Cumbia! The Sound of the Latin Power
By Juan Escobar Campos
It is well known that Latin America has no monarchies, as since the 19th century its population decided not to embrace kings or queens any longer. Time has shown one single exception to this statement: Cumbia, a queen whose kingdom stretches North to South from Mexico to Argentina, including Chile, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Costa Rica and many others.
Let me tell the story, first, of Chico and his mother, Rosa, whose passion for this music would have been regarded as madness outside of the magical universe of Cumbia. Chico and Rosa lived thirty walking-minutes away from the main village of San Jacinto. She enjoyed composing daily-life rhymes and singing them whenever the occasion let her. Without a husband who could escort her to the parties, she trained Chico to play the Alegre – the African-originated hand drum of Cumbia – and soon he also became a huge music lover. The problem for them was that, away from San Jacinto and without any electricity or telephones to communicate, they would never know when a Cumbia gathering was going on in the town.
When I first met Chico, he told me that on countless nights they were tricked by mischievous witches who would make them listen to drumbeats and see beams of candlelight radiating from the village. Excited by the promise of Cumbia, they would eagerly walk into the darkness of the road to San Jacinto, just to realize half an hour later that they had been deceived by wicked spirits. It turns out that Chico and Rosa never gave up in their quest for parties, and would keep on walking the same road until they would find the village’s main square consumed in the ecstatic celebrations of cumbiambas – circles of Cumbia dances.
What is a night of Cumbia?
The plaza or square is the natural setting of Cumbia. During daytime, it is a place for fishermen, peasants and merchants, as well as the core of the political activity in the Spanish-style village. At night, the plaza becomes a music venue for the most intense celebrations taking place during the festivities of the patron saints, Christmas, carnivals, and any other occasion of public relevance -such as the visit of a governor or the arrival of a distinguished villager- that offers the possibility to turn their lives into dancing movement.
Throughout the towns of the Colombian Caribbean Coast, Cumbia became popular through the cumbianbas or noches de cumbia (nights of cumbia) in the early years of the 20th Century that saw a big boom in the growth of agricultural products like banana, cotton and tobacco. In the typical night of Cumbia, musicians, singers and instruments -drums, native American flutes, accordions and maracas- were placed in the center of a circle formed by dancers who would ceaselessly turn around the melody makers. During these nights you could see women holding a candle in one hand and their long skirts in the other, while the moonlight would shine on the naked torsos of copper-skinned men.
I have been able to witness the irresistible heat of Cumbia dancing in cities like Barranquilla, Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Bogotá going on still today. The fire, the music, the movement of hips and the alcohol can arouse even the blandest, reinforced by the tension that grows when you look into the dark eyes of the dancing partner. Despite not being the quiskest-paced dance, the moves of Cumbia are steady; women’s hips smoothly flow sideways but with the precision of a ticking clock, while men, admiring them, display all types bodily strategies to court them, from moving their shoulders to drawing circles with their humble feet on the sand.
From the backbeat to the backbone of a continent
While the dance of Cumbia displays seduction, at a social level the dance of Cumbia is also a collective expression; this is the only reason that I find to explain why it became so popular and spread throughout almost all the countries of Latin America.
The most distinctive features of Cumbia are its musical backbeat and its cadence. As to the first, Cumbia is special among all Latin American genres because it emphasizes the 2nd and the 4th beat of the music, instead of the common 1st and 3rd beat. With this, the backbeat of cumbia produces a displacement of the accent from the strong to the weak beat. As to second, the unstoppable and steady flow of Cumbia gives you a timeless sensation. While dancing Cumbia you lose track of the beginning and the end of the celebration.
I have come to believe that these two phenomena produce a sense of redemptive abandonment among all the peoples of Latin American countries. As the day shifts to night, the arrival of Cumbia marks the empowerment of the weak, just like the accentuation of the backbeat, especially among the lower classes. Its cadence and timeless sensation chase away the hardships of impoverishment, of urban violence and of governmental neglect.
Cumbia flew first from Colombia to Mexico. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, one of the most representative bands of Colombian Cumbia, arrived at the Mexican Olympics in 1968, where they were bizarrely awarded a gold medal for their outstanding performance, as if they were competitors. Afterwards, many musicians introduced the melancholic melodies of Cumbia’s accordion to the colonias (neighborhoods) of Mexico City and Monterrey. Cumbia quickly spread in Mexico and years later artists like Celso Piña or Los Ángeles Azules made the most popular urban areas dance along to heir music. Musicians from El Gran Silencio once said that Cumbia was the authentic punk of the North of Mexico -an area affected by narco-related criminality- because it represented the people and excluded no one.
In the 70’s, Colombian bands such as Los Graduados or Los Hispanos influenced the formation of the earliest bands of Peruvian Cumbia or Chicha. The Inca sound of Cumbia acquired a jungle-like and psychedelic tone, as musicians from forsaken Amazonian towns combined rock instruments with the tribal sonorities of indigenous populations. Bands like Juaneco y su Combo or Los Mirlos, transport us to rituals led by shamans who open our senses and bodies to the spirits of Ayahuasca.
In Chile, Cumbia was the subject of a great controversy in the late 70’s and the early years of the 80’s, when the country’s attention was diverted from the most terrible crimes and human rights violations of the dictatorship to public TV shows, featuring the most popular Cumbia bands like Los Vikings 5 or Sonora Palacios. In those years, Cumbia became a must in all types of social celebrations from weddings to girls’ 15th birthdays. However, Cumbia also supported emotionally the Chilean refugees from that period living in Europe, through its international diffusion on the Russian-broadcasted radio program Radio Moscow. Today, Chilean Cumbia bands like Banda Conmoción, Juanafé or Chico Trujillo have blown an air of progressiveness and hope into the musical landscape of Latin America.
Cumbia Villera has become the most massive phenomenon of Cumbia in the south of the continent as their followers became fanatics of this music, combining that fierce passion that only Argentinians can display towards an object -like football- with the outrage that the recent social and economic disaster brought to the villas, the marginal urban areas of Buenos Aires. It is not a coincidence that Cumbia Villera grew in Argentina between the years of 1999 and 2002, reaching boliches (clubs) of all social classes, as these years were the years of the most intense economic depression of the country. The founding member of Cumbia band Los Pibes Chorros once assured: “We [Cumbia artists] had been to the crisis what dogs are during an earthquake- the first to foresee it and warn about it.”
Into the 21st Century
In our current times, Cumbia is present in every nightclub of Latin America, just like Reggaeton. But unlike Reggaeton, Cumbia is multicolored and diverse because it now comes from different cultures and has mixed with all types of popular traditions. Cumbia carries everywhere the spirit of the cultural mestizaje (mixture) of Latin America, with a strong African touch that is present in the rhythms and moves of the dancers, combined with the nostalgic melodies of the Native Americans.
Today, the power of contemporary Cumbia comes from the female voices of Toto la Momposina, Li Saumet (Bomba Estereo), Lila Downs, Nidia Góngora (along with Quantic and Ondatrópica) and La Yegros. And now, the combination with electronic music has made Cumbia even more intense at the parties, as it has updated the way in which Cumbia takes us to frenetic nights of dance and musical pleasure. In my own experience, I can say that nothing makes people go wilder in Colombia than a party with the tracks of Bomba Estéreo, Systema Solar, Quantic, Nicola Cruz, Chancha Vía Circuito, Mexican Institute of Sound, Dengue Dengue Dengue, along with many others.