“See. Up, down…up, down…pick up, pico.”
Dago, one of Colombia’s mobile DJs was defining the term “pico.” It’s slang for the tonearm or “pick-up arm” you raise and lower to cue a record, and, by extension, it has come to mean a mobile DJ’s entire set-up. Language being what it is, sometimes the DJs refer to themselves as picos. These DJs — more properly known as “picoteros” — are unique to Colombia’s Caribbean coast. They shuttle between Cartagena and the industrial port city of Barranquilla, providing inexpensive entertainment with their exotic sound systems along the way. Sometimes a DJ will set up in an open lot, or be part of a circuit of visiting spinners at an established outdoor cantina. Clusters of semi-permanent, enclosed beergardens with a clearing for dancers are also found along the fringes of most towns. All of these are called “picolandias.” Picolandias represent a gritty teen variation of the nightclub — fun, escapist, lawless, and OK that way for their patrons.
Dago, who is demo-ing the origin of the word pico, calls himself a gangster, attesting to the combination of braggadocio and real danger associated with these roadside dancehalls. Stints at a club or party go from 6 PM till dawn and earn the DJs about 70,000 pesos — that’s 100 dollars, US, and not bad. But the picoteros must supply crew, transportation, equipment, and their own security. No wonder there are few father figures in this grueling and competitive world where the average age of a DJ is between 16 and 22.
The Disco Fortress
A pico houses dual turntables and a mixer in a large floor-to- shoulder-height wooden box with a lift-top lid that resembles an elaborate piece of 1950s furniture, a hotrod, and a coffin all at the same time. Various “looks” include blond woodgrain Formica with a chrome skirt, Bakelite chevron hardbody alternating very red with ochre yellow, and a lovebuggy fantasy with mosaic mirror chips rimmed by pink fake-fur. More prosperous picos sport built-in keyboards, effect boxes, tape decks, CD players, a variety of press-on precious-metal trims, and running-lights. Mirrors in the lids reflect the spinning discs, creating a poor man’s video effect. One emerging trend is a true “videopico,” complete with interviewer, cameraman, and a 16-foot projection screen that intercuts videoclips with live shots of the dancers.
An equally large, decorated-to-match record hutch is positioned behind the DJ. It is his treasure chest. From it record sleeves are partially raised, a record withdrawn, played, then slipped back in exactly the same location. The history of a DJ’s likes and dislikes is etched in finger paths along the surface of his collection, resembling the well-worn steps of a cathedral. Tracing the cardboard grooves, records are chosen by feel. Like turf-conscious DJs everywhere, picoteros rip off or scratch out labels to keep other DJs from duplicating their “sounds.”
Story of a Sound, Chapter One: Technique
None. Or so it seems. Records are slam-dunked on the turntables and tonearms dropped. Against all the rules of the Western World writ by Studio 54, Danceteria, and the Paradise Garage, if a cue is missed, the picotero just lifts the tonearm and fishes for a sweet spot — all of this audible to the crowd. Dance grooves can be as short as a minute, played one after the other with no attempt to match the beat or feel of the last recording. Dead air occurs. The dancers freeze, awaiting the next aural stutter step. The DJ does care, however. He offers a succession of short instrumental beats as he once-overs the crowd. Then, with an internal logic that is his alone, the picotero does something chunky, clumsy, whipping the dancers into a joyous frenzy.
Chapter Two: Rhythm Carriers
Records are old and scratchy. They are the picoteros’ lifeblood, their trademarks — meant to be preserved, guarded, rationed. Could this be the reason that “scratching” is never done live, but sampled and Casio-dispensed instead? Even new records are irritating due to bad pressings, mishandlings, and overuse after just a few plays. Surface noise floats in the open air. Overcranked amps distort the sound further. No one minds. Dancers slide along the perfect groove nestled in the whorl of stylus hitting grime on used vinyl.
Chapter Three: Broadcast Equipment
Conquering space is the job at hand. Picolandias are usually vast outdoor yards with borders formed by stone walls, cement buildings, or corrugated metal fences. Sometimes they are little more than empty lots. When yards are butt-up to one another, sound stystems are designed to erect sonic walls. Speaker base cabinets each house four 12- to 16-inch woofers. Two cabinets are usually set up near the pico, and another pair is placed out on the dance floor. Satellites of tweeters, two to a box, maybe 24 boxes in all, hover from wires over the cabinets and above the heads of the dancers. There are no midranges. Hum rules. All mono. Meters always read red. Deafening loudness, distortion and the roar of the competing sound systems describe a Russolo-Cage-Branca continuum.
While the evening is fueled by rum, all this equipment is powered by delicate tube amplifiers. Audiophiles, this is the fabled MacIntosh burial ground. Using three rows of 12 power tubes (a normal Marshal amp has four) these handmade units can bring dancers to their knees. A behind-the-scenes peek reveals large electric fans necessary to keep the heat manageable in the pico box. Tangles of wires lead to massive gas-powered generators, jerryrigged into usefulness long after their warranties have expired and sprouting banks of circuit breakers. These behemoths supply continuous power in a country where electricity is often rationed and dances are held outdoors.
Cloth speaker-grills are canvasses spray-painted with the names of the picoteros or with cartooney scenes — imagine Big Daddy Ed Roth working out his ideas on a subway car. Lettered tags, such as “Rumbero,” “El Supremo,” “Mancho Stereo,” “K-2,” or “La Tremenda,” are dotted with glitter and surrounded by strobes, twinkle lights, and bare bulbs that announce who’s who to the crowd. “Plaques” (PLACK-as), or discs of recorded intros, are another form of DJ ID — brags and tags voiced in the deep rococo, bass-toned echostyle popular on Colombian radio. “Numero unoooooooo. El pico peeeeeeerfecta. Hoy!” and “At-ten-ci-on. Bailables. Este es otro disco Nuevooo, Nuevoooo, Nuevoooooo. Disco excluuusivo” rumble forth. These two- to ten-second needledrops are quick-cut between songs or left to roll over the latest dance music. A successful picotero has a plaque created exclusively for him; every cut reverberates his name. If the crowd still doesn’t know who it’s listening to, top-of-the-line picos feature linear, Times-Square-style message boards which move the DJ’s name in ruby LED-loops across the top of his sound system.
Working In No-man’s Land
Each pico is oversized — in order to be impressive — so the standard kit includes a small stool for the DJ to stand on. From this perch, the picotero directs his empire of assistants and hangers-on. An average crew can include a DJ-in-training, girlfriends, groupies, maybe a keyboard player, a mechanic, numerous roadies to lug all the equipment, and friends with duties ranging from drinking partners to bodyguards. This last group is needed. There is no law in the land of the picos. 100¡ Fahrenheit temperatures, even hotter music, rum, drugs, aguardiente (firewater), old rivalries, and restless relationships all contribute to the prospects for trouble.
For their own safety, even police, fire brigades, and ambulances refuse to enter this no-man’s land. When a knife-fight erupts, everyone moves quickly away from the commotion in an ever-widening circle. Gunshots cause a field of dancers to hit the dirt. Police seldom venture past the gates, so the wounded are taken out to them. Yimi Melodia, a notorious ex-DJ, claims that before he coined the word pico, DJs were called “champeta,” slang for “knife.”
The most popular style of music on the turntables is called “Soweto.” The term was originally used to characterize the music of South Africa, but these days it refers to just about any African music. It is the adopted-roots music of picolandia. It is the basis for “terapia,” or “therapy,” music which soothes the collective soul of the mixed Indian, Latin and African populations of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Tiny snippets of repetitive, circular guitar patterns or heavy-footed mbaqanga beats are bootlegged off of various African dance records and strung together by producers. Picoteros do the same thing live, and a set can go for hours without a vocal, without a melody. In inventive bursts of daring-do and copyright infringement, local bands will record classic tracks such as Souzy Kasseya’s “Princess Goyo,” and call the cut “Coyo.” Lately, “meneito,” a term for reggae Espaˆol out of Panama, is also being played. Clubgoers dance to these sounds in what I call the “picorumba” — a tight little two-step that dares light to seep between a couple dancing in a full bodypress, from forehead to knees. A popular variation from 1993 had the woman arching backwards as if in a deadweight swoon, the man hug-humping over her. The goal is an exchange of molecules.
Yimi Melodia (real name: Jamie Fontalvo) claims to be the original picotero. He now builds sound systems and runs the Rincon record store in Barrio la Bazurto, just south of Cartagena’s new bullring. The outside of his shop is painted by the same artists who design speaker-grill covers. The latest exterior features the singer Celia Cruz and a giant record with Yimi’s face on the label. Paintings of drums and accordions on the store’s ceiling were recently plastered over because of all the bullet holes.
“At first it was called ‘rara’. ‘Musica rara’ was the original name for ‘champeta’ (knife) music,” Yimi says, “named for the needle that cuts the skin of the record. This was what we called the hard-to-find imported music that DJs played. Originally we used records from Puerto Rico — country music, jibaro. Then it was African music, ‘Afro-sound.’ That’s what it is now, but it’s called ‘Soweto.'”
“I was the first pico,” he continues, “and I invented the word. I started 35 years ago with a single turntable. That system was called ‘Nuncas es Tarde’ (‘It’s Never Too Late’). About 25 years ago I got the idea to add a second turntable. I was announcing songs through a mike, so I had a technico rig another plate (turntable) through the mike input. The first double was called ‘Gran Platino.’ My major rival at the time was Kintero Kkinki. He’s dead now, but I’m still here.”
Editor’s note: Colombian DJs may have originated the use of dual turntable record mixing, the style moving to Jamaica along with the marijuana trade, eventually reaching Miami and the South Bronx. It’s an investigation yet to be made.
Henry is 14. He’s working in the food area outside a picolandia. He’s in seventh grade and deejays on the weekends and sometimes on Sundays. “I started when I was 8. This guy here, this is my cousin. His father owns the system. It cost 5 million pesos.” That’s about US$8,500, and Henry’s cousin is there to protect the family investment. Other relatives set up tables and sell food and beer to those who gather outside to hear the music for free. Henry earns a little over US$10 per night, or about the cost of a new record, less than an entry to an upper-class disco. “My favorite record nowadays is ‘Un Amor Commo el Nuestro’ (‘A Love Like Ours’), a Puerto Rican salsa by Jerry Rivera.” My translators have a tough time with Henry’s Costeno dialect, so “A Love Like Ours” was, for about ten minutes, “We Love the Dead.”
Perros: Colombian hot dogs. Made with a lumpy bun, dubious meat, sauteed onions, pineapple, mustard, ketchup, mayo, and topped off with crushed potato chips. Mmmmm…