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  • The Berlin label celebrating the sounds of Colombia and the Congo

Music & clubs

The Berlin label celebrating the sounds of Colombia and the Congo

When Kreuzberg-based record label Eck Echo signed the Congolese band Ngwaka Son Systéme, an intercontinental musical journey was unexpectedly set in motion.

Ngwaka Son Systéme. Photo: Elie Mbansing

Diego Hernandez never imagined that a single cassette tape would set an intercontinental music expedition in motion. In 2022, Berlin-based record collector Fedi Petit sent Hernandez a mixtape of Congolese rumba to see if he wanted to release it on his label, Eck Echo. Instantly falling in love with the music, Hernandez put out the cassette tape, entitled Rumba on the River, that same year. After releasing the compilation, Hernandez stayed in touch with Petit and paid him a visit in Kinshasa, where he was working on a music project. During this stay in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he ended up at the rehearsals of the local band Ngwaka Son Systéme – a chance encounter that would lead him to discover a shared musical lineage between Africa and his own Latin America.

“Kreuzberg appears as a sort of poetic addition to the current constellation of the music industry”

Originally from Peru, Berlin-based DJ and record label owner Hernandez has been promoting and releasing new wave and classic Latin sounds under Eck Echo since 2013. The label focuses on Latin American artists, from classic chicha band Los Shapis to digital cumbia talent Tribilin Sound, operating from his bedroom office in Kreuzberg. With Ngwaka Son Systéme, Hernandez signed Eck Echo’s first central African band early last year. He was so enamoured with the band’s music, so enthralled by their energy, that he knew immediately that their sound and story would fit on his label despite being a digression from its usual Latin American output. In their sound, he heard similarities to the music he had been DJing throughout his sets, more specifically to that of champeta, a musical genre and style of dance music popular in the coastal areas of Colombia.

Diego Hernandez. Photo: Makar Artemev

After signing the band, Hernandez started travelling back and forth between Kinshasa and Kreuzberg. During his trips to the DRC, he discovered a shared lineage between African and Latin music and, with it, material for a new project. In summer 2023, along with Berlin-based Colombian tropicália DJ Edna Martinez and Mexican director Miguel Buenrostro, Hernandez flew to Kinshasa to make a film. With Ngwaka Son Systéme at the heart, Hernandez sought to explore how African and Latin music share connections, but more importantly, he wanted to chronicle the history of the Colombian sound of champeta and how it’s connected to the DRC.

A Shared Heritage

“When I dig into the past, like into the vintage cumbia music of the 1970s, we are still dealing with a cultural exchange between African, Mesoamericano and European cultures,” Hernandez explains. His own musical journey to the DRC started in 2014 when Hernandez first discovered champeta. “I really fell for it due to its beat and tempo proximity to house music, but as I got to learn more about the music and the Afrocolombian culture surrounding it, I learned that the genre is heavily borrowed from Congolese soukous,” he says, referencing a style of dance music from the DRC that is itself heavily influenced by rumba.

Photo: Elie Mbansing

The history of champeta and the musical connection between Colombia and the DRC are a byproduct of the slave trade. Champeta started out as a style of music called ‘chalusonga’, which found its footing in the 1960s when Afrocolombians started to push for more music that would speak to their own identity. “Record collectors [from Colombia] were sent out to Africa to bring back music, and a lot of what was being played during the ‘carnavales’ each February was music from Nigeria, South Africa, Ivory Coast, etc,” Hernandez explains about the genre’s history. “But eventually, it was the Congolese soukous that won over the hearts of the Colombian costeños [Colombians who live near the Caribbean coast].”

Rumba on the River by All Rights Deserved: The mix-tape that started it all.

“There are many aspects of the whole process for which I was not prepared”

Signing and working with a band on another continent, Hernandez says, proved to be challenging. Prior to this, Eck Echo had worked mainly with electronic and independent producers. Now, Hernandez was working with a band that had a different way of doing things and spoke a different language. “There are many aspects of the whole process for which I was not prepared,” the DJ and label owner admits. “Between the time I spent with the band during my first Kinshasa trip and the several conversations we had during the recordings and the curation of the album, I had to improve my French a whole lot. The main consideration for both myself and the band was to know that there is a direct communication and that we are doing this for the love of music, which entails a high motivation of exposing their music in all reachable corners of the world.”

In order to realise this mammoth project, Hernandez spent a lot of time in Kinshasa. “The multiculturalism there is very unique, so much so that Lingala is not, as I would have thought, their native tongue but it is a mixture of several languages pieced together in order to achieve mutual understanding between the members of several language groups,” Hernandez says. “The city itself has a very frantic pace, but in the end, what fulfilled me the most was the energy of the people – something that makes your heart beat louder.”

From the Congo to Colombia

The documentary, titled Benda Singa (“pull the string”), is set to be released in February, along with Ngwaka Son Systéme’s new record Iboto Ngenge, an energetic pulse of rhythmic African soul and electronics influenced by the sounds of rap and dancehall. “I already had the idea of filming the band, but it was only after I had pitched the idea to the Music Ambassadors programme [an initiative by the Berlin Music Commission] did I begin to consider it seriously,” Hernadez says about the film. “Shortly afterwards, I met filmmaker Miguel Buenrostro, who casually mentioned he had been working on a film of his own in Kinshasa with the band Fulu Miziki. Besides the actual scope of what we were documenting, the idea of gathering a Peruvian, a Mexican and a Colombian in Kinshasa was as surreal as it was beautiful.”

After deciding that combining the film with the record would supplement the music’s message, the two brought Martinez on board. The DJ’s background in Colombian-Congolese music and role as curator in Berlin made her the ideal voice for the project. “By presenting a DJ set of hers in Congo, we attempted to bring everything full circle,” Hernandez explains. “In the past, it was Congolese music which arrived in Cartagena via record hunters – now we bring Colombian music to Kinshasa via DJs.”

In the end, Hernadez’s goal is to take Ngwaka Son Systéme on tour, from Kinshasa to Kreuzberg and then to Colombia, connecting all the musical dots along the way. “Kreuzberg appears as a sort of poetic addition to the current constellation of the music industry; it’s teeming with immigrant life, and each of us is actively contributing to the music scene,” Hernandez says. “We see Kreuzberg in this sense as a broadcasting station for music imagined and produced in the global south, which in our case is Colombia and the Congo.”

  • Iboto Ngenge by Ngwaka Son Sytéme is out Feb 23rd. Follow them on Instagram at @ngwakasonsysteme to find out more.