She has been called the great matriarch of Colombian music, taking that South American country’s sounds all over the world. This year Sonia Bazanta Vides – better known as Totó la Momposina – celebrates 50 years as one of her country’s most beloved artists, so beloved that she was asked to perform at the 1982 Nobel Literature prize ceremony for fellow Colombian, the late renowned novelist Gabriel García Márquez.
“What I do, I do with a lot of heart and a lot of love, for the country and all people,” said Totó, who spoke to NBC News from Paris. She is selling out venues in France, Germany and throughout the rest of Europe promoting her newest artistic endeavor: Tambolero, a re-creation and re-mastering of her smash-hit classic, La Candela Viva (The Living Flame), which was released to wide acclaim in 1993 and which put her on the map of the world music scene.
“The old is new, the new is old,” she said, laughing.
Nominated for a Grammy Award this year for Best Tropical Latin Album, Totó has worked with many artists, including fellow Colombians Carlos Vives and Juanes, and in 2011 received a Latin Grammy for her special collaboration with the Puerto Rican urban/hip hop group Calle 13 for their song “Latinoamérica.”
The Latin Grammys awarded her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. Totó says there are plans to tour the United States later this year, although the dates and venues are still being fleshed out.
Totó's music combines African, Native Indian, and Spanish traditions and on stage she is accompanied by a wide variety of guitars that include tiples (Colombian guitars), and also drums, brass instruments, Colombian gaitas (bagpipes), dancers, and singers.
The Afro-Colombian Totó, who got her nickname from her parents, comes from the Colombian village of Talaigua, in a region of northern Colombia called Santa Cruz de Mompós (from where her artistic last name La Momposina – which literally means The Woman from Mompós -- originates) in the state of Bolívar, which also includes the musically rich regions of Cartagena and Barranquilla along the Caribbean coast.
Totó’s music includes many of the rhythms of the Caribbean, including the son, guaracha, rumba, bolero and the iconic cumbia, which originated in Colombia’s Caribbean region. In fact, Totó is called the Queen of Cumbia, and one of her hits, Yo Me Llamo Cumbia (My Name is Cumbia) speaks of the love Colombians have for the musical genre: “My name is cumbia. I am the queen wherever I go, and there isn’t a hip that stays still when I show up,” says one of the song’s lyrics.
Totó is a fourth-generation musician and artist. Her father was a drummer and her mother a singer and dancer, and Totó herself grew up surrounded by music and playing at family gatherings and street parties. In the 1970s she took her special blend of artistry outside of Colombia, touring throughout the rest of Latin America, Europe and the United States.
“Wherever I go I feel enormous pride and happiness and a special love for my country and its music,” she said, adding that she is passing along her music traditions to her children and grandchildren, who oftentimes perform with her. Her granddaughters are part of the chorus on the new album.
Totó spent four years in France, studying dance at the Sorbonne, and it was in France where she recorded her first album, Totó La Momposina y Sus Tambores (Totó La Momposina and her Drums), touring extensively throughout France and Germany and also participating in the World of Music Arts and Dance (WOMAD) arts festival in England.
Like the late Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, Totó likes to perform barefoot, and like Evora, is known as La Diva Descalza (The Barefoot Diva).
Like "La Candela Viva", this year’s "Tambolero" is being released on artist Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records label.
“This (new CD) is a re-imagination and at the same a whole new discovery, an unexpected discovery,” Totó said to NBC. She calls it unexpected because not only have the original master tapes been restored and remixed, the new album includes tracks that have never been released before.
“It’s like a kind of destiny for me,” she said.