Cumbia: Colombia’s Heartbeat Rhythm

This article comes courtesy of Daniel Brody, a (currently) repatriated expat, married to Colombia with children and old friend of Expat Chronicles. See his other articles, both on Latin music genres:

As noted often on this blog, I’m not a fan of vallenato. But I dig Colombian cumbia. I hadn’t read about the genre before, so I was surprised to learn that cumbia originated in Colombia. I knew each country had its own style, but I thought it was like Arroz con Pollo, kind of an organic birth in each market. I didn’t know the Colombians known as costeños created the original.

Heartbeat of Colombia

Cumbia combines three cultural and musical motifs from Colombian culture. Indigenous populations from the Kogi and Kuna tribes used flute-like instruments such as the gaita and percussion instruments like the guiro in their courtship dances. The cumbia rhythm was brought by African slaves. Once in Colombia, those Africans used the beats of their homeland to ward off homesickness and to party (Colombian slave-owners often permitted slaves to celebrate). The Spanish colonial influence added European instruments like guitars and accordions.

In the traditional form of the dance, the woman wears a frilly dress known as a pollera, full of floral patterns, sequins and lace. With one hand on her waist and the other holding the tip of the frills, she moves around the man in a circle. The man, dressed in all white with a red handkerchief and Colombia’s signature sombrero vueltiao, dances around the woman taking his hat on and off. Sometimes he’ll also hold a lit candle while he attempts to win her love with his suave dance moves. The woman flirts and plays coy.

During the 1940s and 1950s, bandleaders began recording their own modernized and electrified versions of classic cumbias, as well as writing new ones, starting a craze in Colombia similar to the one happening with rock and roll in the United States. There was even an element of racial and social-class panic, as the upper classes were horrified at the newfound popularity of music typically danced to by poor black and indigenous people.

Lucho Bermudez, a bandleader who arguably did more to popularize cumbia than any other musician, recorded a slew of classics around this time that are still listened to today. Another wave of rock- and pop-influenced Colombian cumbia flourished in the sixties and seventies, adding guitars and keyboards and firmly establishing cumbia as one of the country’s most identifiable homegrown genres.

Once cumbia became popular, it began influencing music all over Latin America. Mexico, Peru, Panama, Chile, Venezuela and Argentina all have their own spin on cumbia, often mixing the music with elements of rock, hip-hop and electronic music.

See this Colombian cumbia playlist on Spotify.

Lucho Bermudez – Colombia Tierra Querida

Bemudez brought the music of the Colombian coast to the rest of the country, with his long residencies at Bogota and Medellin hotels serving to make the genre a favorite for a night out on the town. This song in particular has emerged as a sort of backup national anthem for Colombia.

Conjunto Los Rumberos – Cumbia del Puerto

British DJ Quantic lived in Colombia for a few years during which he became one of the best-known crate diggers unearthing old-school gems at flea markets and secondhand record shops. In 2011, he put together a fantastic compilation on Soundway Records called “The Original Sound of Cumbia” featuring 55 of his greatest vinyl finds in the genre, including this screeching accordion vamp.

Pedro Salcedo y su Orquesta – La Pollera Colorá

This is one of the most typical songs you will hear when there is a presentation of cumbia dancers in Colombia at a tourist trap or school assembly, possibly because the song is so meta and about an Afro-Colombian woman dancing cumbia.

Los Corraleros de Majagual – La Burrita

Dozens of future Colombian musical stars played a stint in this orchestra early in their careers, and they even played New York City in the 1960s. You still hear this song a lot in Colombia, especially at Christmas time, when oldies are mixed in with the caroling at parties and get-togethers.

Conjunto Tipico Vallenato – Cumbia Cienaguera

Cienaga is a small fishing village next to Santa Marta on the Colombian coast. This is a song about dancing cumbia there, one of many examples from the mini-genre of “cumbia songs about cumbia.”

Adolfo Echeverria – Amaneciendo

My favorite cumbias have a note of melancholy in the background underneath all the zesty horn charts and lyrics about romance and partying. Something about the slightly off-key piano and the backing vocals in this song sounds like haunting spirit that just arrived from the ocean, warning the listener to enjoy life while you still can.

La Sonora Dinamita – Se Me Perdió la Cadenita

In the 1970s Colombian cumbia started getting popular in Mexico, and this Colombian orchestra in particular had so many Mexican hits that you might be more likely to hear one of their songs at a Mexican party than a Colombia one. Their success helped kickoff Mexican cumbia as its own phenomenon, with artists like Los Angeles Ázules making the regional variation just as popular as the Colombian version.

Armando Hernandez – La Zenaida

Colin, like many gringos, has a long history of being anti-vallenato, and I can’t help but think the accordion is the problem. But when you hear an accordionist who knows what he is doing, as on this energetic cumbia, the effect is a revelation: accordions rock!

Colin’s response: In general, yes, it’s the accordion. Not because of Weird Al. It’s just obnoxious, as in this case. But not always. In a subdued, rhythmic role it can be OK.

Pastor Lopez y su Combo – Traicionera

By the 1960s, cumbia had traveled to Peru, where it mixed with rock and local indigenous music to become chicha, Peru’s own form of cumbia. By the next decade, Colombian artists were taking chicha songs and making them sound more like Colombian cumbias, often doing such a good job that many Colombians didn’t realize they were hearing a cover of a song from another country. Here Venezuela native Pastor Lopez turns Los Destellos’ guitar-driven “Traicionera” into a typically horn-driven Colombian cumbia.

Cumbias en Moog – Cumbia de Sal

There is tantalizingly little information online about this cumbia cover with Moog synthesizers, which I first discovered on the amazing Munster Records compilation “The Afrosound of Colombia Volume 1.” But covering a traditional cumbia with spaced-out Clockwork Orange keyboards turned out to be an amazing idea. A rapper should turn this into a hip-hop anthem.

Gabriel Romero – La Piragua

This song was written by famed Colombian composer Jose Barros, whose more than 800 tunes created the songbook that fueled cumbia’s rise. This is his most enduring classic, about a man famous for transporting people in his 36-foot canoe, only to be replaced by a motorboat when those finally came to Colombia.

Rodolfo Aicardi – Colegiala

Rodolfo Aicardi started out as a romantic ballad singer before switching to cumbia and having a lot more success, first with the Medellin-based band Los Hispanos and then with his own combo. This is also a Colombian take on a Peruvian cumbia by Los Ilusionistas, and after its use in a European Nescafe ad it became a hit overseas.

Los Guacharacos – Esperma y Ron

Yes, “esperma” means what you think it means. But it is also a word for “tallow,” the material made from animal fat used for making a candle that a cumbia dancer holds. This mostly wordless cumbia is another one that sounds like it comes from beyond the grave.

Afrosound – Cumbia Arabe

Afrosound was a side project of famed salsa orchestra leader Fruko from Fruko y sus Tesos, and is served as a place for him to experiment with strange sounds and genres that wouldn’t make sense as part of his hit-making day job. The results often sound like something a stoner would come up with, like this cumbia with a Middle Eastern twist.

Los Warahuaco – El Pescador de Barú

Technology was a double-edged sword in 1980s music: sometimes it made music sound ahead of its time, sometimes it made music sound completely stuck in the decade. The same thing happened with cumbia, and this song is a good example. The Casio-sounding synthesizer riff injects an extra layer of vulgar modernity crushing tradition into this tale of a fisherman’s heartbreak.

Toto la Momposina – Yo Me Llamo Cumbia

Momposina’s brassy voice and folky accompanying instrumentation sounds closer to the kind of cumbia you might hear in small Colombian village or a coffeehouse attempting to evoke the same pastoral vibes. Her rustic take on the genre has won her famous admirers such as Peter Gabriel, who signed her for a while to his Real World music label. Her song El Pescador serves as the intro song for the Colombia Calling podcast by Richard McColl.

Ondatropica – Cumbia Espacial

The aforementioned British DJ Quantic ended up becoming so obsessed with classic Colombian music while living as an expat there that he started a band to make his own version of it. He coaxed various legendary musicians such as Fruko and Michi Sarmiento to join him, and this melancholy piano-driven cumbia was one of the best tracks. It sounds exactly like walking down Avenida Jimenez towards the Parque de Periodistas in Bogota at dusk.

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3 comments

  1. I just saw a youtube documentary about the popularity of cumbia in Latin America. I was amazed how similar it sounded from one country to the next. The Argentinian cumbia was just like the Mexican cumbia. Sure there are variations, I think the doc featured the mainstream of cumbia

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  2. Strange that Cumbia is a forgotten genre in Colombia. In Mexico they just can’t get enough! Mexico and Colombia have swapped each other’s traditional music as their favorites. Rachera is the grandparents genre in Mexico, but in Colombia everyone listens to it. Cumbia Sonidera is perhaps Mexico’s most popular genre and it came from Colombia.

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