Music

Tostao Wants to Take Afro Colombian ‘Ritmo Exótico’ Global

When ChocQuibTown –the seminal Colombian trio that fuses hip hop with Colombian rhythms and beats from the Pacific Coast — took a break late in 2022, co-founder Tostao decided to go back to his roots. Literally. The multi-time Latin Grammy winner (real name: Carlos Valencia) went back to his native Chocó, in Colombia’s Pacific Coast, and then to Medellín, where he and a group of producers, writers and artists began to create.

The resulting Exótico Pa’l Mundo (Exotic For the World), released late last year, is an album of “ritmo exótico,” a new genre little known outside Colombia that Tostao describes as “an urban fusion with elements of tropical Colombian music and folklore.”

You might think you’ve heard stuff like this before, but you haven’t. “Ritmo exótico” is vibrant and luscious and immediately danceable, mixing electronic loops with acoustic instruments and irresistible swagger and attitude. It’s underground but it could be mainstream (check out a taste here).

Tostao

“It’s like you brought together standard Colombian reggaetón with a little bit of Joe Arroyo vibe and on top of that you put in a little bit of Petronio Alvarez, of that Blackness,” says Tostao, referring to the late Afrocolombian composer and singer, for whom Colombia’s biggest festival of Black Pacific music is named.

Like Alvarez, Tostao, who is also Black, has long been committed to celebrating his Afro Colombian culture, and with ChocQuibTown, he – along with ex wife Goyo and Slo — was able to create an international hip-hop sound that incorporated the most local subgenres of Colombia’s Pacific coast. Ritmo Exótico is also anchored in the music of Chocó and the Pacific, but it leans more folk and tropical.

“It’s like reggaetón with a taste of borojó,” laughs Tostao, alluding to a tropical fruit from Chocó.

To get his mix of sounds just right, Tostao moved from Miami to Medellín, which has world-class recording studios, but is also home to a big population of musicians from Chocó, all of them Black. Tostao joined them in a kind of collective that gave way to a first solo album that is anything but solitary.

Exótico Pa’l Mundo features up and coming ritmo exótico acts like Luis Eduardo Acústico, Robbie Vida (who Tostao describes as “the Kanye West of ritmo exótico”), Buay Press and Yilmar Dresan, as well as more established Afro Colombian acts like Mabiland and Los Dioses del Ritmo.

The project started as a songwriting camp with kids from the ritmo exótico movement. Young artists who’d gone viral on TikTok — like Los Dioses del Ritmo with their “Alo Michael (Rico Rico)” single. The idea, says Tostao, was to teach them how he worked in the industry.

“Turns out they were super-talented, super-hard working. So I spoke to my manager [Juan Diego Medina, who also manages Manuel Turizo and Nicky Jam] and I told him: ‘I know it’s not common to write and publish songs with kids no one knows yet. But I want to do this as my solo project.’”

Exótico Pa’l Mundo was released via Medina’s La Industria and distributed via Sony. And although Tostao sees it as a project born from love, he also wants it “to become commercially viable. It’s like we did with CocQuibTown, a black group playing in Bogotá who won a Grammy. If global platforms support a genre like ritmo exótico from Chocó, it has all the elements to go global. It’s not just about love. It’s about having been around the world and seeing the results.”

Tostao also knows this may be slow going — the artists of this scene are mostly unknown outside Colombia, after all — but he feels the change is there, right below the surface.  

“This sound feels like a club sound. It feels big,” he says. “And it’s a movement, like a wave. When we had ChocQuibTown we were the only ones because the sound was so special. But when you’re part of a movement, the minute one stands out, others will follow.”

The best way for that to happen, Tostao admits, would be to have a big name like Farruko or Myke Towers jump and bandwagon. Meantime, he’s busy evangelizing for the music and the culture.

Late last year, he launched a projected titled Somos Grandes (We’re Big) together with the Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean, which connects Afro Latino elements across Latin American countries. One of the chapters is focused on ritmo exótico in Chocó, and will feature six weeks of workshops, panels and production that will wrap up March 21.

“I want to open a door to show people El Chocó,” says Tostao. “My editorial line is the promotion of Afro Colombian music. Wherever I play, I’d like people to say, ‘A guy from El Chocó was here and left us with that Afro Pacific flow.’ I feel many things are happening now with our Afro Colombian culture. There’s far more presence. But I feel the moment, the big moment, hasn’t come yet. We still don’t have our Afro Maluma. But it’s coming.”

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