Cumbia started just like the other dances that originated from Latin America. Initially it was just folklore. Cumbia later became one of Colombia’s main musical genre and dance forms. Its origin dates back to the late 17th century on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in the coastal town of San Basilio in Pocabuy, an old country in the Momposina Depression. Though not as popular as its other Latin dance counterparts like Samba and Salsa, Cumbia is considered by some experts as the Mother of Latin music and dance predating and influencing other Latin music, including the Salsa and Merengue. Traces of samba and salsa music could still be heard if you listen closely to Cumbia music. This Colombian dance form is also closely related to the Swing. Interestingly, Cumbia’s version in Costa Rica is called El Swing.
The former slave dance is lively, compulsive and irresistible and its music somewhat strongly resembles the Jamaican rock steady forms that were somewhere between ska and reggae. Characteristically, true Cumbia dancers keep one foot directly in front of the other almost throughout the duration of the dance. Several dance steps were included in the dance form that is known nowadays, with subtle footwork from salsa present in today’s Cumbia.
Origins of Cumbia
The name Cumbia is of African origin. It stemmed from Cumbe, which translates to party or festivity. Like most Latin dance forms, Cumbia emerged during the time of Spanish colonialism in South America with the arrival of African slaves. Given the Africans’ penchant for dancing as a form of celebration and self-expression, it is no surprise that Cumbia was created to portray courtship and to celebrate the heritage of the zambos, Colombia’s inhabitants that resulted from the union of African and indigenous people in the country. While it was described as a courtship dance, Cumbia was also used as an expression of resistance in Colombia’s struggle for independence from Spanish colonization. Most of its songs’ messages were related to freedom or slavery. Eventually, the dance became representative of Colombia’s soul and identity.
Three different cultures fused together to create the dance and music form known as Cumbia: the native Americans who were descendants of tribes from the Andes, which gave Cumbia its harmonic and melodic sense and influenced the use of the flute, an original instrument used in playing Cumbia music; the African slaves that gave it instruments to produce its rhythms and percussion; and the Hispanic colonists for the melodic progressions in its musical form. From its place of origin along the Caribbean coast, its flavor and passion was also largely shaped by Jamaican calypso and reggae rhythms and beats.
Since the Cumbia is a dance of courtship expressing the love between man and woman, it is danced in pairs, with partners dancing exclusively with each other. The movements of the dance are passionate as they depict the act of wooing. The men try to lure the woman while putting on and taking off his hat with one hand behind his back, and the woman acting coyly as she playfully waves her flowing skirt, called the pollera. The young couples dance the Cumbia barefoot and form a circle, tapping their feet to the beat of the drums and taking turns going to the center, to perform their courtship act. Traditionally, Cumbia dancers are dressed in white, with the ladies wearing wide, flowing skirts and tropical flowers in their hair; and the men wearing sombreros and carrying red scarves and candles that they would give to the ladies. In recent years, the women’s skirts have become more vibrant with colors, similar to those worn by the flamenco dancers.
Until the mid-20th century, Cumbia was deemed an inappropriate dance, performed only by slaves and lower society. However, as it gained greater popularity and reached the more urban areas of Colombia, it eventually made its way overseas around the 1960s. Since then, the music and its accompanying dance has become widely accepted and loved by people throughout the world. It spread out to the south and immediately taken up in Argentina, Peru and Chile. Cumbia also spread north and became such a hit in Mexico that orchestras and bands immediately caught on the infectious rhythm and included Cumbia in their repertoire.
Cumbia is highly danceable and very infectious. Cumbia is meant to be a sensual and romantic, so it is important that the dancers perform it well enough to achieve such an effect. The basic steps for the Cumbia are simple and considered by many to be easy to execute with minimal practice. The music follows a basic 4/4 beat, with a lot of feet and hip swaying movement.
The basic foot pattern starts with feet together as its neutral position. On the first count, start with the right foot. Step back, with the ball of your right foot touching the floor first before putting the whole foot flat on the floor. On the second count, lift the left foot slightly from the floor and put it back in place. On the third count, bring the right foot in the neutral position. On the fourth count is the pause element, where you shift your weight slightly from the left leg to the right leg, creating a soft hip sway. That completes the four counts for the right foot. Repeat the steps, starting with the left foot.
Another element added to the basic Cumbia step is the slight pivot that you make as you step with the foot that’s going to the back, with the foot slightly crossing the line of the supporting foot in front. Turn the whole body, including the foot at an angle towards the left when your left foot moves back. Pivot on the pause (count four) to the right to prepare for moving the right foot back. The arms should be bent at the elbows. The forearms are level with the waistline. Ladies could tilt their wrists for a bit of feminine flair. As you move and do your footwork, your arms and hands create small circles in front of your body, within the confines of just below the hips and somewhere in the line of your shoulders. Creating the small circles should be a natural movement.
While different elements from various Latin American dances have been incorporated in the modern version of Cumbia, it is important to remember that when dancing the basic Cumbia, partners start by facing each other and loosely holding each other’s hands. They begin the dance by breaking from each other as they take the first step and then coming back together on the third step. On breaking away, partners could opt to keep one hand together with the partner’s hand or move the hand to the other’s back or a switching combination of both. Other variations include step kicks and twirls integrated with the basic dance steps.
With deeply African beginnings, Cumbia’s music is heavy with percussion. Beats are deep and resonant, produced by different drums beaten with sticks or with the hands. Drums include the llamador and the heavily bass-toned tambora while the higher pinging beats were produced by the claves. In recent years, the traditional instruments were replaced by accordion, güira, timbales (Cuban single-headed drums) and conga (tumbadora or Cuban drum) as well as the bass guitar, flute, clarinet and guitar.
In its purest form, Cumbia music is produced using traditional instruments as flutes, drums and percussion. A unique musical quality is created when the music is created with the use of African or indigenous instruments and laid with Creole or Spanish lyrics. Drums include the tambor mayor, the tambor llamador and tambora while the percussion section uses maracas and guache, a small tube filled with seeds.
Two types of groups play Latin American Cumbia music. The conjunto de Cumbia ensembles use the basic percussion and drum instruments. The other group is called the conjunto de gait, so called because of the addition of the gaitas or flutes made from cactus wood, which essentially sound like the bagpipes from Galicia. As the music evolved, so do the ensembles. They updated their instrumentation style and reduced the number of drums to make the music purer and simpler rhythm, and substituting other instruments for an entirely different musical expression. As the music gained popularity, more instruments were incorporated, such as brass, horns and more significantly, the now-leading instrument, accordion, which, according to folk tale, entered the scene when a German cargo ship sank and washed ashore on the coast of Colombia.
Along with these instrumental developments to the Cumbian music, musicians also simplified the rhythm and created more homogenized versions that allowed it to be more widely acceptable to different societal classes. It is also interesting to note that Cumbian music was fundamentally an instrumental genre, but lyrical verses have been added through the years. By the 1960’s the fun, infectious beat of Cumbian music achieved more international fame and was widely recorded not only in South America, but in Central America and Mexico as well, and several versions of this have evolved.
After the widespread popularity of Colombian Cumbia music in the 1960s, other varieties have emerged in different countries. It has been most popular in Peru, Argentina and Mexico. One reason for the quick adaptation of Cumbia in other Latin American countries is the presence of similar instruments in their cultural music. An example would be in Argentina where the accordion is used in Tango music and in Mexico, where it is featured mainly in the Norteña style of music. Cumbia lent itself to the birth of another national music genre in Colombia, the Vallenato.
Cumbia Chicha, also known as Cumbia Peruana, started out during the oil-boom of the late 1960s at cities in the Peruvian Amazon when the Amerindian population was exposed to Cumbia and American rock & roll. Initially known as Cumbias Amazonicas, the Cumbia Chicha is predominantly a fusion of several musical styles, using a solid Afro-Colombian Cumbia rhythm but incorporating Andean melodies, some Cuban guajiras, wah-wah pedals, synthesizers and with significant western influence particularly psychedelic surf music from the U.S. The term Chicha was derived from the corn-based Incan liquor of the same name.
The progression of the original Colombian Cumbia to the Cumbia Chicha was an effort to reflect national sensibility and the prevailing times. Although retaining the traditional rhythms of Cumbia, the music was given more local flavor through the use of the distinctive pentatonic scales commonly associated with Andean folklore. Lyrics were typically about oil, life in the forest and partying but always with an underlying sense of regional and ethnic pride.
With the massive migration of the rural population in the 1970s, Chicha quickly spread to the capital city of Lima where it further evolved to include more rock and Peruvian Creole music. As more bands in Lima played the Chicha and added their own flair, the music became more urban and eventually gained greater audience. It also became more exposed to further influences like rock, Cuban and Criollo music and Salsa.
Despite the influence of several international musical styles, it is significant to note that Cumbia Chicha did not gain much international popularity, and this was because of the grave marginalization that the middle to upper classes of Peru gave to the music and its lower class proponents. Initially, Chicha was frowned upon in the big city and seen as music of the lower class, aligning it with poverty and violence.
It was only in 2007 with the release of Chicha Libre’s first album, The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru, that the popularity of this genre grew both internationally and in its local country, Peru. Another group that has helped increase the popularity of Chica is Los Chinches based in the United Kingdom.
In Argentina, Cumbia is more popularly known Cumbia Villera. Unlike the light-hearted traditional Cumbia of Colombia, which portrays love and courtship, the Cumbia Villera is symbolic of Argentina’s identity crisis and social divide. Its name alone illustrates the Argentinian socio-economic state, with Cumbia Villera translating into “shantytown Cumbia” because this form of Cumbia was actually developed in the villas miseria or shantytowns of Buenos Aires. This is where migrants from neighboring countries such as Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay flocked. Cumbia Villera lyrics also typically exalt theft as well as drug abuse, showcasing the state of affairs and economics during the early 1990s. The Cumbia Villera “sound” is attributed to the efforts of Pablo Lezcano, who used to be part of Amar Azul.
Although this musical genre and dance style had been popular in Buenos Aires since the 1930s, it was generally considered a quaint folk music for the working class and rural areas and was shunned by the middles class, both young and old. It was only in the 1990s that Cumbia Villera saw commercial interest and bands such as Amar Azul, Ráfaga, and Los Pibes Chorros, incorporated the Cumbia beat into their repertoire. In the aftermath of the economic crisis in 1998 and in early 2000, this musical genre enjoyed a much wider audience and has gained more mainstream acceptance. Some radio and TV shows have included the Cumbia Villera in their programming. More digital and experimental Cumbia have likewise flourished.
Mexican Cumbia is considered a sub-genre of Cumbia, with a history that is as old as the history of Colombian Cumbia. Its development began in 1940 with the migration of Colombian singer Luis Carlos Meyer Castandet to Mexico. There, he collaborated with Rafael de Paz, the esteemed Mexican orchestra director. He was believed by many people to have recorded the very first Cumbia created out of Colombia – the La Cumbia Cienaguera. Other Colombian singers then followed, like Aniceto Molina and Rigo Tovar to further popularize Cumbia in Mexico.
Within Mexico, Cumbia has further diversified in numerous ways. There was the Northern Cumbia, which was traditionally played with an accordion. It comprises tunes with much fewer chords and a slower tempo than the original Cumbia. The Southern Cumbia, on the other hand, substitutes the accordion with a keyboard and the pace is much faster than the original Cumbia. Other sub-genres and variants also developed, depending on trends and popularity of rhythms, creating a fusion sounds from salsa, reggae, ska, merengue, waltz, folklore from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, as well as modern beats from hip-hop, rock and roll, rap, electronic music and 70s disco sound. Mexican Cumbia has sub-genres, among them are the Cumbia Mariachi, the Cumbia Andina Mexicana and the Cumbia Sonidera, which is a more recent variation created by DJs from the marginalized neighborhoods of Mexico City. There is also the Orchestral Cumbia that popularized the use of full and big band sounds, made popular by Roy Luis, Orquesta Tampico, Pablo Beltrán Ruiz and Orquesta Coatzacoalcos, among others.
The National Cumbia Festival is held annually around early to mid-July in the municipality of El Banco, Magdalena in Colombia. Colombians continue to perform this festive dance in the traditional manner. The three-day festival starts off with a serenade to honor Jose Benito Barros Palomino, the festival’s founder. The event culminates in the naming and crowning of the year’s Queen of Cumbia.
The festival first started in 1970, with the aim of preserving, promoting and stimulating the music and dance genre of Colombia. Jose Barros, its founder was a Cumbia legend from El Banco. He created Cumbia hits such as La Piragua, El Pescador and Navidad Negra. Colombia’s Ministry of Culture has declared Cumbia a National Heritage status.
Cumbia has come a long way from being a courtship dance to becoming representative of a nation’s identity and the root of other Latin American cultural dance and music. It has transformed from a basic four-piece instrumental music to full orchestra ensemble performances, and now to digital recordings. It has carried nations through class-systems, oppression and economic turmoil to the present age of globalization and economic integration. Cumbia is the kind of music befitting this era; it has the ability to cross borders and merge cultures. It is a music that is full of soul, and a dance that’s easy on the feet, lively, infectious, flirtatious and full of fun.