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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.