Who Are Some Good Cumbia Musicians

Latin American rhythms
Reinvention of tradition

Latin American musicians have rediscovered the traditional rhythms of their countries and are reinterpreting them. This creates exciting experiments on the one hand, but also international hits that give the music of the continent and its cultural identity a new direction.

After the death of the Mexican musician Celso Piña on August 21, 2019 in his hometown of Monterrey, Colombia did not simply experience the grief of its fans, but a nationwide sympathy that could hardly have been compared to the loss of another foreign artist. Piña, known as the "rebel of the accordion", was very important to the development of many Colombian musical genres in Mexico, such as the cumbia and the vallenatos. This made him more famous around the world than many of the Colombian interpreters of these rhythms. Without ever having been to Colombia, he named his band Ronda Bogotá in 1982.

How should one not identify with him either? In Piña the Colombians found a highly valued ambassador for their music. The same effect can be seen today in other famous Mexican musicians, such as Porter, Pascual Reyes and Juan Cirerol. They are well-known examples of the reach that traditional music as an element of identity can have within Latin American countries.

The anthropologist Peter Wade, author of Music, Race and Nation: Música tropical in Colombia (2000) describes the end of the 19th century as the moment when music became an integral part of the discourse on national identity. Throughout Latin America, government established rhythms to reflect what Latin Americans are or how they should be, while other rhythms that are still firmly anchored in Latin American DNA today have been neglected. In Colombia at this time an identity was established around the rhythm Bambuco. "There is nothing more national, nothing more patriotic than this melody, which all Colombians invented," said the journalist and politician José María Samper. In Argentina, on the other hand, tango, which is now unquestioned, was subjected to many abuse. “To accept this as ours, as is postulated in Paris, would mean falling into the most despicable servitude,” postulated the Argentine poet Leopoldo Lugones.

Countries like Cuba, Brazil or Mexico have always maintained a strictly national attitude towards their music. In contrast, artists from other countries only became known a few decades later for their very own and special musical rhythms, harmonies and interpretations, which went hand in hand with the heyday of so-called world music in the 1960s.

It is quite possible that many Colombians of my generation once heard their parents say in the 1970s or 1980s: “Our music is coming to an end”. How much that has changed in the last twenty years.

Astor Piazzolla, Libertango (1977)

Because suddenly the traditional, original music became a consciously chosen form of expression again. In Argentina this happened after years of exile with the tango, just after the death of its greatest innovator Astor Piazzolla in 1992. The first thing that happened was a great recognition of the merits of this musician from Mar del Plata through the many reinterpretations that it made it possible for music makers to recognize themselves in the forgotten past. The first representatives of this tango revival were the orchestras El Arranque, Sans Souci and Color Tango. At the end of the 1990s, it was no longer unusual to find prototypes like the Típica Fernández Fierro orchestra, whose bandoneon players stood on stage in T-shirts from their favorite football teams and rocked their Rastas in two-quarter time tango. This trend was followed by a new generation of musicians who picked up the folkloric melodies from the interior and the coastal regions of the country and mixed them with electronic music and jazz elements. Here you should definitely know Tonolec, Nación Ekeko, Aca Seca Trío and Sofía Viola.

The further development of the Colombian cumbia also plays an important role in the south of the continent, with representatives such as La Delio Valdés from Argentina or the Chilean band Chico Trujillo. The tendencies to combine elements of traditional rhythms such as the Cueca or the Choique Purrún with jazz, as can be seen in the trio around the bassist Ernesto Holman or with pop with the singer Gepe and in their latest compositions in the folklore, originate from Chile. Musician Margot Loyola.
Chico Trujillo, Cumbia chilombiana (2007)

It is undisputed that the success of so-called world music had a major influence on the re-evaluation of traditional sounds from Peru. Musical phenomena such as the singers Susana Baca and Eva Ayllón - direct heirs to Chabuca Granda - have become known worldwide. This is mainly thanks to the media-effective efforts of the record label Luaka Bop, which belongs to David Byrne, the former frontman of the British band Talking Heads. By another phenomenon of progress, the so-called world beat, Ethno music developed into a consumer product at raves and parties. Groups like Malevo Sound System, Bajo Fondo Tango Club and Tango Crash (with influence on the Parisian music group Gotan Project) are successful in Argentina. From Peru you hear names like Novalima, Dengue Dengue Dengue and the extraordinary Miki González. There is also the new wave of cumbia with musicians like Bareto and other traditional bands like Los Mirlos, Los Ecos or Juaneco y su Combo.

In Colombia the phenomenon is no less. Since then Carlos Vives in his album La tierra del olvido (1995) had given the traditional Vallenato an avant-garde flair, many other musicians also devoted themselves to the rediscovery of the Vallenato, including their own colleagues from Vives' band, who - when they weren't on tour with him - made their own songs under the name Bloque developed. And they later signed with Luaka Bop, just a few years after Totó La Momposina, the well-known traditional singer from the western Magdalena River La candela viva (1993), her album produced by Real World, hit the music world. Real World is the other music label founded by a rock icon, namely Peter Gabriel, who is enthusiastic about the traditional melodies. All this time Colombia experienced a heyday of sound reconstruction of traditional rhythms with internationally known groups such as ChocQuibTown, Bomba Estéreo and Systema Solar and many others more known in the alternative field, such as Curupira, Mojarra Eléctrica, Malalma, Velandia y la Tigra, Frente Cumbiero, Los Pirañas, Meridian Brothers and Pacifican Power.
ChocQuibTown + Becky G, Que me baile (2019)

Each of the Latin American countries has incorporated a touch of tradition into their new music - sometimes with reference to older traditions, sometimes with reference to newer ones. An example of the first could be Ecuador, where musicians like Mateo Kingman and Nicola Cruz let themselves be enriched by the influence of Amazonian rhythms. The second phenomenon is confirmed by Venezuelan groups such as C-4 Trío, Ensamble Gurrufío, Los Sinvergüenzas and Recoveco, the group of the virtuoso violinist Alexis Cárdenas. They stand for the constant further development of the traditional Llanero sounds, initiated by Venezuelan visionaries such as Aldemaro Romero, founder of the Onda Nueva, which still sounds modern today.
Rita Indiana, El castigador (2017)

As for the Antilles, the traditional instruments like drums and güiro were mixed with the rhythmic properties of hip hop, electronic music and funk. You can experience this in the music of Rita Indiana and Carolina Camacho from the Dominican Republic, as well as Ifé from Puerto Rico and Telmary, X-Alfonso and Cimafunk from Cuba.

The traditional was never before, as it is today, a valued commodity that was exported from Latin America. Having received only foreign music - and not always the best - it is now time for Latin American countries to bring their music, and with it a central element of their culture, to the world.


Jaime Andrés Monsalve is a music journalist, currently music editor for Radio Nacional de Colombia and music critic for Revista Arcadia magazine. He has already received the Colombian Journalism Prize Premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolívar twice (2011 and 2018).

Translation: Kathrin Dehlan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Colombia
October 2019

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