Music, Australia, Music

El Gran Mono

Columbia's Picó sound system culture arrives in Australia

Photograph by Gianna Rizzo

The Picó sound system culture originated on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the 1960s. These massive sound systems played a major role in the public and party life of the region. El Gran Mono is the first authentic picó to be built outside of Colombia. As part of EastEast’s collaboration with the Sydney Biennale, we spoke with its creators about how technology may create new forms of collectivity, how they adapt Colombian picó culture to the Australian context, and what music best suits these bespoke speaker systems. 

EastEast: Could you tell us what is the essence of the picó sound system?Why it was historically built in Colombia, and how does this technology creates social situations and determine the style of parties in this region?

Tom Noonan: Picó sound systems are the original Caribbean music machines, with origins rooted in the 1930’s when elaborately hand-decorated radios would blast broadcasts of Colombia’s first radio station, La Voz de Barranquilla. With the introduction of the turntable to the picó in the 1950s, these sound systems transitioned from homes to public bars or cantinas, and the culture of community gathering around picó really began to take hold. Often referred to as the “golden-era,” in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s significant technological advancements saw the birth of the huge “turbo” picó, allowing the systems to perform for much larger crowds at events or verbenas across the entire Caribbean Region of Colombia and extending towards the Pacific shores across the Urabá.

Vinyl records imported by merchant seaman arriving at Barranquilla’s “golden port” fuelled an insatiable desire for rhumba, soukous, benga, and other African styles of music which melded together with local rhythms to create a truly diverse musical landscape. Picó systems, unique in their individual names and emblazoned with customized artwork, took to this environment to develop their own styles of entertainment. Some picó would be known for their heavyweight salsa selections, but most preferred African or Afro-Caribbean styles, all vying for the reputation of a powerful sound system with the most exclusive records to draw in crowds.

EE: El Gran Mono, or "The Great Ape," is the first authentic picó sound system to be built outside of Colombia. Can you tell us the background of this project: how did you become interested in Colombian picó culture, and why did you decide to build this sound system in Melbourne, Australia?

TM: I had been traveling through West and East Africa, collecting vinyl records, with my home base in Addis Ababa. When I returned to Australia I connected with Fabian Altahona Romero in Barranquilla through our shared love of music. Fabian invited me to Colombia in 2013 to look at records, and also to see the picó sound system culture, which I knew nothing about at that point.

What took place on that trip was absolutely awe inspiring, with Fabian graciously introducing me to many of the picó owners and other influential people in the culture, along with guiding me through dozens and dozens of picó parties.

In 2015 my friend Johnny visited Barranquilla, connecting again with Fabian and immersing himself in the picó culture. Fabian’s passion was infectious, as he was driven to internationalize the picó sound system and shine a light on such an incredible cultural strength of Colombia.

Working together under Fabian’s guidance and our own research on those trips to Colombia, together with Johnny we began to hatch a plan to build El Gran Mono. The purpose was three-fold; we wanted to create a vibrant sound system that would engage crowds in Australia, that it would be a large picó that Colombians would be proud of, and ultimately that we’d help Fabian in his goal by playing an active part in internationalizing the culture.

Photograph by Aaron Ponnudurai

EE:What does the artwork on your sound system represent? How do you generally work with the transposition of the culture and music of the Colombian picó into the Australian context?

TM: We worked really closely with the great picó sound system artist Master William Gutierrez to create a synthesis of picó culture with Australian influences, symbolizing the harmonious convergence of traditions. This meant including recognisable elements from Melbourne in the artwork, such as a tram and Flinders Street Station along with our key identity, a giant King Kong type ape.

It’s important to point out though that El Gran Mono was never meant to be a replica of the Colombian tradition, but to pay homage to the great Golden-Era picó systems. So while the name on one hand literally translates to “The Great Ape,” “mono” is also Colombian slang for someone who is blonde or a foreigner.

In adapting Colombian picó culture to the Australian context, we approach the process with deep respect and transparency. We aim to preserve the essence of the picó communal music experience while at the same time ensure it resonates with Melbourne's diverse audience. This involves curating events that blend Colombian, Afro-Caribbean, and African elements together with local flavors, creating an engaging and dynamic melting pot that brings people together. This celebration of diversity we hope creates a positive cultural narrative, and a dialogue which promotes unity through the universal language of music.

Photography by Aaron Ponnudurai and Gianna Rizzo

EE:What are parties with a picó sound system like in Australia? What generally happens at them? How are they different from those that take place in Colombia? Do you have a particular story to share?

TM:We’ve always been very deliberate with the way we produce El Gran Mono parties, and who we collaborate with to put the shows together. We never set out to create a carbon-copy of the great verbenas in Colombia, but more to produce vibrant, powerful, engaging, and primarily fun events which connect the cultures of Australia and Colombia.

El Gran Mono parties are similar to events in Colombia in that they are programmed around a series of picótero or DJs selecting tropical music, however we also try to have MCs to engage the crowds, and dancers to bring extra flavor to the performances.

So while the name on one hand literally translates to “The Great Ape,” “mono” is also Colombian slang for someone who is blonde or a foreigner.

One of my favorite events was Heavy Congress, which brought together 10 other sound systems for the largest ever gathering of its kind in Australia. Held in Melbourne’s iconic 1920’s built Forum Theatre, it was a chance to give the crowd a taste of a picó party amongst systems playing reggae, drum’n’bass, and other styles. We’ve got such a great community around El Gran Mono, and collaborating on this show with MC Kaiman Jimenez and DJ Kobra 3000, along with dance crew Selva y Tambó was really the start of us finding our path. And the packed venue just ate it up.

Heavy Congress 2022 in Melbourne Source
photograph by Francesco Vicenzi

EE: Can you tell us more about your EP of original picó-inspired songs by Kaiman Jimenez and Kobra 3000?

Kobra 3000: Working together since the early days of El Gran Mono, Kaiman and I quickly established a chemistry on stage becoming the basis of this collaboration: the Barranquilla born Kaiman, celebrated front man, and experienced producer from bands Watussi and Amaru Tribe, coupled with my over 15 years as a DJ, collector ,and curator for the cult record label Analog Africa. We were able to leverage our combined experience with what we believe to be a unique perspective on picó culture and the “Champeta” sound, paying homage to its originators every step of the way.

Kaiman and Kobra 3000's The Wild Ones E.P.

Thanks to opportunity provided by El Gran Mono, the idea was to not only establish a diverse community here in Australia around Picó culture, but also reflect back our vision via our own influences parallel to Champeta and Terapia pioneers such as Wganda Kenya, Rafael Chavez, and countless numbers of picó operators along the Caribbean coast.

After a year of meticulous curation, our four track EP The Wild Ones has gone into pre-sale on Bandcamp with the lead single "Joselito" on June 21st.  We envision the work as a new wave of Caribbean Champeta sound, utilizing iconic 80’s synthesis and drum machines, fusing cult Colombian Carnaval rhythms and folkloric Colombian instrumentation for a world more “carnivalesque.”

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Tom Noonan
Record collector and creative based on Wurundjeri country in Melbourne Australia, and together with Johnny El P created El Gran Mono in 2018.
Carlo Xavier
DJ Producer, Carlo Xavier AKA Kobra 3000 is no newcomer when it comes to forward thinking sounds. Carlo has been curating high energy sets exploring future modern sounds grounded in deep foundational influences for almost two decades. His Portuguese/Macanese family heritage has nurtured Carlo’s profound appreciation for Lusofonic music and complex rhythms, and his record digging trips across Northern Brazil and Colombia have seen Carlo curate releases for cult record label Analog Africa.