El Gran Fidel is one of Colombia’s foundational sound systems—referred to as picós from the English phrase ‘pick-up’—taking its place in the pantheon of Barranquilla’s immortalized picós alongside other heavyweights of the seventies and eighties like El Timbalero, El Coreano and El Rojo.
Originally owned and operated by Jaime Alvarez, El Fidel became known as ‘El Ministro de La Salsa’ dictating sounds and selections at verbenas and casetas (outdor soundsystem events) around the city. The aesthetic of the picó was decidedly militaristic—drawing on the imagery and reputation of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. The original artwork portrays a powerful Fidel, victoriously riding a camel across the front of the speaker box, with figures or mascots from other picós reaching up, attempting to hold him back or rise up to his level. The image at once conveys the potency of the picó, and references the well-known photographs of Cuban Revolutionaries riding into Havana in 1959 amidst throngs of onlookers and supporters. Curiously, the illustrations also draw heavily on orientalist symbology—Fidel rides a camel (not a vehicle of choice in either Cuba or Colombia) from a desert environment containing arabesque architecture and distinctly middle-eastern features, into a more familiar tropical/Caribbean terrain with palm trees, blue sky, and mountains on the horizon.
Arguably, El Fidel—along with its contemporaries—occupies a ‘golden-oldies’ style nostalgic space in Barranquilla’s current day musical geography. The physical and sonic qualities of picotero culture have evolved significantly through the nineties and into the twenty-first century. Tube amps, intricate illustrations and coveted Congolese records have in large part been replaced by larger speaker sets, drum machines, live mc’s and modernized champeta music and dance styles. Still, there remains a veneration and respect for the older traditions that is alive and well among many in Barranquilla who continue to admire the music and culture of yesteryear.
Among these veteran picoteros, vinyl enthusiasts, and melomanos, a space has been carved out for the celebration of this historical culture. A number of estaderos (outdoor bars/music venues) around the city feature replicas of the golden-era picós, including the legendary venue La Troja, where patrons dance to the sounds of vintage salsa records lovingly selected from the club’s cherished collection of Lps and 45s. Replica picós have also become something of a hobby for fans, as events, clubs and associations dedicated to building and playing them have popped up around the region. One such group is ASOREPIK—a collective of verbena veterans and enthusiasts who hold performances and gatherings that feature picós in miniature, playing the placas (similar to what we would call drops) and styles of music made famous by the original sets. These gatherings range from formal anniversaries dedicated to showcasing the replicas, to neighborhood dances at parks or estaderos where the traditional styles are honored in an informal fashion. One such event that we attended was a mother’s day dance in Santo Domingo (a working class neighborhood in southern Barranquilla) that featured replicas from Soledad—El Suby and El Melodico—alongside two of Barranquilla’s finest—El Dragon and El Gran Freddy. These types of gatherings not only serve as a reminder of the musical and aesthetic legacies of picotero culture, but they also offer an alternative social space to the often rowdier, younger crowds that gravitate towards the modern picós.
During our stay in Barranquilla, Carlota and myself had the crazy idea of commissioning a replica picó that we would bring back to the states. After meeting many members of ASOREPIK, and visiting various events, we were deep enough under the spell of these multi-colored sound systems to undertake the process of transporting one across many miles of ocean to have a small taste of Colombia in cold, drab Boston. ASOREPIK member and carpenter by trade, Edilberto De La Hoz is a Soledad native responsible for building many of the picó replicas in the area. Being a devotee of El Gran Fidel, with a beautiful replica of his own, it was only right that we decided on El Fidel for the picó to have him build for us. So with our fingers crossed that shipping a decorated speaker box to Boston would be possible, we made arrangements for the creation of our own El Fidel (picós are something of a curiosity in most of Colombia, not being widely known outside of the Caribbean coast—one can only imagine the response of US customs to this strange object adorned with a painting of Fidel Castro).
After some pretty difficult last minute maneuvering we were able to pack away the finished product and ship it off just before getting on a plane back to Bogota and eventually to Boston. A few weeks later our improvised padded box arrived at my doorstep with only minor damage—El Gran Fidel had reached its destination. Mounting the speakers themselves into the box was not quite as easy as I had envisioned, but within a short time the picó was up and running. And that is the story of how El Gran Fidel made its way from a yard in Soledad, Atlantico, to an apartment in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Many thanks to Jessie P. for the photo at the top of this post, the vintage EL Fidel image comes from the great Africolombia blog courtesy of Fabian Altahona and Lain Camilo Dominguez Ospina