The Original Sound of Cumbia
The sound of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, cumbia is one of Latin America’s most outstanding popular music forms. This influential genre had a major impact on overseas salsa, as well as certain styles of Mexican music, and inspired large audiences in the USA and Europe. The style’s immediate appeal stems largely from its melodic accordion parts (utilising a special tuning, said to have resulted from instruments that washed ashore from a shipwreck), as well as the percussive guacharaca, a rhythmic scraper that provides the most infectious element for dancing feet.
At first listen, cumbia can sound deceptively simplistic, its spacious bass lines anchoring the music to a two-step cadence; but on a closer listen, one can hear all kinds of hidden elements creeping into the mix: hand drums that originated in Africa meld with the flauta de millo, an Andean reed flute (replaced by the clarinet on later recordings). As revealed in the notes of this excellent double-disc compilation, cumbia evolved along the Magdalena River as a unique blend of African, indigenous and European elements, becoming cumbia proper in the port city of Barranquilla; a related sound called porro, from a non-coastal region, is a somewhat slower cousin that places melodic emphasis on swinging brass blasts.
Colombia’s recording industry has a truly rich history, and compiler Will ‘Quantic’ Holland has set out to make the most of it on this compelling set, presenting “the history of Colombian cumbia and porro as told by the phonograph”. Astute listeners will already be familiar with Quantic’s inventive productions, but some may not know that he has spent the last four years in Colombia, trawling the nation for its remaining musical artefacts. The startling and eminently pleasing results are displayed here in 55 crucial tracks culled from extremely rare 78s and 45s, and select, long-forgotten LP tracks.
The gems are truly plentiful. On disc one, Conjunto Los Rumberos’ “Cumbia del Puerto” is a wild instrumental romp based around raging accordion lines and frantic scraper accents; Ritmos del Caribe’s “La Fullera” places shrill accordion riffs above occasional ragtime piano bursts; and Guillermo Munoz’s “Cumbia de Todos” begins with a terrific percussive jam. Elsewhere, Los Indigenas’ “Sangre Goajira” has delightful vocal harmony, and Alberto Pacheco’s “Sembrando Café” is a deliriously hyped-up ode to the cultivation of the coffee bean. Similarly, on disc two, Betopey celebrates cumbia’s universal appeal on “Cumbia del Carnaval”; Jaime Simanca’s “Cumbia Negra” highlights the African roots of the form; and La Cumbia Soldeña’s “Tambo, Tambo” is a chilling salute to the Barranquilla Carnival of 1971.
As you are guaranteed to hear music on this compilation you have never encountered before, it is a must for even the most seasoned cumbia hound. But those new to the form will find the set equally delightful, such is the quality of the music collected here.
Words by David Katz (Review Originally Published on BBC Music)