This Isn’t Your Mama’s Cumbia: The Eclectic History Of Latin America’s Classic Music Genre

As soon as the first beats of classic cumbia songs such as “La pollera colorá, “Carmen se me perdió la cadenita” or “Cumbia sampuesana” started playing at family parties, you knew it was about to turn into a good time. Many Latinos have fond memories growing up with these classics, a testament to how widespread cumbia’s reach has been across Latin America, starting from its roots in Africa.

There’s just something about cumbias that make Latinos stop in their tracks.

In a 2015 interview with NPR’s alt.latino, Eduardo Díaz, the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, talked to the show’s co-hosts about cumbia’s origins.

Although cumbia does have indigenous and European influences, mainly with the flute and variation with melodies respectively, its roots extend all the way to Africa. According to Díaz, the movement slaves had while being shackled together gave way to the short, simple steps first practiced in cumbia dancing.

“That’s why you have in the original cumbia, this sort of side-step with the one foot, and then the right foot. The left foot first catches up with it. But you don’t move very far. That’s why when you see the original cumbia, the men are barely moving their feet. It’s a real short shuffle step,”  Díaz explained to NPR alt.Latino.

Drums and chanting were used in the earliest forms of cumbia. The song “Fuego de Cumbia” played by Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto gives fans the purest form of cumbia.

The minimalistic musical stylings of “Fuego de Cumbia” retains the simple nature of cumbia’s roots. You can hear the flutes and drums that carry the rhythm through your body and get you moving on the dance floor. It truly is cumbia at its rawest and most original form.

Centuries ago, African slaves used the cumbia dance as a type of courtship dance, described in the cumbia of “Rito esclavo” by Pedro Laza.

Although Díaz focuses on the instruments used, one quick listen to the lyrics tells the tale of how slaves used the dance.

The song starts with these (translated) lyrics:

This is a ritual

A slave ritual that slaves perform for their loves

Yelling is heard

Light the candle

The drums cry

Cumbia started spreading from the outer Caribbean coast of Colombia to other parts of the country, along with traveling to different parts of Latin America.

Cumbia made its way through Peru, Mexico and Argentina evolving along the way. The genre picked up different regional sounds based on instruments and lyrics that reflected the region in which it was created.

Around the 1940s in Mexico, cumbia came by way of Colombian singer Luis Carlos Meyer Castandet, who is said to have recorded the first cumbia outside of Colombia with the track, “La cumbia cienaguera.”

Peruvian cumbia also has a similar instrumental arrangement as cumbia sonidera and tecnocumbia.

Peruvian cumbia involves electric guitars, synths and a distinct touch of Andean flavor. It can be played a little slower than regular cumbia and lends itself to some slow dancing. It really isn’t that bad though the guitar does take some getting used to.

This sound was starting to churn out in the ’60s in Peru.

Cumbia’s ability to spread through so many countries and adapt to so many different instruments shows the genres strength and resilience.

By the 1980s, two subgenres formed in Mexico—tecnocumbia and cumbia sonidero.

Tecnocumbia used tropical elements and electronic instruments and developed around the 1980s. Think Los Bukis and their sound.

Selena’s “Como La Flor,” “La Carcaha,” and “Technocumbia” are all part of this genre.

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That’s right. You’ve been enjoying tecnocumbia for a long time and didn’t even know it.

Cumbia sonidera can be heard echoing at house parties in East Los Angeles or at La Cita in downtown L.A., as described in an article from the New York Times last year.

“With the largest Mexican community in the United States, the Los Angeles area is cumbia sonidera culture’s nerve center north of the border,” the article states.

Cumbia sonidera is known for its shout-out dedications from a DJ, or sonidero, as well as the electric riffs that waft through.

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It’s the kind of music that makes you want to clap along and do a little shuffle. Unless you are with your main boo then you definitely hit the dance floor for some well-timed twirls.

While Peruvian cumbia and cumbia sonidero could be heard in the discotheques from Lima to Monterrey, a new type of cumbia was evolving in the slums of Argentina.

Cumbia villera’s history started out in the late 1990s, and uses lyrics describing the hard-knock life of living on the streets.

Early groups sang about partying, not social issues, but as the country plunged deeper into a depression, societal issues such as poverty and misery started to rise to the surface in the lyrical composition. In a sense, it was like the blues for Argentina, giving these artists a place to vent about the societal problems they lamented and wished to change.

Cumbia villera was influenced from Peruvian cumbia, cumbia sonidera, as well as reggae, ska and rock. The music started to change in the early 2000s under President Nestor Kirchner along with an improvement in the economy.

Cumbia then evolved to a modern form of music known as electrocumbia. Before long, it became a favorite at clubs and dance parties for young Latinos eager to mix the culture of their youth with the sounds and rhythms of young adulthood.

Cumbia’s essence is taking form in cumbia hip-hop and even being showcased on one of mainstream music’s largest stage—Coachella. Mexican cumbia sonidera group Los Ángeles Azules played this year and shared a piece of Latino collective history to people who have never heard these beats before.

With the rapid development this genre has experienced over past centuries and decades, the frontier of cumbia has not been reached—and that sounds like a wonderful thing.

READ: This Viejito Plays Cumbias Using A Coke Bottle And His Skills Are Insane

What’s your favorite genre of cumbia? Tell us below!

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Los Ángeles Azules Announces 40th Anniversary Tour, Drops Guaynaa Collab


Los Ángeles Azules Announces 40th Anniversary Tour, Drops Guaynaa Collab

This fall legendary Mexican group Los Ángeles Azules is going on tour. To celebrate their upcoming tour, the band released the music video for their new single “Cumbia A La Gente” with Puerto Rican rapper Guaynaa.

Los Ángeles Azules is celebrating 40 years together.

To commemorate 40 years in the music industry, Los Ángeles Azules will be embarking on the 40 Años Tour. Tickets for the show are on sale now. The tour kicks off in August in Corpus Christi and runs through November. There are a few dates in 2022 as well.

Los Ángeles Azules has two music videos with over a billion views each.

Los Ángeles Azules is 40 years in the game and fabulous. The cumbia group that hails from Iztapalapa recently achieved the incredible feat of having two music videos cross over a billion views each on YouTube. Los Ángeles Azules’ remake of Natalia Lafourcade’s “Nunca Es Suficiente” with Natalia has over 1.2 billion views. The group’s video for “Mis Sentimientos” with Ximena Sariñana has over a billion views.

Los Ángeles Azules turns out the grocery store with Guaynaa in their new video.

Los Ángeles Azules is always keeping cumbia fresh. For their latest single “Cumbia a La Gente,” they team up with Guaynaa. The song blends Azules’ tropical sound with Guaynaa’s reggaeton edge. This cumbiatón bop is pretty catchy. You can always count on Guaynaa to get the party started.

In the music video for “Cumbia a La Gente,” Los Ángeles Azules and Guaynaa turn the grocery store into a club. There’s a turn-up happening in all the aisles.

Another one of Los Ángeles Azules’ recent hits was the pop crossover “Amor a La Primera Vista” with Belinda, Horacio Palencia, and Lalo Ebratt. The group’s latest album is De Buenos Aires Para El Mundo featuring Argentine pop stars like Juan Ingaramo and Lali.

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Read: Juan Ingaramo is Argentina’s “Fenómeno del Mambo” in His Music Video

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Ocho Ojos Is The Psychedelic Cumbia Band Bringing A Fresh Sound From Coachella Valley


Ocho Ojos Is The Psychedelic Cumbia Band Bringing A Fresh Sound From Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley is known to most as the home of one of the largest music gatherings, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. But if you look deeper, the desert area is home to miles of agriculture, a developing suburb, and a growing music scene.

Ocho Ojos, a local band from the Eastern Coachella Valley, is a product of that underground culture that many outside of the area might not be aware of. The group, Danny Torres (Synthesizer), Cesar Flores (Guitar/Vocals), James Gastelum (Bass) and Rafael Rodriguez (Drums), wears their hometown on their sleeve and are proud of it.

The group’s name, Ocho Ojos, is Spanish for eight eyes, a reference to the thick black glasses that both Flores and Torres wear.

Credit: chrisvphotography / Instagram

Dressed in matching white button-ups and white patent leather shoes, similar to the kind chambelanes wear for a quinceanera, the group likes to keep it fresh. Flores says he found the shoes at a local Goodwill one day and realized this was going to be their look. It was also helpful during the hot Coachella nights to be wearing white.

“If you look good, you feel good. And if you feel good, you play good,” Torres said. “It’s a part of who we are as a group and a reflection of our style.”

The group, which started as a duo of only Flores and Torres in 2016, started off by playing backyard gigs in their hometown. They slowly moved up to bars and local clubs and after a year, people began recognizing them.

“We just wanted to create songs that people could dance to and escape to,” Torres said. “We moved up after a year and soon we realized that people got attached to the group.”

After three years, the group would expand to a four-piece, with the addition of Rodriguez and Gastelum. This has helped them keep up with the numerous requests to play shows throughout the Coachella area.

The group likes to call themselves a “psychedelic cumbia band.” It’s a tribute to the fusion of sounds they’ve been inspired by.

Their style is what makes Ocho Ojos so unique and popular in the Coachella Valley. The group says they were inspired by the music they and their parents listened to growing up. It was a mixture of cumbia, classic rock and a lot of heavy metal.

“The music I grew up listening to had a huge influence on me and really inspired much of the music we are creating today,” Torres said. “People here love our sound and I think it’s a reflection of what we listened to growing up.”

That sound is thriving in Coachella’s alternative music scene, where indie rock, desert rock, and punk are more popular than ever. The mixture of cumbia is a tribute to their Latin upbringing and plays a special part in their success with locals.

“Our environment inspires our music. It’s consistent right in the middle of the area and the desert,” Rodriguez. “We even have a song with a sound of a snake in it, I think Coachella inspired us all.”

While the group had success, it wasn’t until a last-minute addition to the 2017 Coachella lineup that they had their big break.

Credit: chrisvphotography / Instagram

When Ocho Ojos first performed at the Coachella Festival in 2017, they performed on a Sunday to a small crowd of about 100-150. The group was also a last-minute addition, so their name wasn’t on the official concert poster and found out they’d be on the bill on Monday of that week.

Fast-forward two years later, the group was officially part of the lineup and performed along with the likes of Bad Bunny and Tame Impala. When comparing those two different experiences, Torres says it felt like the second time around the group in a way earned the spot.

“It was a completely different experience and it was a completely different process,” Torres said. “We made the lineup and we weren’t just that band from Coachella, we made it because of who we are. We felt like rock stars that night.”

From playing in bars and backyard gigs, the group felt the event was a culmination of all that hard work put forward. Rodriguez says after attending the festival as fans for years being on that stage was special.

“It was surreal after attending the festival for years to find yourself up there it felt like an out of body feeling,” Rodriguez said.

The sky is the limit for Ocho Ojos as they now plan on expanding their reach beyond Coachella.

Credit: chrisvphotography / Instagram

The group sees growth in themselves and their unique sound that has played a big role in where they are today. For them, performing at Coachella wasn’t anything close to the pinnacle of what they hope is a long music career but another stepping stone.

“All the work that goes on behind the scenes and all the little things that you consider the tedious work is important,” Torres says. “If you go into it with the idea that you’ll be famous it won’t work.”

They hope to continue expanding their fan reach and keep touring around the country. Their love of experimental music and more importantly, their love for the Coachella Valley is what drives them to keep going.

“It’s that desert love and that appreciation for what music has brought into our lives,” Gastelum says. “At night when the temperatures drop, people are dancing and they are enjoying the night, we love it and it keeps us going.”

READ: As Coachella Weekend Two Starts, Some Want Concertgoers To Respect Those Cleaning Up After Their Day Of Partying

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