Cumbia was born in Colombia, and so it’s the logical starting place for a YouTube-curated bloggy encyclopedia of the genre.
Here’s a bare-bones crash-course.
Cumbia, and the host of other Afro-Latino styles the word has come to stand in for (porro, gaita, mapale, etc) comes from the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, a region known locally as “La Costa,” and it has deep roots in African and indigenous music. The “original,” folkloric cumbia, has surprisingly little to do with Europe and the influences the Spanish brought throughout the Americas. It’s played on drums, shakers, and long end-blown flutes known as gaitas. The sound, which is pretty distant from the commercial cumbias that came afterwards, has become pretty en vogue in Colombia recently. The style has been encapsulated most in a group called Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, who even won a Latin Grammy back in 2007:
In the early 20th Century, around the same time that other “national” styles from around Latin America like samba (Brazil), tango (Argentina), son (Cuba) were taking form, a modern dance band version of cumbia arose. The two bandleaders that became most famous were Pacho Galan and Lucho Bermudez. Bermudez became big in the 40s, and was ultimately responsible for bringing the music to the wealthy Andean cities of the interior that had looked down on Afro-Colombian sounds – Medellin, Cali, Bogotá. One of his most famous songs was “Tolu,” in the video below, which was obviously produced some decades after the fact (note awesome 80s green-screen dance sequences):
The “Golden Age” of cumbia lasted through the 60s or so, in which the local music industry exploded and cumbia orchestras enjoyed successes abroad. The next wave of bands were groups like Los Corraleros de Majagual and la Sonora Dinamita, who brought the down-home accordion sound, formerly associated with the lower classes, into the fold
Then, bands like Los Teenagers, Los Graduados, and Los Hispanos began to bring in chintzy organs and electric guitars. These bands were made up largely of mestizos from the interior, rather than Afro-Colombians from the Coast, and the music lost some of its rhythmic complexity. This music was looked down as by some, especially people from the Coast, who called it “chuco-chuco” to make fun of the repetitive scraper beat. The lyrics, too, became somewhat ridiculous. This song, “Aguardientoski” turns Spanish words into Russian words by adding “-oski” to the end of them.
But the 60s sound did very well abroad, and cumbia began to really spread around Latin America, upwards into Mexico and downwards into the Andes and eventually to Argentina. Which brings up to the real topic of our show….
Coming up next: P is for Peru!