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Cumbia – Ageless Queen of Latin Music

Chico Trujillo - a Chilean big-band with almost two decades experience perform at WOMAD in March. The musical core of the project is the highly popular pan-Latin American genre of ‘cumbia’ - a 19th century Afro-Colombian music style combining West African, Native American and European influences. That this modern nine piece cumbia group is one of the most popular bands in Chile today, is testament to the extent to which this music form has shaped Latin America’s cultural and musical history. Cumbia has travelled across time and space popping up time and time again with apparent ease amongst receptive audiences of dancers across the Latin world. This article is an exploration of what cumbia is, where it came from, why it has endured so pervasively as a musical culture, and where Chico Trujillo sit on the family tree of this expansive genre.

Ask anyone outside of Latin America about Latin music and they will most likely know of salsa, samba, the ‘son Cubano’ of the Buena Vista Social Club, and possibly reggaeton (depending on their age). These are, without doubt, the most popular genres in the outside world, and they do have big followings in South America. However, cumbia is omnipresent as the true queen of Latin music genres and the unifying musical thread of the continent. Cumbia was little known outside of Latin America until the last few decades, however it has never been far from the mainstream pulse of Latin music in the continent itself and is popular from Mexico in the North to Tierra del Fuego in the South.

Cumbia is the sound colour and rhythm of South America distilled. It combines the rich cultural and musical heritage of this rainbow coloured continent like no other sound and takes on different forms wherever it emerges. This is possible, according to Eduardo Diaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center in Washington D.C, because cumbia is extremely malleable musically. This malleability means that Cumbia has over the years been able to both absorb from and give to other genres as diverse as pentatonic Native American music, Cuban big-band jazz, reggae, rock, hip-hop and most recently electronica.

Chico Trujillo have taken full advantage of the malleable nature of Cumbia using it as the base of their project, while incorporating elements of various other genres. They are part of a ‘nueva cumbia’ (new cumbia) renaissance that started around the turn of the century in Chile and Argentina. In Buenos Aires, Santiago, London, Berlin, LA, New York, Miami, or Wellington you can now find a plethora of cumbia bands and ‘tecnocumbia’ DJs playing variations on this highly infectious dance-based music.

Born of oppression

Cumbia emerged from the cultural collision point and melting pot that was the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the 19th century. This region was once peopled by tribes descended from the fearsome ‘Carib’ Indigenous peoples. At the time of Colonisation the population was made up of the remnants of the once highly advanced Tairona civilisation (the Northern reach of the Incan empire). They possessed a rich musical tradition based on percussive instruments, flutes and vocals with no stringed instruments.

As well as the diseases and enslavement that wiped out most of the indigenous population, the conquistadors imported West African slaves to work in the Colombian banana plantations. Cumbia’s name gives away its West African and slave trade origins. In the West African dialect ‘cumbe’ simply meant ‘to dance’.

On the slave plantations regular ‘cumbe’ dances were held as courtship rituals. The women danced holding candles inside a circle of musicians while the men circled them dancing in the distinctive two-step shuffling rhythm of the cumbia dance.

This dance form itself is in fact another remnant of the dark slavery origins of cumbia. According to Eduardo Diaz of the Smithsonian, this rhythm originated in the fact that the slaves had their legs shackled together by the ankles, so had a restricted range of leg movement. This music seems to have still enabled them to express a wide range of emotion and meaning with refined and limited movements somewhat akin to Balinese ballet or Indian classical dance.

Indigenous Colombians and Africans quickly formed a shared musical and social culture as well as a shared gene pool through this ‘cumbe’ courtship ritual. Thus began the merging of two highly esoteric, percussion and chant-based musical cultures giving birth to the cumbia. Many of the African and indigenous slaves were eventually emancipated in the liberation wars led by Simon Bolivar and ended up ethnically and culturally merged to create the mestizo [mixed] culture of the ‘costeňos’ [coasters] who would go on to refine and popularise the cumbia globally. This group is to this day marginalised and oppressed socially and economically. Cumbia’s origins in slavery and oppression perhaps explain the music’s often wistful and melancholy yet joyful and celebratory feel.

The core musical components

The Indigenous Colombians contributed the maracas, the guiro [a ribbed scratch stick], and most importantly an indigenous flute called the ‘gaita’ as well as perhaps some indigenous melodies to the musical development of cumbia. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto are a Colombian traditional folkloric cumbia group from the Caribbean Region of Colombia who have been active since 1940. The video of the group above shows both the gaita and indigenous percussion in a very traditional and authentic early cumbia style.

The heart of cumbia to this day, however, is the syncopated African rhythms also on display in this video. The cumbia was traditionally played on two drums – a bass drum called the ‘llamador’[caller] which pounds out a slow hypnotic bass rhythm accompanied by a slightly higher pitched drum. The African influence is also seen in the call and response vocals and the dance forms.

The lyrics of cumbia are generally nostalgic and romantic celebrations of an idyllic life on the Caribbean coast and the African and indigenous cultures from which it was spawned. Songs often deal with issues of love, fishing, food, farming, nature, music, dance, the joys of everyday life and even with cumbia itself.

A Folklore tradition develops

Cumbia essentially combined elements of all the diverse cultural traditions represented in the process of colonisation of this continent. It created a new and distinct Latin American soundtrack by and for the people.

The largely ethnically Spanish nobility of early Colombia preferred waltzes and classical music with rigid social class exclusivity and rigid rule dances, and frowned on cumbia as a lower class pursuit. However the mestizo [mixed race] populations and working class migrants were having their own party – one to which everyone was welcome. Cumbia was from the outset a folk music – a music of the people with fluid boundaries and few rules.

Like most folk music traditions, cumbia is based on improvisation and collaboration and centred around a shared dance culture. African slaves, indigenous people and working class Spanish migrants were ‘getting down’ to this shuffling beat that can be danced to for hours on end and required no formal musical or dance training. The fact that this music and its dance style allows so much expression within limited musical complexity and restrained movements is part of its beauty and accessibility to the masses.

It is easy to see how such an egalitarian and social music form could so quickly incorporate elements of such diverse cultures and spread so quickly across the continent. The emancipatory spirit and life-celebrating folk music roots of the style perhaps also explains Cumbia’s rapid adoption. Its message and its spirit clearly resonated with the hearts and minds of oppressed working class, mixed race and indigenous populations. From its humble beginnings in Coastal Colombia the cumbia quickly spread through every open vein of the blood soaked and slavery tarnished region from Mexico to the ‘Tierra del Fuego.’

Cumbia Conquers Colombian hearts

As cumbia moved south from the coast, up the River Magdalena into the valleys of the Andean foothills towards Medellin and Bogota it evolved into ‘vallenato’ or [born in the valley]. This is a folksier, and whiter version of cumbia focused more on lyrical ballads, still often maintaining the romantic subject matter for the life of the peasant in rural Colombia. It was still accompanied by the indigenous maracas, guiro and drums and often a guitar or ukulele was added. However, the key player in this music quickly became the diatonic Hohner accordion. This versatile instrument arrived in the 19th century by way of German traders and quickly replaced the traditional ‘Gaita’ flute to fill the wind and melodic role in the music.

Troubadouric Vallenato trios spread rapidly amongst the ‘paisas’ [peasants] of the valleys that formed Colombia’s agricultural heartland soon becoming the dominant folk music of Colombia. These minstrels became integral in passing on news, notices or political messages from village to village. A ‘parranda’ [gathering to jam, dance, sing and socialise] became an integral part of the Colombian public life. It was not uncommon to see a piqueria [duel between two accordion players] or even a form of ‘rap battles’ between vallenato street poets centuries before rap was even a thing.

Vallenato soon become an integral part of Colombian storytelling. Colombia’s Nobel Prize winning writer Gabriel García Márquez was a big admirer of the genre and even dubbed his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, a ‘vallenato song of 400 pages’. Early vallenato accordion stars such as Guillermo Buitrago and Abel Antonio Villa spread the music around the country in the early decades of the 1900’s.

I visited Colombia last year and experienced first-hand the vibrancy and strength of this musical culture to this day. The Costeňos still literally live and breathe cumbia and modern day vallenato stars still consistently grace the airwaves and top of the music charts of Colombia. Cumbia's infectious rhythm, colour and pace seep into the streets 24 hours a day. In the humid heat of the coast, fast movement is not to be encouraged but a constant shuffling cumbia flow can be sustained for hours.

A band of ‘cumbieros’ - troubadours in white suits and traditional palm frond hats are never far away and every taxi, bar, restaurant or house with a tinny jury rigged PA system is blasting the rhythm into the public space. Far from being intrusive, this constant hypnotic staccato rhythm just becomes the soundtrack and backdrop to life. Colombia, to this day, quite simply moves to the pace of cumbia from the Caribbean to the Andes and even the depths of the Amazon.

Abel Antonio Villa is seen below in his later years jamming on the accordion with his band :

The Golden Age of Cumbia

Cumbia also headed North from its Caribbean homeland. Pioneering record label Discos Fuentes, established in 1934, became instrumental in disseminating recordings of cumbia music to the masses, even as far as the USA where Latin was becoming increasingly popular. But cumbia was to find one of its most eager audiences in Mexico. Mexican cumbia combined traditional cumbia with a wider ‘Musica Tropical’ revolution. This sound incorporated Caribbean styles such as Cuban folk music and big-band jazz, as well as North American recording technology. This influence led to a boom in big-band orchestration and recording of Cumbia in a more refined, homogenised way that was simplified and “easier on the ear” bringing it firmly into the popular music realm. Note the more highly produced and jazzy big-band sound with horns and all in this video of Mexican group Carmen Rivero Y Su Conjunto in the mid ‘60s.

The importation of these techniques and influences back to the Colombian homeland of cumbia led to the refinement and development of the genre there in what is known as the ‘golden age’ of cumbia in the 1950s. Its origins as a working-class populist music meant cumbia was initially scorned and ignored by the Colombian elites in the cities of Bogota and Medellin. However, as the music evolved and began to receive acclaim abroad it pervaded the national consciousness. This class association subsided and cumbia became a shared music in every sector of society. Musicians such as Clarinettist Lucho Bermúdez helped popularise cumbia with Colombia’s elite upper classes by adopting the more sophisticated arrangements and big-band style.

Cumbia hits the Andes

The Andes mountain range was integral to the transporting of this music beyond Colombian borders. The Andes have always been the backbone of the Continent – a cultural Pan-American highway spreading ideas and traditions back and forth. The tribes in the ‘Sierra Nevada’ coastal mountain range just a few miles from the birthplace of cumbia for example have a culture deeply rooted in the Incan empire. Incan culture and the sacred Coca plant (which no doubt fuelled plenty of raging all-night cumbia sessions over the years in its widespread chewable leaf variety) reached the Caribbean via this Andean continental express. Along this, cumbia travelled in reverse evolving and morphing as it went.

As Cumbia travelled further South into the Colombian Andes, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru it morphed again to incorporate harmonies in the Andean pentatonic scale and rhythm and Andean influenced instruments. The traditional Andean highland folk music was known as huayno in the Quechua speaking societies of the region. It featured a distinctive rhythm in which the first beat is stressed and followed by two short beats, high pitched vocals instruments such as quena [flute], pan flutes, the harp and the charango (a double stringed ukulele). It turns out Cumbia melded pretty nicely with this style and became as popular with the Andean people as anywhere else it went. Group Armonia 10’s “Quise Morir” is a great example of the Andean cumbia style. Note the significant difference in melody and rhythm from traditional Caribbean cumbia and vallenato.

Cumbia post-modernista

At around this point things started to get pretty post-modern. In the 1960’s an unlikely branch of cumbia emerged in Peru and Ecuador when US oil workers and tourists began bringing California surf rock and psychedelica records. This melded with the ever-receptive local cumbia to create a guitar driven and distortion laden sound called ‘chicha’. This psychedelic cumbia renaissance, (more than likely aided by some shamanic plant induced experimentation) became popular across Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia with indigenous and mestizos and endures to this day. Chicha is often played with synthesizer keyboards and up to three electric guitars that can play simultaneous melodies, an element derived from the harp and guitar lines of Andean huayno. The rhythmic electric guitar in chicha is played with upstrokes, following patterns derived from Peruvian coastal creole waltz. Peru's famous Los Destollos below is a fine example of this psychedelic surf rock cumbia sound.


By the late 60s, the cumbia sound was being simplified even further. The large-scale orchestras were replaced by electric instruments, including organ and bass, whilst the brass section was reduced to a mere handful of trumpets and trombones. This fusion of Cumbia and electronic music takes on variety of forms and since the 1980s ‘tecnocumbia’ has been a verifiable thing. Perhaps the first example was the 1981 Mexican group Supershow de Vazkez whose use of synth-heavy melodies, tinny synth drums and electrified and distorted vocals caught on across the continent.

Cumbia sonidera is an even more electronic and stripped back style that was created by Mexico City DJs during the 90s. This variant of cumbia is unique for its cheesy synthesized melodic organ sounds. To an extent, cumbia sonidera presents an underlying celebration of the original Mexican cumbia groups of 70s. Other features of cumbia sonidera include an emphasis on electronics, especially the use of voice and pitch alteration by the “sonideros” (DJs) themselves.

An interesting point here is that the popularity of such auto-tune technology in North Africa and the Middle East has actually been linked by DJ and ethnomusicologist Jayce Clayton in his excellent book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture to it's suitability for music in the Pentatonic Scale. All of the components of cumbia - Native American, West African and North African influenced Spanish folk music are pentatonic in nature and therefore excellently suited to harness these technological effects. Essentially the auto-tune and pitch shift allows for ‘glissando’ vocals and harmonica melodies that slide or 'trill' up and down a scale. This effect is part of what gives tecnocumbia its cheesy yet soulful sound and perhaps explains the wide appeal to Latino audiences of this music that may at first sound jarring to the Western ear.

Conquering the South

Cumbia’s journey further South, to the Chilean homeland of Chico Trujillo near the bottom of the continent occurred around the 1950s during the cumbia golden age. However, it appears to have been strengthened through migration of Peruvian, Bolivian and Ecuadorians for work in the stronger economies of Santiago and Buenos Aires in the 60s and 70s. After the economic boom died down vast shantytowns sprung up outside these cities where ‘cumbia villera’ [regional cumbia] or ‘cumbia Chilena’ was THE sound. Again this music caught on with a working class audience in the South and it evolved again to create a uniquely Chilean sound. In Uruguay too, a distinct form of cumbia called 'cumbia plancha' emerged as a political statement from a poverty stricken working class including many Afro-Uruguans.

Chilean and Argentinian cumbia is very slow with a winding ‘clip-clop’ rhythm. Early Chilean cumbia was initially heavily influenced by the big-band style of the 1950s and 60s. The main bands included Tommy Rey y Sonor Palacio and la Orquesta Huambaly seen below.

In the 1980s a more electronic stripped down Andean influenced form of cumbia called 'sonido' [sound] also caught on in Chile and is still popular today, mainly in the heavily indigenous populated North of the country. Carlos Baltazar was one of the early pioneers of this sonido genre.

The group Odisea 2000 took this Andean influence even further in the late 80s with a distinctively Andean and Chilean hip-hop influenced take on cumbia.

The New Cumbia

So that’s about where Chico Trujillo come in on the timeline of cumbia. They were able to draw from this expansive palette of cumbia influences, when they emerged in the early 2000’s to create their wide ranging sound. This ‘nueva cumbia’ [New Cumbia] genre as it came to be known was defined by departure from the formulaic approach. The band incorporated the new influences influencing the barrios of Santiago at the time such as ska, hip-hop, rock and reggae as well as other Latin genres such as Andean music, salsa and even Balkan brass. In their live concert video below you can clearly hear the influence of a number of these styles.

Meanwhile in Colombia, Mario Galeano, and Eblis Álvarezto created the cumbia project Frente Cumbiero and teamed up with UK Electro-soul producer Will Holland (AKA Quantic) to create a new cumbia supergroup Ondatropica in 2012. This group fuses top electronic production techniques with the best cumbia musicians still alive and adds other tropical influences such as salsa, reggae and Caribbean music.

The Future of Cumbia

However, the story doesn’t end there. A new generation of young Latino producers are taking this genre even further. An example is Nortec Collective seen here with Mexican cumbia legend Celso Pina ‘El Rebelde del acordeón’ [The accordion rebel] on the electrified diatonic Hohner closing the circle between the German engineering of this instrument with a Kraftwerk influenced tecnocumbia tune.

New electronic cumbia-influenced music has popped up all around South America in different forms over the past decade or two. A new generation of producers is doing pretty interesting things to take the genre back to its ancestral roots by fusing modern electronic production techniques with ancestral Native American and African instruments and music samples. This new more downbeat electronic cumbia even includes the occasional Enya influenced jungle noise or parrot sound. Pan flute trigger warning! Check out the track by leading Argentinan electronic producer Chancha Via Circuito below.

With cumbia's proven adaptability and constant innovation like this, there appears no danger of cumbia fading away anytime soon. In fact it looks set to continue inspiring new generations of Latin Americans to dance and to take pride in their culture and origins. And it also seems the rest of the world is getting onboard the cumbia train. With its popularity growing globally, cumbia has finally claimed its rightful place in the global consciousneas the queen of latin American music.

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