Culture Blog

Background of Cumbia

When the drumbeat cries out in celebration, it radiates deep history and tradition from the banks of the Magdalena River in Colombia. The sound of the flute pierces the air like the call of an exotic bird and emits excitement of which every Colombian feels, either at home or abroad when he or she hears the exquisite melodies of cumbia.

Cumbia is one of the most melodic representative expressions of Colombia. It brings together three cultures -  African, Indigenous and European. The African influence gives the rhythm of the drums while the Indigenous based flute blends in the melody. The European influence  provides some variations in the melodies, choreography and costumes of the dancers.

The origin of cumbia music comes from the days of slavery in the late 17th century and is derived from the African word cumbe which means dance. Another word was derived later in the Antioquia region of Colombia called caracumbe and was coined by African slaves who worked in the mines. A third variation of the word called paracumbé emerged and then disappeared as well as the term cumbancha which in Cuba means party. However, one thing is for certain,  cumbia was born of a cultural mix of black and indigenous backgrounds. The music got very popular in the 1950′s and 1960′s in Colombia as it evolved into what we recognize today. *There has been a recent movement in Medellin, Colombia by young artists and dancers to revive the original sounds of the earlier decades. These performances can be seen throughout cultural centers in Medellin including the José Gutiérrez Gómez Metropolitan Theatre.

Slaves brought traditions over from West Africa in which a man would dance in front of the lady trying to get her attention while she pretended not to be interested

The birthplace of cumbia is a subject of discussion by many scholars of folklore. According to the master José Barros, cumbia was born in indigenous country somewhere around the region Pocabuy Banco or Magdalena. Others argue that the cumbia must have been born in Cienaga (Magdalena) or Soledad (Atlántico). The only sure thing is that it was near the settlements of African descendants, brought as slaves to Colombia.

Narciso Garay, a Panamanian writer discusses in his book “Traditions and Songs of Panama” details about the dances and celebrations of the cultural music. He also talks about the ancient tradition and life in Panama of the music, to the point that he makes readers believe that cumbia was born in Panama. The fine writer must have forgot that Panama once belonged to Colombia up until the early twentieth century.

In Mexico, as in several Latin American countries, Colombian cumbia has received acceptance on a large scale. There are many musical groups that have now recorded cumbia. However, these compositions and performances are a far cry from the original musical melodies and incorporate non-traditional instruments.

Musical Instruments of Traditional Cumbia

Cumbia is derived from two main musical categories – percussion and wind.

Drums Used in Traditional Cumbia

The percussion side of the equation is African based and comes from three different drums. The bass drum (tambora) which is a double sided drum is used to produce the deep bass rhythms. A secondary mid-drum known as a merry drum (tambor alegre) is used for backup rhythm. A small drum or calling drum (lamador) is also used for the back-beat. Seed filled maracas and metal guaches are also utilized for overtones.

Wind Instruments Used in Traditional Cumbia

The wind instruments of cumbia involves three different flutes (gaitas) of Colombian origin. The male flute or gaita macho which has one hole gives rhythmic and harmonic support to the female flute or gaita hembra which has five holes and carries the melodies. The mouthpiece of these flutes is constructed using hardened bees wax that has been covered in coal dust to seal it. A turkey feather is used to blow air through the gaita. Finally, the flauta de millo or millo flute has four to six holes, is a native Colombian instrument made from the millo cane and used to help carry the melody. Initially, cumbia was only instrumental and the inclusion of lyrics and vocals came later.

Example of Traditional Colombian Cumbia Music: The song is La Pollera Colora


More Traditional Colombian Cumbia Music: This is a mix of classic cumbia songs


Modern Cumbia

There are many ways of interpreting cumbia music, obviously referring to the musical instruments used. Many bands from different genres have re-created majestic performances with spectacular arrangements using modern instruments such as the clarinet, bongo drums, horns and even piano. Vallenato artists have blended their own form of the music integrating the accordion into cumbia music including well known artists such as the late maestro Luis Enrique Martinez, Cumbia Cienaguera and many other artists.

Other modern styles of the hip-hop genre tend to follow the deejaying principle where producers will create a rhythm and then various singers or MCs will blend in their individual musical talents in order to make it their own style.

Example of Modern Colombian Cumbia Music: The song is La Pollera Colora by Jaime Uribe


Another Example of Modern Colombian Cumbia Music: The song is Yo Me LLamo Cumbia by Jaime Uribe


Recommended Listening:

1. Rough Guide to Cumbia – This is a really good overview from several different generation perspectives that includes a wide variety of instrumentation. Also try hunting down any releases by Lucho Bermudez although nobody has released a definitive compilation of his work as of yet.

2. La Candela Viva – Toto La Momposina has been recording since the 1960′s and has covered many different Colombian genres.

3. Caja Y Guacharacha – a mix of cumbia, puya and porro music styles by Quantic, a British producer based in Colombia.


Sunday With The Family in Colombia

One of the things that first caught my attention here in Medellin was how the traffic on Sundays was so much less than the rest of the week. The obvious reason is that it is the weekend and most people are resting from the night before. However, in Colombia family members normally gather together on Sundays and spend time with the family. It is very […]

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