The Songlines Guide to Cumbia!

Posted on October 8th, 2013 in News, Recent posts by .


Next issue we introduce you to the bands reviving the classic cumbia and chicha sounds in a new wave of Latin psychedelia. In the meantime, brush up on your cumbia knowledge, with a piece from the Songlines archives – our definitive guide to Colombia’s national music 
Words by Jan Fairley; Above photo by César Mauricio Olaya Coryo


It’s 7.30pm and taxi driver José Chávez is ducking and diving between lanes of buses through the congested traffic of Lima where roads are being dug up here, there and everywhere. The car radio is tuned to Radio Q, or as the announcer says, ‘laaaa suuuuuperrrrr quuuuuuuu,’ blasting away with ‘La Aventura del Amor’ (The Adventure of Love), an upbeat cumbia with a distinctive loping beat and a catchy chorus line: ‘No puedo vivir sin ti (‘I can’t live without you’). “I always put on cumbia stations,” Señor Chávez tells me when I ask him if he likes cumbia. “It’s very stressful living in Lima and cumbia is cheerful and keeps me happy as I drive. And it’s very bailable [danceable] too,” he adds, although at this moment it’s the car that’s dancing and wriggling in and out of traffic rather than the driver. This is the ‘City of Kings’ where over a third of Peruvians live, with an estimated population in excess of 11 million inhabitants.

alfredoCumbia Rhythms

While cumbia, with its loping four/four rhythm and clocking root beats, is very popular in Peru (of which more later), it actually comes from Colombia. It has been one of the most popular dances in Latin America since the late 1950s and 60s when Colombian cumbia was played on the radio. An essential part of the continent’s culture, its popularity comes from its irresistible rhythms, a fusion of Amerindian, African and Spanish elements, and the fact that it’s relatively easy to dance to. Whereas salsa involves complex moves, cumbia is an easy swing from the ball of one foot to another, occasionally with tight moves left and right powered by swirling hips while holding a partner or dancing loosely with someone. In Colombia cumbia is a national dance and is present in the repertoire of every conceivable music group.

Cumbia featured at several very significant Colombian concerts, held on July 20 2008 to celebrate Colombia’s independence day. The main purpose was to demand the release of the hundreds of hostages held by Colombia’s FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] rebel group. On a stage at Trocadéro near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Colombian superstar Juanes played cumbia riffs on his guitar for guest-of-honour and Franco-Colombian  politician Ingrid Betancourt, just released after her six years in the jungle at the hands of the FARC. On the same day in the town of Leticia on the Colombian border with Peru and Brazil, cumbia music was one of the essential rhythms underpinning the concert of Shakira and Carlos Vives – two other Colombian superstars similarly demanding that the FARC release all hostages.

Cumbia History

The cumbia of Juanes in songs like ‘Tres’ (from his recent album La Vida Es Un Ratico) is an up-to-the-minute cumbia-rock fusion. Of course, it’s not classic cumbia like that of Lucho Bermúdez and his Orquesta who in the 40s were instrumental in bringing cumbia from the Colombian coast to other regions and introducing it to Bogotá’s high society. It was these recordings of Bermúdez that took cumbia to Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Venezuela.

Bermúdez learnt to play cumbia and other folk rhythms first on the flautín (Colombian flute) from his uncle who was director of the local band in his home town of El Carmen de Bolívar. Bermúdez went on to learn trumpet, trombone, saxophone and clarinet and composed over 400 musical works. Songs like ‘Colombia Tierra Querida’ (Colombia Dear Country) with its patriotic theme and ‘La Danza Negra’, a nostalgic song about cumbia’s coastal folkloric origins  epitomised the genre whose roots ran deep in the country’s racial cultures.

Conventional wisdom says that the cumbia dance evolved on the coast in the 17th century from encounters between male African slaves and indigenous Colombian women during fiestas like those for the Virgin of Candelaria. Cumbia’s shuffling steps are reputedly relics from the days when slaves would attempt the Guinean cumbé dance while restrained by leg irons.

Over time cumbia evolved as a couple dance – women wearing long, wide, white then colourful skirts with frills – either holding torches or bunches of candles in their hands, a single candle to guard her ‘purity’; or the man making circling moves offering a lit candle to try and win her over. Like rumba and other Afro-Caribbean musics, it was played on a trio of different sized drums whose interplay created a spectrum of polyrhythms, while the melody was played on a gaita (indigenous flute) with the support of shakers called guachos. It evolved into a country music full of timbres and textures of different instruments: the crick-crack of stickscraping guïros, the hard shush of seed maracas and the strum of nylon strings. Cuban and big band influences led to the addition of timbales, congas, bongos and cencerro (cowbells), as cumbia migrated with people from rural areas to the city.

Some of the most popular cumbias were played by Los Corraleros de Majagual, a group that has included many cumbia stars in its ranks. They included accordionist Alfredo ‘king of vallenato’ Gutiérrez (pictured above right) and radio star Lisandro Meza. Their music became familiar in Europe, especially in the UK, in the 80s when pioneering world music labels like Mango, Tumi, World Circuit and World Music Network brought out a series of compilation discs mapping cumbia’s history, culled from historic labels like Sonolux and Discos Fuentes.

Cumbia became recognisable in the UK in the 80s when the cumbia anthem ‘La Colegiala’ was famously used in a Nescafé advert. It also became part of the Latin club scene, the choice of DJs who interspersed cumbias like ‘La Pollera Colora’ (The Coloured Skirt) and ‘La Cumbia Cienaguera’ between salsa, rumba and son. Over 20 years later in 2008, the Los Angeles-based group Very Be Careful, led by the two Guzmán brothers who are second generation Colombian, brought cumbia to the heart of London’s La Linea festival. They lead a roots cumbia group of accordion, acoustic double bass, drum, scraper and cowbell and play a classic set inspired by the early work of Gutiérrez, Alejandro Durán and other early musicians they’d heard back in Colombia on annual visits to their grandparents.

LosShapisCumbia In Peru: Chicha

While Colombia has given cumbia to the world, some of the more interesting developments of the past 20 years have come from Peru. Back in Lima, my taxi driver José tells me about Peru’s very own thriving brand of cumbia called chicha, whose public is the enormous number of rural migrants who have flocked from the mountains to live in the cities. The first generation of provincial migrants brought their folk music with them where it was re-interpreted to great effect by artists like Flor Pucarina and Picaflor de los Andes. The second generation embraced a ‘new’ music which brought together folk and swingy huayno (Andean) dances with jaunty tropical rhythms. Emerging in the 80s out of the coastal guitar-driven cumbia scene of the 60s and 70s, chicha was seen as ‘modern’ in contrast with popular folk because it was played on electric instruments – rhythm guitars, electric bass, electric organ, a timbales and conga player, one or more vocalists and sometimes a synthesizer – to a mass of people, most of whom would not even have electricity in their shanty town homes. Chicha got its name from the popular corn-based, homebrewed beer that has been part of Andean culture since before the Incas. The beauty of the drink is that it requires little to make it – a few grains of corn, a bit of spit to ferment it and water. Drive along any road in the provinces, walk the backstreets of a town or village and chicha  drinking places announce themselves by a giant  red paper flower on the end of a long stick. Its  credibility as a name for music came from song  lyrics that articulated the struggle of migrants tomake ‘something out of nothing’, to create a new life in the makeshift pueblos jovenes (young towns), the ever expanding shanty towns on the fringes of the city. The name stuck when Los Demonios del Mantaro (The Devils of Mantaro), who came from the central highlands of Junin, wrote ‘La Chichera’ (The Chicha Seller) which became the first chicha hit.

Chicha became the soundtrack for the new generation of city dwellers, the music of the small camioneta micro buses that moved them round searching for work, plying their wares. Songs told stories of the migrants who brought with them the strong Andean work ethic which drove them to become ambulantes (travelling sales people), selling anything they could on the streets to survive, boosting the city’s unofficial economy, but ever threatened by the police.

One of the most popular groups, Los Shapis (pictured above left), summed it all up in their song ‘El Ambulante’, which opens referencing the rainbow colours of the Inca flag and the colour of the woven ponchos worn by people to keep warm, often tied to their backs to transport their wares: ‘My flag is of the colours and the stamp of the rainbow/For Peru and America/Watch out or the police will take your bundle off you!/Ay, ay, ay, how sad it is to live/How sad it is to dream/I’m a street seller, I’m a proletarian/Selling shoes, selling food, selling jackets/I support my home.’

Over time, chicha effectively became the music of a youth movement, expressing the social frustration for the mass of people suffering racial discrimination in Peruvian society.

The scene was full of groups like Los Shapis and Los Hijos del Sol (Sons of the Sun) who took indigenous names to consciously evoke the heritage of Peru’s original indigenous peoples, dominated but never vanquished by the Spanish. Los Shapis, from the provincial town of Huancayo in the Mantaro region, adapted traditional pentatonic huayno melodies to cumbia beats. One of their first hits was ‘El Aguajal’ (The Swamp) in 1981, a chicha version of the traditional huayno tune ‘El Alisal’ which it outsold.

As a spontaneous expression of the people, chicha was perceived as catching the zeitgeist of the time. Promoted by radio and small independent record companies, it was the first Peruvian music to achieve the press interest till then reserved for foreign music groups, although the media inevitably focused on the ethnic and social background of the musicians rather than the quality of the music. The musical background of those involved was ignored. Chicha’s popularity in Peru was consolidated in the 80s, when a huge new wave of migrants fled to the city as the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla movement based in Ayacucho fought a dirty war with the army.

During the presidency and corrupt regime of Alberto Fujimori in the 90s, Peruvian cumbia entered a third phase, with technocumbia. This phase heralded the arrival of women into a hitherto masculine scene, notably the singer Rossy War. With songs like ‘Nuestro Amor Prohibido’ (Our Forbidden Love), War expresses the contradictions in the life of strong women who love and accept their man but who are by no means uncritical of machismo. Musically she moved Peruvian cumbia onto an international level, replacing its local huayno ingredient with influences drawn from Mexican ranchera and Tex-Mex styles. Her Amazonian background led her and her backing dancers to dress in fringed, tropical bikini costumes, with high boots and the pelvic moves of their athletic cumbia dance full of folk-dance influences.

chichalibreModern Cumbia

Media interest in chicha music has recently been revived following the tragic road accident involving the group Néctar when all eight members were killed in 2007 in Argentina. Néctar’s appeal was leader Johnny Orozco who had the fashionable high flinty-toned, semifalsetto voice of the Andes embodying the spirit of his provincial hometown of Ayacucho in songs with leitmotif lyrics to seguir luchando’ (continue struggling) in love or life.

Back in Colombia, cumbia has become a strong feature of mainstream music, modernised in sophisticated ways via the work of huge stars like Carolina Sabino, Carlos Vives, rockeros like Iban and Su Bambam, as well as classic groups like Grupo Niche. Vives is interesting as he shifted from being a soap star to becoming a musician after playing vallenato composer Rafael Escalona in the TV series Escalona. He has become a Grammy award-winning musician with a string of memorable hits reinventing vallenato for the 21st century and spearheading the hybrid dance scene where cumbia and other Caribbean rhythms are fused with rock and pop music.

This has had an impact all over the Latin American continent (and in Spain) with the energy of the Colombian cumbia scene rivalling pan-Latin salsa, continually absorbing new influences. In Argentina groups like Wanaco, Cuarteto Imperial and Charanga del Caribe have given local cumbia a distinctive Argentinian feel. A contemporary development called cumbia villera, popular among urban migrants in bailanta (dance hall) venues, has dance moves permeated with explicit sexual references, found in hiphop influenced pan-Latin reggaeton culture.

On the international club scene, young Latin DJs like Frente Cumbiero are bringing cumbia to the fore. Recently Olivier Conan, a New York-based French musician, DJ and club owner, released a compilation of classic Peruvian chicha called The Roots of Chicha on his own Barbès label [reviewed in #53]. With his Barbès club booking groups like Very Be Careful and his own group Chicha Libre (pictured above right) appearing at the 2008 Montréal Jazz Festival, it’s definitely time to tune into cummmmbiiiaaaaaaa!

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