A Musical Journey Through Cumbia

By 05 December, 2011

Over the past sixty years, the Colombian music genre Cumbia has rocked dance floors in it’s native land as well as the global music stage. However, cumbia has not always been so popular with the music-loving masses. Its early beginnings, found at the mouth of the Magdalena River and the Atlantic Ocean were largely viewed with disdain, especially for its association with societal lower classes. It was seen as a highly inappropriate dance, dating back to Colombia’s colonial past and consisted of a somewhat ‘sexualised’ dance between the sexes. It was a courtship ritual that celebrated the musical, as well as social interaction between people of African ancestry and the indigenous people of Colombia known as zambos.

Traditional Instruments

In true traditional style, early cumbia music encompassed an array of instruments, ranging from drums, flutes and vocals (that were usually presented in Spanish, although at times African and native languages were spoken too). The percussion had its roots strongly cemented in West African musical history and included the tambor mayor – a carved log drum with calf or goat skin stretched across the top, the tambor llamador – a smaller version of the mayor – and the tambora – a large two-headed drum played with sticks. Any traditional cumbia group would not have been taken seriously without the maracas and let’s not forget, the guache – a bamboo or tin tube filled with seeds. These days, two types of cumbia groups exist, those who perform exclusively on percussion – conjunto de cumbia and those who include the indigenous gaitas (cactus wood flutes) – known as conjuntos de gaitas.

One of the key figures to present cumbia in its purest form is Totó la Momposina – an energetic singer of African and native Colombian descent. Have a listen below:


Mid-Twentieth Century: The Golden Age of Cumbia Arrives

Like the blues music that wandered up the river Mississippi from the Delta South to the music mecca, New Orleans, cumbia, with its palpable rhythms and simple-toned melodies was transported up the river Magdalena to interior cities such as Medellin and Bogotá. Those musicians who brought music from its origins to the middle-class urbanites included Pacho Galán and Lucho Bermudez along with his Orquesta del Caribe. Both musicians did not present the music in its traditional form, but in a more refined, homogenised way that was simplified and “easier on the ear”. Much of Bermudez’s early cumbia tracks also incorporated a horn section, reflecting the direct influence of Cuban big-band jazz groups of the 40s.


Bermudez, along with Galán, also adopted the drum kit rather than the percussive instrumentation – a move that clearly fit in with other popular musical styles, especially in North America and the pop music scene of the post-war-boom.

Over Colombian Borders and Beyond

With the popularisation of the radio and television during the 40s, it was no surprise that cumbia, as well as other costeňo (meaning Atlantic coastline) inspired styles such as rumbas, guarachas and porros became a transnational success. Pioneering record label Discos Fuentes, established in 1934 by Antonio Fuentes Estrada, also became instrumental in disseminating recordings of cumbia music to the masses, even stretching to North America, where Latin American music was becoming increasingly popular. In many ways, the spread of cumbia and its numerous orchestral troupes reflected once again, what was going on in North America, particularly the adoption of jazz styles by white, middle-class musicians from its African-American-based-roots during “the jazz age” of the 30s. For instance, Lucho Bermudez and members of the Orquesta del Caribe all originally hailed from the coastal hub of Baranquilla before moving to Bogotá for success. However, many of the musicians became tired of the Bogotá climate and returned to the coast, even Bermudez’s wife and family (of whom he separated shortly after). The new members of his band were much “whiter” in appearance, from higher social backgrounds and educated in more classically-influenced musical styles. Of course, the adoption of middle-class musicians performing a traditional cumbia would have proven a treat on the ears for those socially elite music aficionados across the continent and beyond.

Mexican Cumbia

By the mid-60s, Mexican bands led by musicians like Mike Laure and Carmen Rivero had adopted the cumbia style into their performances. Have a listen to Rivero’s “Cumbia Que Te Vas De Ronda” below:

By the late 60s in both Colombia and Mexico, the ever-recognised cumbia sound was 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. Today, this style of music is as popular as ever, with bands such as Los Bukis performing cumbias in their repertoire.

Cumbia sonidera is a musical style that was created by Mexico City DJs during the 90s. It is a variant of cumbia, that is unique for its identifiable melodic organ and guacharaca (a percussive instrument made out of palm tree material). To an extent, cumbia sonidera presents an underlying celebration of the original 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.

Peruvian Cumbia

The 60s also saw a rise in popularity of the Colombian cumbia in the middle-class youth of Peru and its urban hotspots. However, a few years later, as rock and salsa became the dominant mainstream, the cumbia became best known for its allegiance with lower-class migrants. This music was identified as Cumbia Andina, otherwise known as chicha – a mash-up of Peruvian huayno (Andean) pentatonic-based melodies with distinguished cumbia rhythms and clip-clop beat. Popular group Armonia 10’s “Quise Morir” is a great example of the chicha style.

Los Destellos “Morena”

Cumbia Chilena

In Latin America, cumbia music spread as far south as Chile. These days, it is as popular as ever due to Nueva Cumbia Chilena (New Chilean Cumbia Rock) – a contemporary style of cumbia that incorporates a range of other musical styles such as rock, bolero, ska, reggae and even some gypsy-jives. Such bands include Chico Trujillo (see article in Sounds and Colours), La Mano Ajena and Combo Ginebra.

Combo Ginebra “Mala de Adentro”

Argentina’s Cumbia Villera

Growing out of the popularity of Colombian cumbia, cumbia villera uses the simple 4/4 beat to perform lyrics that discuss the social deprivation and issues of the musicians’ lives. In recent times, many bands, including Los Pibes Chorros (“The Thieving Kids”) and Damas Gratis (“Ladies’ Night”), have gained popularity in mainstream media. This is due to the emergence of international footballers from their origins from Argentina’s shanty towns. For instance, footballer star Carlos Tévez is the lead singer of Piola Vago (meaning ‘savvy bum’).

The Future of Cumbia

From its origins in the coastal towns of Colombia to dancefloors across the world, the future of cumbia is still looking promising. Genres such as digital cumbia from Argentina and nueva cumbia from Colombia are showing ways in which cumbia can grow.

Also, December 5th 2011 sees the release of Will ‘Quantic’ Holland’s carefully compiled assortment of cumbian treats – with some tracks dating as early as 1948, as well as some unheard sweet-sounding ’78s 45s and LPs. Released on Soundway Records, The Original Sound of Cumbia, is a 55-track wonder and a great introduction to cumbia music.

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