What’s a giant fluorescent-green ape doing tearing apart Flinders Street Station? It’s the wild, psychedelic art on the front of El Gran Mono, a three-metre-high soundsystem that’s been custom built for a day-long Colombian party this weekend.
Verbena Picótera takes place at Whitehart in the CBD on December 22. It’s inspired by Colombian picó parties, which centre around giant, elaborately decorated speakers (such as El Gran Mono) playing rare African and Afro-Colombian music. The speaker’s owners, or picotero, compete in a game of one-upmanship, pushing each other to attract the biggest crowd with increasingly louder volumes and crazier artwork. These parties are rarely held outside of South America.
El Gran Mono was commissioned by record collectors and DJs Tom Noonan and Johnny El Pájaro and built by Colombian communities in Melbourne and Colombia. Noonan has spent time collecting records across Africa, but after discovering picó culture online, his next search for rare vinyl led him to Colombia.
“One of the things that drew me to [Colombia] is that it’s one of the first places in the world to really key onto rare African vinyl,” says Noonan. African vinyl records are now highly collectible, some worth thousands of dollars in online marketplaces.
His first real-world experience of picó culture was at small house parties blasting Congolese music, where people sold beer out of crates and young and old danced together.
Picó culture comes from the north-west Carribean coast of Colombia. It started in the city of Barranquilla in the 1950s, and boomed in the ’60s and ’70s. While the city’s Barranquilla Carnival is one of the largest in the world, smaller community events such as picò parties are its lifeblood. Local artists are enlisted to cover speakers in big, bold paintings of anything from animals and Mayan-esque figures, to pop-culture and folk antiheroes including Rambo and Pablo Escobar. Some speakers are named after family members, others after cultural and political figures.
El Gran Mono (The Great Ape) was painted by William Gutierrez, a prominent Colombian picó artist working in the scene since the 1970s. It shows a King Kong-like ape tearing into Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, flanked by helicopters and flying records. The concept was inspired by Lee Scratch Perry’s classic dub album Super Ape fused with Melbourne references. It was painted in Barranquilla using cotton gauze and a mix of spray and hand paints.
For Noonan and El Pájaro, Verbena Picótera isn’t just about the music or the art. It’s about connecting people in Melbourne with an element of Colombian culture they might be unfamiliar with, and bringing them together with Melbourne’s Colombian community to celebrate inclusivity.
On the day, the smell of empanadas, queso arepas and fried plantains (by local caterers Fandango Caribbean Food) will waft over a bar serving Caribbean-inspired rum cocktails, and aguardiente, a strong white spirit. African and Colombian music collectors will play rare vinyl before sets by DJ Jnett and DJ Manchild. Then, as the sun goes down, El Gran Mono will light up, and the party will kick into another gear.