Gotopo Pays Tribute to Her Afro-indigenous Roots, While Reinventing Folkloric Sounds

MUSICABy 2023-06-21T15:28:28-04:00June 18th, 2023|
  • Image by Alejandro Restrepo.

“Ein Kilo Orangen, ein Kilo Bananen bitte [One kilo of oranges, one kilo of bananas, please],” recites the Berlin-based Venezuelan singer/producer, Gotopo, during a heartfelt phone conversation with her mother, who is home in Caracas. Giggling as she proudly relates her first grocery store purchase in full German, Gotopo reassures her mother she’ll soon be sending money as new opportunities arise. “Te dije que valía todas las penas del mundo venir a Berlin [I told you that it was worth all the pain in the world to come to Berlin].” Now, about six years since that interaction was filmed, Gotopo can still humbly say that she made the right decision.

That bittersweet moment between mother and daughter was captured in the award-winning short film, “The Sound of My Destiny,” directed by Gotopo’s good friend, Juan S. Gimenez. The documentary gives an intimate glimpse of Gotopo’s early days as an expat, searching for a creative hub and artistic breakthroughs, while being thousands of miles away from home. Despite having no friends, family or connections in Berlin, Gotopo consciously opted for an isolated environment where she could flourish as an artist.

As we sit outside chatting in Union Square Park, Gotopo admits that people always question why she chose Berlin. In comparison to other major metropolitan cities, like New York or Los Angeles, which could have potentially offered similar opportunities with a larger Latino community, Berlin was completely outside of her comfort zone.

Before moving to Berlin, Gotopo knew she needed to reset to create something new. Although at the moment she had not yet defined her unique sound, she knew she had to leave her own comfort zone in Venezuela. “And now I’m convinced that it played a big role. My music wouldn’t sound as it does now if I had stuck with my community in a linear way. I needed to get lost to find myself again,” Gotopo explains.

The Berlin-based artist was born in Caracas, Venezuela, where she was classically trained in the town of Barquisimeto, home of a renowned musical conservatory. Gotopo trained with the youth orchestra system El Sistema, the prominent program which produced Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel. During her musical training, Gotopo learned to play the guitar, piano and cuatro, a traditional Venezuelan ensemble instrument, similar in shape and tuning to the ukulele, but with a vastly different playing technique. The musician also learned composition and later became a vocal instructor for the Niños Cantores de Lara Children’s Choir, and El Sistema’s orchestras and choirs.

After about five years of training with the symphonic orchestra, Gotopo sought to find an ancestral connection in music that went beyond the European influences in her classical training. Gotopo found a bridge within El Sistema and began performing with the “Simón Bolívar Afro Venezuelan Orchestra” and in the acclaimed flamenco gathering “La Cumbre Flamenca.”

During her travels throughout rural Venezuela, Gotopo met several musicologists who were working to preserve many variations of traditional music, many of which, she discovered, remain unknown amongst the general population. She became interested in researching traditional music, and wanted to share these musical influences. But she realized that in order to appeal to a younger audience she had to modernize the music by incorporating other elements.

Soon after moving to Berlin, Gotopo found herself isolated from the Latino community, in a foreign place that would give her the space and opportunities to reinvent herself as an artist. But although she sought to innovate, Gotopo held tight to her Afro Venezuelan influences, both musically and spiritually. “It was more about placing myself in the 21st century, understanding that my ancestral memory had been stolen from me [due to colonization], and trying to rediscover myself, while making the decision that I don’t want to solely play classical music anymore,” she explains. “My drive was clear, I don’t want to repeat, I want to create.”

In the capital of techno music, Gotopo found a connection between her ancestral rhythms and electronic beats.

“In the rave culture, I found ritual, these long, extensive beats that feel similar to Indian mantras. That is when I decided that I can take [those beats] and incorporate sources of ancestral wisdom. And that’s how “Malembe” came about,” she says.

Gotopo’s debut single and accompanying music video, “Malembe,” was released in 2020. It is a reinterpretation of an Afro-Venezuelan hymn intended for slaves to give a spiritual farewell to their relatives who died at the hands of the enslaver, which Gotopo infused with hypnotic electro-beats. The video depicts three periods of the South American civilizations: Pre-Hispanic, Colonial and Post-colonial. Gotopo embodies a timeline of her ancestors through the eyes of three epic women: BACHUÉ, head goddess of ‘The People of Gold;’ MARIA LIONZA, Goddess of ‘Espiritismo’ and ‘Santería,’ born in the colonial era; and IEMANJÁ, Yoruba goddess who came to America though the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was through this first track that Gotopo introduced her unique indigenous-futurist aesthetic and sound.

By 2022, the singer/songwriter had cemented her mark as an artist, establishing a unique fusion between folkloric instrumentation and electronic dance music. That year, Gotopo performed with electro tropical pop band Bomba Estereo at Columbiahalle in Berlin in front of an audience of 3,500 fans.

Gotopo recently delivered her biggest project yet. Her new EP “Sacúdete,” which was released on May 19 via Waxploitation Records, is a collaboration with producer Don Elektron (Ulises Lozano), a longtime member of Mexican electronica band Kinky. The album continues to pay tribute to her Afro-indigenous roots, while reinventing folkloric sounds through her exploration of techno-inspired beats. Gotopo exudes sensuality as she takes the listener through a spiritual journey that is both earthbound and otherworldly.

Gotopo seeks to reach younger generations that identify as Afro indigenous, who, like her, have felt the burdens of historical erasure. She feels responsibility to create a bridge for other Afro indigenous youth to feel connected to their roots through new music that preserves their folkloric history.

“I love transforming, innovating [music], because I love how new music can be a bridge. Many of us expats and immigrants find feelings in music that connect us back to our homes when we are far away,” she explains.

“The Sound of My Destiny,” concludes with Gotopo stating, “If my music doesn’t stir the blood, doesn’t agitate the body, doesn’t awaken doubt, doesn’t disturb one’s thinking…que se calle mi canto [better let my voice be silenced].”

Laura Sanchez is a Mexican-American writer and DJ based in Brooklyn, New York.