At age seven, Fabian Altahona Romero must have been about half the size of a picó — just a small boy, practically trembling as the music roaring from the massive, six-foot Colombian sound systems threatened to knock him off of his feet. Each year, he’d count down to Carnaval parties and bailes de verbenain his native Barranquilla, because these events meant that local DJs would heave in their handcrafted picó boxes, decorated in iridescent paint and neon illustrations, and bring the community together in a blare of thundering Afro-Colombian sounds.

Urban legends insisted that picós were so loud and powerful, they could explode plastic water jugs and give listeners a toothache, but those stories never deterred Altahona. He’d stand as close as he could to the picós and watch them with wide eyes, convinced they were objects conjured out of the superhero comic books he’d read with his brothers.

In this photograph, you see a picó called El Sibalu, which was from the barrio of La Sierrita in Barranquilla. The photo was taken around 1988. Archived by Fabian Altahona

Many novelties that fascinate children lose their charm eventually, but picós continue to wield power over Altahona almost 20 years later. Since 2005, he’s been documenting the history and culture of the Colombian sound systems on his blog AfriColombia, which honors Afro-Colombian heritage. By unearthing photos and stories of picós and their owners, known as picoteros, Altahona has brought a swell of global attention to the music tradition.

“I just loved everything about picó culture — the environment, getting to know the community, bringing the barrio together. And what always drew my attention were the paintings — those paintings that decorate the picós and give each one its life. I’d see them and I’d think I was looking at Superman or something like that,” Altahona said. “It’s something that is made completely by hand — and it’s ours.”

Picós served as communal entertainment for Colombians in coastal areas, where a majority of the country’s black population lives. The culture of the sound systems have always embraced and promoted African music and, as FACT Mag points out, “played a vital role in building a collective diasporan identity for many Afro-Colombians living in a country heavily scored along race and class lines.” Picós not only represent Afro-Colombian culture through music, but also tie together art, dance, and community.

This picó was known as El Papa Sabor de Cartagena, and the kids in the photo are fans from the barrio of Olaya. The photo was taken in 1989. Archived by Fabian Altahona

According to Altahona, the origins of picós go as far back as the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that they became ubiquitous on the party scenes of Cartagena and Barranquilla. Special builders and sound technicians would construct towering wooden or Formica-lamented boxes around dual turntables and mixers. Then, Colombia’s best artists would paint the surface of the boxes with glowing illustrations, animating the sound systems and giving them each their own personality.

Playful battles often revealed themselves in the designs of the picó, which nearly always boasted flashy — even belligerent — pictures meant to outshine and eclipse other picós. Altahona has collected photos of picós emblazoned with neon Godzillas, fluorescent Rambos and grimacing warriors brandishing hefty bazookas — all signifiers meant to show that a picó was the barrio’s biggest and baddest. The images would usually give the picó its name: Partygoers might shout to each other that they were heading to El Gran Guerrero or El Dragon for a night of dancing.

Picós are painted by hand and the process can take up to a month. Archived by Fabian Altahona

“It’s a game of images and propaganda in the art, like telling the other picoteros, ‘I’m better than you. I’m number one and you’re number two, I’m the one everyone looks for. Women look for my picó and no one looks for yours.’ It’s a [type of] communication that only exists in the picó,” Altahona explained.

That same spirit of cheerful competition characterized the music as well. It’s no coincidence that the cities where picós have flourished are in close proximity to Colombia’s ports. Altahona says that ships would dock after trips to Africa, filled with records that offered a world of unheard soca, reggae, dancehall, and zouk rhythms. Picoteros would race to find rare vinyls that would set their sound system apart, popularizing African and Colombian traditions among costeños.

A community and dance organizer poses with a picó in the barrio of El Carmen in Barranquilla. Picó parties took off in the 70s and 80s — considered the golden age of picós. Archived by Fabian Altahona

Picoteros would keep their discoveries a secret by scratching out the labels on records, ensuring other DJs wouldn’t be able to copy or access their tunes. They’d rename African songs something in Spanish — “Zangalewa,” the Cameroonian makossa hit that Barranquilla native Shakira readapted in FIFA’s “Waka Waka,” became known as “El Militar” among Colombians, for example. Many of the bangers that became popular exploding out of picós would eventually trickle onto the radio or television, sometimes reinterpreted by Colombian musicians.

“The picó is like an international radio station on the northern coast of Colombia, where you can hear different rhythms from every corner of the world,” Altahona said. “So many songs became hits in Colombia because they were popularized in picós.”

Over the years, Altahona noticed smaller sound systems, called minitecas, arriving in Colombia and inspiring picoteros to make their music players sleeker and more compact. But he remained committed to the picós of the past. Once he started collecting and sharing nostalgic images of picós on AfriColombia, his posts sparked global interest. In Colombia, picós have also had a renaissance, with many picoteros rebuilding their old boxes and celebrating the sound system’s golden years. Already, it seems those glory days aren’t over yet.

To learn more about picó culture, scroll though some vintage photos from Fabian’s AfriColombia archive below.

El Solista was a picó from the Soledad Atlantico region. This photo was taken at a dance called “A pleno sol.” Archived by Fabian Altahona

Picós usually come out during Carnaval. A woman named Zoila Visbal shows off a traditional pollera dress by the well-known picó El Comandante. Archived by Fabian Altahona

This photo was taken at a baile de verbena in Nueva Colombia. The man in the photo was known as “El Babillo,” and he was an organizer who would put together picó parties in Colombian barrios. The picó, La Potencia Mundial, no longer exists. Archived by Fabian Altahona

The picó in the photo, El Perro, was well-known in the city of Cartagena. Archived by Fabian Altahona

Each picó had its own personality and reputation in its respective neighborhood. Here, the Zuluaga brothers pose in front of a picó called El Nuevo Latino in Barranquilla. Archived by Fabian Altahona

Miguel Zuluaga shows off an LP next to his family’s turntable in the barrio of El Valle. Archived by Fabian Altahona

Illustrations were meant to outshine other picós. They often included drawings of tough warriors or fighters, representing how the picó was bolder and better than any other. Archived by Fabian Altahona

Guillermo Marchena, pictured with his children in the 1980s. Marchena was—and continues to be—one of the most popular sound technicians in Colombia, who has worked on a large number of picós. Archived by Fabian Altahona

The owner of this picó was named Jaime Alvarez, and he had been interested in Fidel Castro since he was in school. He made two picós and named one after Fidel and the other after Che Guevara. Archived by Fabian Altahona

The art and design often reflected the picó’s power as a sound system. El Godzilla, for example, was known as the “monster of sound.” Archived by Fabian Altahona

El Gran Nagith is a picó from Baranoa, a municipality about 30 minutes from Barranquilla. Archived by Fabian Altahona

The owner of El Gran Nagith is on the left, surrounded by fans from the neighborhood. The picó exists to this day. Archived by Fabian Altahona

A young boy named Esteban Fomeque dresses in a traditional Garabato costume for Carnaval. Behind him is a picó from Cartagena called El Malembe. Archived by Fabian Altahona

This is the famous vallenato artist known as El Cacique De la Junta Diomedes Diaz, posing alongside a turntable from the picó El Ultimo Hit in the city of Santa Marta. Archived by Fabian Altahona

Here’s El Negro Rumbero again, this time with its owner Victor Aleman Esparcia. Archived by Fabian Altahona

The famous Puerto Rican salseros Cheo Feliciano and Louis Garcia visited Colombia and encountered the picós Sonido de Soledad Atlantico and El Solista. The photo was taken by the local newspaper El Heraldo in Barranquilla in 1985. Archived by Fabian Altahona

El Nuevo Rojo was redesigned with pictures of a large red cobra instead of the contentious images of hell. Archived by Fabian Altahona

From the barrio of La Union in Barranquilla, this picó is called El Sibanicu. Archived by Fabian Altahona

You can get a close-up look at the artistic details and turntables of this picó—the surface is inscribed with the name of the picó owner, the technicians, and the DJs. Archived by Fabian Altahona

El Sagitario is a picó from Baranoa Atlántico, located about 20 kilometers from Barranquilla. This photo was taken in 1987. Archived by Fabian Altahona

The dance and community organizer “El Babillo” appears with the Cartagena picó El Gran Supersonico, which belonged to the Marun family. Archived by Fabian Altahona

This picó, El Papa Saor from Cartagena, was incredibly famous and had its best years during the 80s and 90s. Archived by Fabian Altahona

Archived by Fabian Altahona

This picó belonged to the Sandavol family in Soledad Atlántico. Archived by Fabian Altahona

The picó El Nuevo Rojo got its name from its owner, who had several red marks on his skin. The images on the picó were controversial among religious Colombians—they depicted scenes of people burning in hell. Eventually, the picó changed hands and got new illustrations. Archived by Fabian Altahona

Advertisement