As an Afro-Colombian immigrant to Canada, Lido Pimienta has a deep desire to return to her homeland. One problem: Colombia has been shattered by an ongoing civil war since 1964, making it not the most lenient country when it comes to freedom of expression. In fact, Pimienta's outspoken activism was the reason for her forced departure in 2006. On the impressive new album Miss Colombia, she explores the fragmented and complex relationship with her home country.
Written by: Jasper Willems
Photos: David D Barajas
Lido Pimienta grew up in Barranquilla, a coastal town in northern Colombia. When she was six years old, her Afro-Colombian father, harbor manager Ademar Pimienta, died of cancer. Mother Paz, a descendant of the native Wayuu people, is left largely to raise Lido, her older sister and younger brother. Pimienta soon finds out that as an Afro-Colombian woman she can be discriminated against based on her appearance. “That's how I grew up. During my First Communion, my hair had to be straightened so that I looked "beautiful" to the priests. Before that I proudly wore a large afro or had my hair braided. That is the culture in Colombia: apparently God does not like African hair.”
Pimienta never misses a moment to provoke, and she often does so with a wink. On the Miss Colombia album cover, she poses as the Virgin Mary in a Wayuu robe of her own design, and in "Pelo Cucu," she sings from the perspective of a girl getting her hair straightened for the first time. “I thought it was important to capture that moment in a song. If you choose to wear your hair the African way, it is still not accepted as a beauty standard in Colombia. Eventually you will believe it yourself. A white girl could go into the pool and wet her hair without getting in trouble with her parents. 'Pelo Cucu' is quite a sad song actually, because things like this still happen to this day. Little to nothing has changed.”
It has never been time for Pimienta to conform. At the tender age of 11 she finds her outlet as the front woman of various hardcore and metal bands. She plays with musicians who are sometimes twice her age. Through them, she discovers literature by Naomi Klein and Angela Davis, and slowly begins to rebel against government and institutions with her own music and art. “Whether or not people pay attention to my work is never decisive for me to do this. I would have embraced life as an artist anyway. My curiosity has always made me the odd one out in the family.”
Because of her activism, not only she, but also her family, was threatened with violence at the time. “My mother was afraid for my safety: that was ultimately the reason for us to move to Canada. Only her mother initially moves to London, Ontario, where she also faces discrimination and racism. It would be another five long years before she finds enough stability to bring her children back to Canada safe and sound.
“That period was terribly difficult for me. My mother was afraid that the police or the government would eventually do something to me. It was therefore urgent for her to fly me to Canada as soon as possible. I was 14 years old at the time, exactly the phase of life in which you shape yourself into an adult person. It was hard to go through that without my mother. Fortunately, I am very close to my mother's side of the family. My aunt is like a second mother to me: she made sure that my cousin and I went to school in Barranquilla.”
During that five-year period, Pimienta spends a lot of time with her cousin, who greatly shapes her worldview. She also hangs out with Dancer Grupo Kumbe, a dance formation that her cousin is part of. During that period, Pimienta – who often listens to acts such as Radiohead and Portishead – receives a CD by the Afro-Colombian group Sexteto Tabalá*, from the village of San Basilio de Palenque. It changes her life forever: she finally finds a source of wealth and inspiration within her own living environment and culture.
* Sexteto Tabalá was founded in the 1940s by Jose Valdez Simance. It is a typical band of generations that musically reflects the free-spirited wealth of cultures in Palenque with movements such as cumbia, Cuban son, porro and bullerengue. Rafael Cassiani Cassiani is the current bandleader.
Moving to Canada is a bittersweet experience for Pimienta. After five years, she is finally reunited with her mother, but in the meantime she has to acclimatize to a completely new country, with a colder climate and a 'colder' culture. “In my experience, family ties are very close. I noticed that my friends in Canada are less close to aunts and uncles. Usually they don't talk to their families until the holidays. I found that very strange myself. I talk to my uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces almost every week, even though they live in a completely different country. European descendants in Canada sometimes don't speak to relatives for months. That was a huge culture shock for me.”
However, Pimienta is growing as a multidisciplinary artist. She studies art theory at the OCAD in Toronto and graphic design at the BealArt Academy of Art in London, Ontario. Pimienta gives birth to her first son and releases her debut album COLOR in 2010. She is building a reputation as an artist who tries to bridge the gap between audience and performer as quickly as possible: bold, expressive and often also a bit playful and provocative. Shortly after leaving for Toronto with her son, Pimienta meets Matt Smith, who produces music as Prince Nifty.
In Prince Nifty she sees a musical partner who can guide her almost incessant stream of ideas in logical directions. Pimienta lets him hear a collection of demos: a click quickly develops between the two. “I admire him enormously,” says Pimienta. “An artist like me just needs someone like Prince Nifty as a stable factor, someone who puts me back on my feet.” The duo impulsively leaves for Santiago, Chile to record songs with Andrés Nusser of the band Astro. Much of the material from these sessions later became the foundation for Miss Colombia.
"As a professional musician you can quickly lose yourself in fantasies of fame and fortune, and your work will suffer in the long run. I want to continue to propagate my art, my morals and my message without compromise."
Prince Nifty and Pimienta complement each other perfectly, but the clock is ticking to release something too. Pimienta has applied for a subsidy and the fruits of that money must be paid off. She initially released second album La Papessa (2016) independently, without any fanfare. In Toronto, the heart of the Canadian music industry, however, it proves quite difficult to ignore Lido Pimienta; a groundbreaking artist who fearlessly sings in her native language on themes such as domestic violence, sexism and the persecution of indigenous people. La Papessa strikes a chord with established artists who struggle with such topics, in particular Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq and producer duo A Tribe Called Red (with whom Pimienta frequently collaborates).
The fire is spreading faster than Pimienta herself thinks possible. In 2017, La Papessa became the first Spanish-language record to win the Polaris Music Prize, leaving established artists such as Feist, Gord Downie and Leonard Cohen behind. Pimienta does not accept the award with outdated platitudes or false modesty; no, she uses the global platform to make a passionate statement against racism and colonialism in her adopted homeland. “I hope that the Aryan specimen that told me to go back to my country, two weeks after I arrived in Canada, is watching this.” She also highlights the indigenous inhabitants of Canada, such as the Cree and the Inuit. “The real people of this country.”
Pimienta's performances and statements regularly cause a stir. It doesn't help that her life and career have suddenly come under a microscope since winning the Polaris Music Prize. After her speech, she is met with a waterfall of misogynistic and racist threats. At a concert in Halifax, she asks women of color to the front row, leading to an incident with a photographer in the audience. “I'm still not a famous person. Even if I had a million followers; I still live in the same apartment, with the same friends around me. As a professional musician you can quickly lose yourself in fantasies of fame and fortune, and your work will suffer in the long run. I want to continue to propagate my art, my morals and my message uncompromisingly.”
Pimienta sees the unexpected success surrounding La Papessa as a detour rather than a goal in itself. She is all the more preoccupied with the record she recorded in Santiago with Prince Nifty. The source of that inspiration for that project was remarkable: the Miss Universe pageant of 2015. Host Steve Harvey makes a huge blunder during the ceremony by accidentally awarding the crown to Miss Colombia instead of the actual winner, Miss Philippines.
For the first time, dubiously, Colombia appears to be showing solidarity in protest: Steve Harvey and Miss Philippines are becoming the target of racism and death threats on a massive scale. This wave of reactions unexpectedly exposes a personal pain point for Pimienta: can her Colombian identity remain intact in a socio-political climate in which her community is so structurally rejected? The Wayuu people in the northern peninsula of La Guajira, meanwhile, are dying from drought, due to a built dam that regulates the water supply. Most of the river water is consumed by work in Cerrejón, the largest open pit mining area in South America. How do you learn to love a country that has these kinds of practices?
“Of course Miss Colombia is a nod to the whole Miss Universe fiasco, but the title has a double meaning,” explains Pimienta. “It also refers to the fact that I just miss Colombia so much, despite all the problematic and complex things that make me lose heart. And I wanted to tell that story with my music. My education in art theory made me realize that I had to bring the right elements together. I'm not the kind of artist who says: here you have twenty separate songs, let's quickly puzzle together a new album. Everything must relate to each other in a substantial way.”
“Thanks to this album, I understand a lot better exactly what function my art has, and for whom it is intended.”
During the process of La Papessa, Pimienta's approach is limited: songs with strong cumbia influences are often created by means of a looping pedal, so that the call-and-response essential for the genre could be performed by herself. Thanks to the Polaris prize money, Pimienta can travel to Colombia several times and directly integrate those influences from her own environment into her work. Miss Colombia has important guest appearances from artists such as Li Saumet (of Bomba Estéreo) and her beloved Sexteto Tabalá.
Layer by layer, Pimienta explores her resentment and love for Colombia and examines whether those two sides can exist in a certain harmony. Nowhere is that contrast so sharp as on 'Eso Que Tu Haces': a spectacular song in which all the influences of Pimienta are represented in a balanced way. On the other end of the phone, Lido Pimienta mocks the chorus of Eric Carmen's hit 'All By Myself', a classic power ballad with melodrama on top. Pimienta's short performance, on the other hand, sounds very cheerful and cheerful. Her shrill, penetrating voice naturally resembles a brass band horn: it makes you jump right away. “There's something incredibly powerful about those typical power ballads”, Pimienta chuckles. “'Eso Que Tu Haces' is secretly just such a song. The only difference is that I don't care about some guy who doesn't call me back, but a corrupt socio-political system that oppresses me and my people."
The arrangement really pulls out all the stops: horns, supercooled synths and beats and yes, also a choir. But in the meantime, 'Eso Que Tu Haces' is a biting accusation against xenophobic and discriminatory ideas: 'What you do, that is not love.' The beautiful video clip was shot during Pimienta's first visit to San Basilio de Palenque. Dancer Grupo Kumbe, the dance group she became friends with in Colombia, plays a leading role. Also the statue of Benkos Bohió that watches over the city. That is – like almost everything that Lido Pimienta does – again a very conscious choice. “Benkos Bohió was a slave in the sixteenth century who freed the other slaves from the Spaniards. San Basilio de Palenque thus became the first free settlement in all of America.”
During the first half of Miss Colombia, Pimienta's cynicism and introspection still predominate. “Songs like 'Nada', 'Te Queria' and 'No Pude' are all linked in some way to my love-hate relationship with Colombia,” she explains. The industrial-esque 'No Pude' is by far the darkest track on the album. In a way the title means: I'm too tired to even try.
“On the second half of the record, from 'Coming Thru', 'Quiero Que Me Salves' and 'Pelo Cucu', the album gradually becomes more hopeful,” explains Pimienta. “It is impossible for someone with a broken background like me to deny the terrible aspects of Colombia – and Canada too. But it is important to rest on hope and to organize your life with purpose. With everyone in isolation at home, it's funny to see how the animal kingdom is benefiting. That's kind of the energy I project onto the second half of Miss Colombia. I try to say less myself, and listen more to my surroundings. If you listen carefully you can hear cars driving by, a baby in the background, footsteps. Those are the sounds of our reality! We are not living in some closed bubble.”
Sexteto Tabalá, the group that largely embodied Pimienta's emancipation as a teenager, captures the inner peace and reflection that once seemed so out of reach for her. As a return gesture, she frees up enough space on the album to honor the group – and in particular band leader Rafael Cassiani Cassiani. “I want Rafael to have some stability in his life before he dies. He has always remained an independent artist and has no pension to live on. Hopefully this will give him and the rest of the group some financial support.”
Pimienta wanted to immortalize Cassiani in the interlude of 'Quiero Que Me Salves' by simply letting him tell you something about the band's origins. “I can't tell him that. I can only introduce people to his music. Sexteto Tabalá's music is about unrequited love, death, the celebration of life; subjects close to me. But like I said, I can't write traditional love songs myself, so I'll just do it this way.”
'Quiero Que Me Salves' omits the pursuit of effect – and the playful humor – for a moment: it has become a true-to-life cumbia song, recorded spontaneously in the backyard of one of the band members. Pimienta, when asked what the title means: “It means 'I want you to save me', a phrase that we keep repeating throughout the song. It's about hope and offering a second chance; the trust in each other that together we can conquer everything.”
Although Miss Colombia is finished and a realized total concept, Pimienta claims that she has not yet reached her full potential as an artist. “Thanks to this album, I understand a lot better exactly what function my art has, and for whom it is intended. Now I have just the right resources to start my next chapter. I already have seven songs ready, I know exactly what the title of my next album will be and who I will be working with! Miss Colombia was really about the traumas I had to face as an individual: the fear, the sadness, the anger, the nostalgia, the childhood memories. Actually all the things I didn't dare to acknowledge. Now that I've stamped that out of my system, my hands are free again to create something that sounds more natural and smooth.”
Moreover, Lido Pimienta now knows for sure that one day she will return to Colombia on a bright day: hopefully to a nice big house somewhere on the beach. “I certainly don't see myself growing old in this cold Canadian climate! haha!”
Lido Pimienta’s new album Miss Colombia is out on 17 april via ANTI Records. Order it here. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.