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Ten facts about cumbia, Colombia’s principal musical style

In celebration of tonight’s Latin Grammy Awards, I delved into Grove Music Online to learn more about distinct musical styles and traditions of Latin American countries. Colombia’s principal musical style is the cumbia, with its related genres porro and vallenato. In the traditional cumbia proper, couples dance in a circle around seated musicians, with the woman shuffling steps while the man moves in a more zigzag pattern around her. The cumbia usually takes place at night while women hold bundles of candles in colored handkerchiefs in their right hands. Although traditional cumbia is now primarily performed by folklore troupes at Carnivals and other festivals, cumbia has contributed significantly to the development of related musical styles. Below are ten interesting facts about the cumbia.

  1. The cumbia is accompanied by one of two ensembles: the conjunto de cumbia (also known as cumbiamba) and the conjunto de gaitas. The former consists of five instruments, while the latter includes two duct flutes, a llamador and a maraca.
  2. The conjunto de cumbia includes one melody instrument called the caña de millo (‘cane of millet’), locally known as the pito, which is a clarinet made of a tube open at both ends with four finger holes near one end and a reed cut from the tube itself at the other end.
  3. Other instruments include the gaita hembra (‘female flute’) and the gaita macho (‘male flute’). While the gaita hembra is used for the melody, the gaita macho provides heterophony in conjunction with a maraca.
  4. The bullerengue and the danza de negro are two other musical genres of the region, which have African characteristics. The bullerengue is an exhibition dance, filled with hip movement, performed by a single couple. Meanwhile, the danza de negro is a special Carnival dance performed by men who paint themselves blue, strip to the waist, dance in a crouched position with wooden swords, and demand money or rum from passerby.
  5. In the early 20th century, town brass bands began adapting the cumbia to a more cosmopolitan style. Between 1905 and 1910, musicians in numerous towns began these adaptations, which were strongly developed in the town of San Pelayo. Thus, the terms pelayera or papayeraare commonly used in reference to this type of ensemble.
  6. Vallenato, a genre related to traditional cumbia, also originated in the Colombian Atlantic region. Performed by an ensemble consisting of accordion, vocals, caja (a small double-headed drum) and guacharaca (a notched gourd scraper), vallenato is similar to cumbia in accenting beats 2 and 4, but places a stronger emphasis on the crotchet-quaver rhythmic cell.
  7. Another style of music related to cumbia is Música tropical, which developed from the dance band arrangements of Afro-Colombian styles during the 1930s and 40s. Música tropical is similar to the ballroom rumba popular throughout the Americas and Europe, although with it maintains a simpler rhythmic base and more florid melodic style.
  8. Música tropical also offered a response to the international vogue for Cuban Music, which was both Caribbean and uniquely Colombian at the same time. By the late 1950s, música tropical had found its way into the leading social clubs and ballrooms of the country.
  9. Throughout the 1960s, música tropical remained the national Colombian style. Recordings by groups like La Sonora Dinamita, Los Corraleros de Majagual and Los Graduados enjoyed a brief national popularity, but had a greater impact outside the country, spreading a simplified form of cumbia to Mexico, Central America, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, where the style became very important.
  10. During the 1940s and 50s the musical pioneers Lucho Bermúdez and Pacho Galán composed and arranged big-band adaptations of cumbias, among other genres, popularizing the sound which became the new national music of Colombia.

Finally, watch a well-known cumbia — La pollera colera:

Headline image credit: Monumento a la cumbia, 2006. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

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