gay?’”
Although these attitudes are in decline, their roots lie in the division of labour in extracting gold from the mangrove swamps of her homeland. The band’s namesake Timbiquí is the picturesque settlement on the Pacific coast where Góngora grew up before she moved to the much larger town of Cali. As well as being the name of the foundation she runs to promote and protect Pacific culture, the word canalón describes a piece of equipment in artisanal mining, a wooden chute into which the men shovel the rich alluvial soil. As it makes its way downward it is filtered and graded; at the other end it is collected by barequeras or playadores, the women whose voices combine as they sift and rinse in the search for gold.
“The river, the environment and the music are all linked with each other,” says Góngora. “From natural resources come the instruments themselves and the sound of each one represents an aspect of nature. The marimba represents water, which gives serenity, freshness and calm. The drums represent thunder and the crashing of waves – power and strength. The guasa (shaker) represents the rain – because it rains a lot in Pacific Colombia – and with the rain comes a cleansing.”
I had caught the Canalón de Timbiquí show a few days earlier at Nell’s Jazz and Blues bar in west London. I couldn’t think of the last time I had seen four middle-aged women fronting a band – languorous and entirely self-possessed as they swathed the rolling thunder of the men behind them in beautiful, keening harmonies. In this incarnation, Góngora joins her fellow singers in traditional costume: a straw sombrero, white frilly blouse, full skirt. But there is another, very different side to her. What elevates the nursery-school teacher and mother of two from the realms of the merely folkloric is her embracing of electronic music, and in particular her dazzling collaborations with British producer and DJ Will Holland, better known as Quantic.
Although they have worked together since the Worcester-born musician moved to Cali almost 10 years ago, it was only in May this year that they released Góngora’s first solo album, Curao. This exceptional record reconfigures Pacific music for the digital age, setting Góngora’s sumptuous and distinctly rural voice against backing tracks that carry a low-end punch that is unmistakably urban. “My musical and spiritual connection with Quantic is so strong that I feel in the same space as when I am singing with Canalón,” says Góngora of this very contemporary side to her persona. “I had to make a decision that is very unusual in my community, and also frowned on. I had to confront the matrons, the elder women – and my mother! – because at the beginning they didn’t like me doing traditional music in this different context. I had to really work hard to make them understand that this was a way to make our Pacific music known, to make it international.”
That the matrons of Afro-Colombia gave Góngora the nod is a blessing for anyone in search of exciting new music. “Timbiquí is beautiful, but there’s a lot of hardship,” says Quantic from a recording session in Mexico City. “It’s difficult and dangerous to get there. You have a lot of drug trafficking and paramilitary activity. But you would never know that from being around Nidia. She has not just an extraordinary power and energy in her voice, but also the ability to write and compose great songs. That’s why she’s earned the prestigious title of cantora, which is to do with heritage. There is a lineage to her singing, that comes from her mother and grandmother.”
I ask Góngora how her mother might describe her. Her head rocks back in laughter, and she thwacks the back of her right hand into the palm of her left. “Naughty and clever,” she says. “But also creative and a bit of a rebel. I always went against things I didn’t understand. I was always looking for an answer. My mum always told me the truth, and encouraged me to question things. But she also warned me, too: be careful, Nidia – life is much harder when you live like that.””