Parties in many Latin families are often accompanied by food too sinful to be true, generous amounts of drinks, and dancing. However, the factor that ties this representation of joy together is the music. Each country has its own selection of folkloric music they blast on special occasions, but we can’t deny the prevalence cumbia has on the Latin community. I’m willing to bet that many of you have shuffled your feet and swayed your hips to the spirited rhythm of this timeless genre.
Cumbia was the dance language of our ancestors and it still lives on in our generation. Some people may think cumbia is only for the older folk in their families, but that’s far from the truth. Pop music, some forms of urban music, and even Selena Quintanilla have incorporated the lively sounds of cumbia. The sound of cumbia is undoubtedly a force of its own.
However, before the energy of cumbia crossed over many borders, it was only relevant in Colombia.
It has been speculated that cumbia originated in the late 17th century in Colombia. The region where it was exactly birthed is yet to be determined, but many argue that it was in what’s today Magdalena, Colombia.
Cumbia is attached to the prominence of slavery that was occurring during that era. At that time, the Spanish (who colonized Colombia then) had brought over African slaves to Colombia, causing these cultures to inevitably mingle with each other. The beginning of cumbia was inspired by African dance. Shortly after, African, European, and Indigenenous influenced-melodies fueled the creation of cumbia. Even that word, cumbia, was birthed in those times. Cumbia was a word that derives from the word cumbé, which means “dance” in an African language. I can see how that would be considering that even the word sounds festive.
The sound of cumbia was originally comprised of three different drums, something that was inspired by its African roots. The drums used were the bass drum (tambora), merry drum (tambor alegre), and the calling drum (lamador). Maracas filled with seeds and metal guaches were used as part of the percussion part of cumbia. Wind instruments play a significant part in this genre. In order to create that energetic rhythm people yearn for, cumbia calls for the flute as well. More specifically, three flutes. While listening to cumbia, you will be listening to male and female flutes, and the millo flute. The combination of all these instruments creates a melody that is capable of uniting and uplifting people of different walks of life. The vocals that are heard in modern cumbia showed up much later in the game.
Cumbia has gone on to be adopted by many Latin American countries. The versions slightly differ from country to country, but the essence still remains the same. Nevertheless, it’s incredible that this musical genre was able to travel to many different places. All of this because of the vibe it created.
The fascination of cumbia lies in how it was able to defy borders and cross through them without thinking twice. Somehow, people became mesmerized by the rhythm it emitted and freely shared that melodic piece of heaven with their loved ones. Cumbia, as with a lot of music, has demolished immigration barriers that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It’s as though cumbia, and music overall, has been teaching us about the significance of crossed borders all along.
If you’re interested in listening to good old-fashioned cumbia, I suggest you listen to La Pollera Colora. Or if you’re into modern cumbia, then go listen to some Bomba Estereo. Please keep in mind that modern cumbia also includes the likes of Calle 13 and the Kumbia Kings. If anything, just go listen to my favorite cumbia-influenced musician: Selena Quintanilla. It really doesn’t matter what cumbia style you listen to, though. I’m sure that whichever form of cumbia you choose to listen to, your body and soul will thank you for it.