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Cumbia: The Construction of a Musical Genre in the Mid-twentieth Century

San Jacinto. November 6, 1964. Gaita musicians from San Jacinto, from left to right: Miguel Antonio Hernández,  Miguel Antonio Hernández

The following podcast explores the history of the Colombian cumbia with generous examples from the field recordings of George List, who did field research in Colombia's Caribbean coast in the 1960s and who was the first Director of the Archives of Traditional Music. Juan Rojas weaves together musical and historical commentary with musical examples from Colombian popular music and the field recordings of George List. The podcast runs for 28:30 and you can follow along with the transcript below.



SCRIPT WITH MUSICAL AND BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES

Audio references will be marked with bracketed numbers and can be found as endnotes.

(1)

Hello! Juan Sebastián Rojas with you, for the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University.

Today, we will make a trip to the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in northern South America, home of an exciting and very popular music style: cumbia!

Cumbia is one of the most widespread Latin American music genres. It originated in Colombia among Black and working-class populations during the Spanish colonial period. Despite being marginalized for centuries by Colombian elites, by the 1950s it had become a musical symbol of the nation. (2)

Cumbia emerged as a traditional music and dance style in the rural communities of the Caribbean coast.

In general, cumbia is characterized by the persistent beat of a hand drum on the upbeats of a two-four time and the accompaniment of a shaker or scrapper.

This rhythm trespassed the traditional ensembles and was adopted by urban orchestras, with which it became massive by the mid twentieth century. (3)

During this period, due to growing audiences, music producers successfully introduced cumbia to international markets. As a result, important cumbia scenes emerged in other parts of the Americas, like Texas, Peru and Mexico.

That is why when speaking about cumbia, people with diverse origins picture diverse musical sounds; like this one from Peru… (4), or this one from Argentina… (5).

Colombians, nonetheless, would imagine something closer to this… (6) or this… (7)

And many contemporary neo-cumbia radicals would probably think of sounds such as this… (8)

All this is cumbia

But back in the 1960s, when commercial cumbia songs had just begun moving within international contexts, musical traditions in the countryside of the Colombian Caribbean region were still vibrant. These peasant communities, most of which have strong Afrocolombian and indigenous descent, had been playing this music for generations.

Their contributions fashioned the cumbia sound, which was later taken by producers to the rest of the world. (9)

Cumbia is the result of generations of interactions between many musical styles, and the foundation of this music is to be traced to rural Colombia’s Atlantic coast, like this song, “Las cinco notas,” “the five notes”, recorded in 1964 by Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto.

It was a vibrant music industry – established in the Colombian Caribbean region since the 1940s, which actively encouraged the transformation of cumbia from traditional and local musical styles to the commercial sounds of the jazz-bands.

Cumbia, along with other rhythms like porro or vallenato, became the trademark of Colombian music since the early 1950s, replacing the old paradigm of Andean Colombian music as the national sound (10).

Colombia’s Caribbean coast was the arrival territory of the Spanish colonial rule since the early sixteenth century. During the wars of conquest, the Spanish crown violently subjected and dominated indigenous groups of the region.

Around the same time period, Cartagena de Indias, a Spanish fortified city on the Caribbean coast, became the main slave-port in the Americas, hosting thousands of Africans and their descendents (11).

One result has been centuries of complex multi-cultural interaction, creating a diversity of regional cultures… and musical styles… (12)

Before the national cumbia craze of the 1950s, when commercial big-band cumbia captivated the ears and bodies of middle and high-class citizens of the major Colombian inland cities, working-class people from the Caribbean coast had been dancing to cumbia and its related musical styles for generations.

For the most part, peasant Afrocolombian communities, indigenous groups, and other mixed-race populations constitute the working-class.

From their cultural practices emerged a broad variety of local musics, rich in syncopations and highly developed drumming (13)… chants and laments of different styles (14)… and instrumental melodies inspired by the exuberant natural environments of the region (15).

Not all these styles are called cumbia, but many of them were used by musicians in the construction of the cumbia canon, which became enormously popular at the national level in the 50s, and internationalized in the 60s. Many of the musical features from these grassroots traditions were adopted by jazz-bands. (16) (17)

George List was a professor of ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington. During the 1960s he conducted research in the Colombian Caribbean coast, and with his tape recorder captured many of the diverse sounds that were part of popular celebrations in towns and villages. Many of the musical samples that we are presenting to you in this podcast come from his field recordings, now cared for by the Archives of Traditional Music, at Indiana University Bloomington.

… Listen, for example, to this beautiful cumbia, “Las Tres Marías” interpreted by Catalino Parra and Soplaviento’s cumbia ensemble in 1964. (18)

The wind instrument that leads this piece is the “caña de millo”, a widespread reed instrument made out of the cane of a local variety of sorghum. It has been protagonist of many cumbia parties since colonial times.

In his field research, ethnomusicologist George List accounts for the diversity of local musics in the Colombian Caribbean coast. He found out that cumbia was present in many musical traditions, but also, that it was only one rhythm, among many others, interpreted by local groups.

Other rhythms, like: gaita, bullerengue, chalupa, merengue, puya, mapalé, maya, and porro, just to name a few, were also part of their repertoire. (19)

Despite this variety, many musical styles shared aesthetic elements, like the traditional drums, certain styles of dancing, or some rhythmic and melodic features.

List also found similarities in the context in which these musics were practiced: in general, they were performed for communal celebrations in towns and villages for Catholic festivities, like Patron Saint celebrations and the Christmas season. Here is legendary traditional cumbia master Toño Fernández explaining the context of gaita musical practice in an interview from 1964: (20)

“La gaita la tenían especialmente para esos bailes donde hacían ofrecimientos a los santos. Hacían una velación y la ofrecían con gaita. Con gaita, decían ellos. La gaita es el instrumento, pero el baile… es lo que los viejos decían gaita, que es lo que decimos nosotros cumbia

(Translation):

“Gaita was specially used for dances that were offered to the saints. A wake was organized and gaita music accompanied its offering. They used to say gaita, but gaita is the instrument. The dance, is what we now call cumbia.”

However, these musics were also performed for secular events like Carnival, birthdays, weddings, or by contract. Many times, these performances were set as public street dances, where the community participated freely. The fronts and backyards of the houses were also often the stage for cumbiambas, or cumbia parties for days. (21)

Gaita music is a local tradition that was still vibrant in the 60s and that lent stylistic features to the commercial cumbia sound. Gaita refers to the music, as well as to the traditional flute, which is the melodic leader of these ensembles.

Even though tracing the origins of musical instruments and repertoires is a difficult task, archeological research has shown that “gaita” had been used by Pre-Columbian societies in many parts of the Continental Caribbean, even up into Mexico.

Here is “Isla Grande” a piece by the still active Afrocolombian gaita master Sixto Silgado “Paíto”, who published a new album just two years from now, in 2010, with his group “Los Gaiteros de Punta Brava”. (22)

This song, though, was recorded by George List in Silgado’s home on the island of Isla Grande, in 1968.

In a preservationist agenda, driven by the angst of modernity and the fear of the influence of urban life-styles in rural traditions, some intellectuals around the first half of the twentieth century idealized traditional cumbia styles as isolated from commercial repertoires and urban influences. Traditional cumbiambas, or street dance gatherings in which cumbia and other music was performed, were imagined as “pure” and markedly differentiated from commercial musical environments.

But the truth is that during the 60s, as well before and after that, local traditional musicians also borrowed from commercial styles and developed their own interpretations of cumbia in response to music that they heard from jazz-bands, radio stations, or records. (23)

This is the famous Cumbia Cienaguera”, a trademark of Colombian popular music and a product of the music industry. This song had great commercial success in the 1950s, becoming a huge international hit.

In 1968, Antálcides Pérez and Maximiliano Caro performed this version for George List on the “carángano”, a handcrafted monochord bass, and the “hojita de limón”, or lemon leaf.

Let’s pay attention to the melody…

… And now let’s listen to the original version, recorded by Alberto Pacheco sometime in the 1950s. (24)

Local musicians and their audiences were fully aware of mass mediated cumbia and appropriated it for their local festivities. This way, commercial cumbia, which had evolved from the rural styles in the first place, fed back into the traditional performance contexts. And traditional musicians were cool with that, understanding their relationship, despite the anxiety of scholars… (25)

Cumbiamba
celebrations involved a variety of musical ensembles led by traditional instruments like “gaitas,” “caña de millo,” and musical bows, or clarinets, accordions, and guitars, which interpreted rhythms like cumbia and merengue, among others.

Colombian researcher Hugues Sánchez, in his article “From bundes, cumbiamabas and merengues vallenatos” argues that a coastal intellectual elite from the Cesar region separated Colombian merengue, paseo and other rhythms from the cumbiamba context into a different category around the 1960s. Their idea was to construct a musical genre that they could associate to their region as “traditional.” In this process, the accordion was privileged and part of its repertoire included into what now is the widely popular vallenato music.

In this process, cumbia was excluded from the vallenato canon, despite the popularity of a big repertoire of accordion cumbias. This exclusion was legitimized in 1968, when a selected group of cultural workers created the Festival Of The Vallenato Legend, institutionalizing this division and segregating accordion cumbia from the folkloric discourse.

However, people at the ground level had different ideas. Here are Víctor Soto, leader of an accordion ensemble, and Colombian folklorist Manuel Zapata in an interview with George List from 1968: (26)

VSD: “… Mi conjunto es típicamente vallenato, como está compuesto el de esta época, por tambor, guacharaca y acordeón… Es el conjunto par la cumbiamba…

MZO: “En una cumbiamba se puede bailar cumbia, merengue, sin, diferentes clases de ritmos…”

(Translation):

VSD: “My group is a typical vallenato ensemble, as they are organized today, with a hand-drum, scraper, and accordion. It is the musical ensemble for the cumbiamba.”

MZO: “In a cumbiamba you can dance cumbia, merengue, son… many different styles…” (27)

In the 1960s, the period when cumbia flourished in the international arenas, this wonderful Colombian music had already gone through complex processes of hybridization and could not be defined as a closed category.

Traditional ensembles were never “pure” and untouched. They actively participated in a multidirectional dialogue with political, commercial, and preservationist projects.

As a matter of fact, in the 1970s, probably as a reaction to the emergence of new international renditions of cumbia, the recording industry started recording albums of traditional Colombian ensembles in order to represent “authentic” folklore in the market. The most famous group that participated in this process is “Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto”, whose third generation won a Latin Grammy in 2007 for “best folk album.”

Here is “Camino largo” one of their gaitas, recorded by George List in Cartagena in 1964. (28) (29)

In this journey, we explored from popular styles of commercially recorded cumbia to rural versions of this music.

Cumbia
is not a unified concept. Cumbia is part of a complex musical history, that responds to centuries of interactions all over the Colombian Caribbean. Many musics that we call cumbia today were not labeled as such in the past. And musics that were once considered cumbia evolved into what we know now as different genres.

So then, what is cumbia?

Cumbia
is a flavor, a flavor of celebration for the people. It is a dance of life: an expression of joy over sorrow that has developed for hundreds of years. And people feel it, embody it, and express themselves through it, without regard to geographic or cultural bindings.

… And its history continues.

This is Juan Sebastián Rojas, for the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University Bloomington.


AUDIO REFERENCES

(1) Cumbia del pescador (C. Fuentes/J. Guerra). Cumbia-guaguancó. Puerto Rico y su Combo.
From Phillips Lp “Myriam” (63460224), 1971.

(2) San Jacinto. Cumbia. Aníbal Velásquez y su Conjunto.
From Soundway CD “The Original Sound of Cumbia” (SNDWCD032), 2012.

(3) Maraca and llamador. Porro. Llamador by Ahumerle Vertel and maraca by Tomás Vertel.
Recorded on 8/02/1968, by George List on Isla Grande (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 03 of OT 12254. 69-145-F.

(4) Pío pío. Chicha. Grupo Belen de Tama.
From CD “Chicha. The drink… the culture… the music”.

(5) Colate un dedo. Cumbia Villera. Los Pibes Chorros.
From “El poder de la guadaña”. 2004.

(6) Cumbia del Monte (Marco A. Posada). Cumbia. Alex Acosta y su Orquesta.
From Philips Lp “Alex Acosta y su Orquesta” (631841), 1964.

(7) Las Tres Marías. Cumbia. Interpreted by Catalino Parra and his Cumbia Ensemble.
Recorded on 10/29/1964, by George List in Soplaviento (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 13 of OT 12144. 65-291-F.

(8) Kraut Kumbia. Electronic cumbia. Interpreted by Liquid Rockz. Released on 3/30/2012. Chusma Records.

(9) Las cinco notas (Juan Lara). Porro. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto.
Recorded on Mar. 8 1965, by George List in Cartagena (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 05 of OT 12259. 68-063-F.

(10) Soy Colombiano (R. Godoy). Bambuco. Silva y Villalba.
From Polydor CD “Los años maravillosos de Silva y Villalba” (B000T4BSW6).

(11) Zafra. Soundscape of rural work created with the musical theme zafra, interpreted by Cecilio and Ceferino Teherán, and recorded on 3/09/1965, by George List in Cartagena (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 04 of OT 12264. 68-063-F.

(12) El mono prieto (traditional). Rafael Teherán on the marimba, or mouth bow.
Recorded on 3/09/1965, by George List in Cartagena (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 08 of OT 12264. 68-063-F.

(13) Toques de cabildo. Conjunto de Tamboreros de Cabildo de Bocachica.
Recorded on 3/11/1965, by George List in Bocachica (Bolívar), Colombia. From OT 12272-73. 68-063-F.

(14) Canto de Gallo (traditional). Antonio Hernández “Toño Fernández”, José Lara, and Juan Lara.
Recorded on 11/06/1964, by George List in San Jacinto (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 05 of OT 12163. 65-291-F.

(15) Toribío. Cumbia. Erasmo Arrieta performing the caña de millo.
Recorded on August 1964, by George List in Bogotá, Colombia. Item 02 of OT 12135. 65-291-F.

(16) El Alegrón (Pedro Amaya). Porro-gaita. Rosendo Martínez y su Orquesta.
From Philips LP “Rosendo Martínez y su Orquesta” (631839).

(17) Francisco (traditional). Fandango. Grupo de Bullerengue de Evitar.
Recorded on 11/08/1964, by George List in Evitar (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 08 of OT 12167. 65-291-F.

(18) Las Tres Marías. Cumbia. Interpreted by Catalino Parra and his Cumbia Ensemble.
Recorded on 10/29/1964, by George List in Soplaviento (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 13 of OT 12144. 65-291-F.

(19) Palo Grande (traditional). Bullerengue. Grupo de Bullerengue de Evitar.
Recorded on 11/08/1964, by George List in Evitar (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 06 of OT 12167. 65-291-F.

(20) Interview with Antonio Hernández “Toño Fernández”.
Recorded on 11/06/1964, by George List in San Jacinto (Bolívar), Colombia. From OT 12165. 65-291-F.

(21) El niño llora (Juan Lara). Gaita corrida. Performed by Juan Lara (gaita hembra) and Antonio Hernández (gaita macho), members of the group Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto.
Recorded on 3/08/1965, by George List in Cartagena (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 13 of OT 12260. 68-063-F.

(22) Isla Grande (Sixto Silgado). Cumbia. Sixto Silgado and his Gaita Group.
Recorded on 8/02/1965, by George List in Isla Grande (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 07 of OT 12254. 69-145-F.

(23) La cumbia cienaguera (A. Paz Barros/E. Montaño). Cumbia. Antálcides Pérez (carángano) and Maximiliano Caro (lemon leaf).
Recorded on 7/11/1968, by George List in Carmen de Bolívar (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 13 of OT 12239. 69-145-F.

(24) La cumbia cienaguera (A. Paz Barros/E. Montaño). Cumbia. Alberto Pacheco y su Conjunto.
From Crammed Discs CD “Arriba la cumbia!” (B001KUYJ1A), 2008.

(25) La cumbia sampuesana (José Joaquín Bettín Martínez). Cumbia. Los Chéveres del Ritmo (Sexteto ensemble - Marímbula: José Isabel Cantillo Martínez; cowbell: Luis Alberto Teherán Tejeda; caja: Alberto Ortega Salcedo; timba: Federico Angulo Caro; accordion: Atencio San Martín; voz and guacharaca: Carlos Castellos Patiño).
Recorded on 3/18/1965, by George List in Cartagena (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 08 of OT 12283. 68-063-F.

(26) Interview with Víctor Soto and Manuel Zapata Olivella.
Recorded on 4/06/1965, by George List in Bogotá, Colombia. Item 08 of OT 12287. 68-063-F.

(27) Dulce Lamento. Cumbia. Nacho Paredes y Los Vaqueros Sabaneros.
From Soundway CD “The original sound of cumbia” (SNDWCD032), 2012.

(28) Camino largo (traditional). Gaita corrida. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto.
Recorded on 11/04/1964, by George List in Cartagena (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 01 of OT 12155. 65-291-F.

(29) Zoila (traditional). Porro/bullerengue. Antonio Palomino Robles (marimba or musical bow), Sixto Silgado Martínez (llamador), and Tomás Vertel Padilla (maraca).
Recorded on 8/02/1965, by George List in Isla Grande (Bolívar), Colombia. Item 03 of Track 1, OT 12253. 69-145-F.


BIBLIOGRAPHY AND OTHER REFERENCES

Afropop Worldwide. 2011. Podcast “The Cumbia Diaspora: From Colombia to the World.” Online resource: http://www.afropop.org/radio/radio_program/ID/806. Consulted on January 8th 2012.

Afropop Worldwide. 2011. Podcast: “Neo-Cumbia Sounds from Colombia.” Online resource: http://blog.afropop.org/2011/02/neo-cumbia-podcast-now-available-for.html. Consulted January 8th 2012.

Afropop Worldwide. 2007. Podcast: “Musica Tropical in Colombia.” Online resource: http://www.afropop.org/radio/radio_program/ID/681/. Consulted on January 15th 2012.

Dornfeld, Barry. 1992. “Representation and authority in ethnographic film/video: Reception.” Ethnomusicology 36 (1): 95-98. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press.

Fernández L’Hoeste, Héctor. 2011. Interview for AfroPop Worldwide. Online resource: http://www.afropop.org/multi/interview/ID/186. Consulted January 15th 2012.

Gómez Muriel, Emilio (director). 1956. Film “Llamas contra el viento.” Fragment. Online resource: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=St8-GQ226vk. Consulted January 8th 2012.

Gyemant, Roberto Ernesto. 2010. Liner Notes from the CD: 2010. “Cartagena! Curro Fuentes & The Big Band Cumbia And Descarga Sound Of Colombia 1962-72.” London: Soundway Records.

León, Javier. 2007. “Mass Culture: Commodification, and the consolidation of the festejo.” Black Music Research Journal 26 (2): 213-247.

List, George. 1983. Music and Poetry in a Colombian Village: A Tri-Cultural Heritage. Bloomington (IN): Indiana University Press.

List George. 1969. “Colombia. Departamento de Bolívar.” Field recordings stored in the Archives of Traditional Music (IUB). Accession number 69-145-F.

List George. 1968. “Colombia. Departamento de Bolívar.” Field recordings stored in the Archives of Traditional Music (IUB). Accession number 68-063-F.

List George. 1965. “Colombia. Departamento de Bolívar.” Field recordings stored in the Archives of Traditional Music (IUB). Accession number 65-291-F.

Makagon, Daniel and Mark Neumann. 2009. Recording Culture: Audio Documentary and the Ethnographic Experience. London: Sage.

N.n. 2009. Podcast: “Cumbia”. Online resource: http://www.poderato.com/cumbia/cumbia. Consulted on January 8th 2012.

Nieves Oviedo, Jorge. 2009. “Tradición versus mercado en la música del Caribe colombiano.” Translated title: “Tradition versus market in the music of the Colombian Caribbean region.” In, Pardo, M. (et al). Música y sociedad en Colombia. Translaciones, legitimaciones e identficaciones. Bogotá: Universidad del Rosario. Pp. 155-169.

Rojas E., Juan Sebastián. 2009. “Los gaiteros de Bogotá. Una perspectiva sobre el transplante musical de la gaita a la capital.” Translated title: “The gaiteros from Bogotá. A perspective on the musical transplantation of gaita music to the capital.” In, Pardo, M. (et al). Música y sociedad en Colombia. Translaciones, legitimaciones e identficaciones. Bogotá: Universidad del Rosario. Pp. 269-288.

Sánchez, Hugues. 2009. “De bundes, cumbiambas y merengues vallenatos: fusiones, cambios y permanencias en la música y danzas en el Magdalena Grande, 1750-1970.” Translated title: “From bundes, cumbiamabas and merengues vallenatos: fusions, changes, and permanencies the Magdalena Grande region musics and dances, 1750-1970.” In, Pardo, M. (et al). Música y sociedad en Colombia. Translaciones, legitimaciones e identficaciones. Bogotá: Universidad del Rosario. Pp. 80-99.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 1992. “Representation and authority in ethnographic film/video: production.” Etnomusicology 36 (1): 89-94. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press.

Wade, Peter. 2000. Music, Race and Nation. Música Tropical in Colombia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wade, Peter. 2007. Interview for AfroPop Worldwide, by Simon Rentner. Online resource: http://www.afropop.org/multi/interview/ID/114. Consulted on January 15th 2012.

Sonorama Chicago. 2010. “Sonorama Podcast #10. Cumbia Special.” Online resource: http://sonoramachicago.com/2010/06/05/sonorama-podcast10-cumbia-special/. Consulted on January 8th 2012.