Cumbia: the Danceable Musical Tradition that Defies Borders

The tradition of cumbia spans three centuries and several continents. With origins in an African dance that came to Colombia through the slave trade, this musical backbone of Latin America knits together many different regional cultures through one common beat. Travel through space, time and the border on this rhythmic journey through the origins of cumbia and its presence in Tejano culture.

Cumbia can sound very different depending on where you are and which decade you’re in. In 1960s Peru, cumbia was called “chicha” and incorporated huayno and psychedelic rock.

In the ’90s, Tejana legend Selena Quintanilla belted out hits like “Baila Esta Cumbia”.

In 2007, the Puerto Rican reggaetoneros Calle 13 offered this modern take on cumbia with their hit “Cumbia de los Aburridos”.

Many sounds, instruments and styles have influenced cumbia over the years – each country and musician with their own unique take. And though cumbia sounds very different depending on which country you’re in, there’s one sound that holds it all together.

“In Colombia, they use an instrument called the guacharaca, which is a scraper and it forms the very simple, chucu-chucu-chu beat that you identify with cumbia,” says Professor Héctor Fernández L’Hoeste, who edited the book “Cumbia!: Scenes of a Migrant Latin American Music Genre“. Another common scraper instrument is the guiro/a,

“The first documented presence of cumbia goes back to the 19th century,” says L’Hoeste. Cumbia started with an African dance, which came to Colombia through the slave trade.

“It’s originally envisioned as the fusion of the three cultures, you know, the Spanish heritage with the African slaves present, together with the Indians.”

The folkloric, regional Caribbean dance gradually became commercialized, and whitened, says L’Hoeste. Orchestral arrangements were added in during the 1940s and 50s. Cumbia started to have that big band sound, following musical trends occurring in the United States.

During this period, cumbia goes from being a regional tradition to a nationally-recognized genre. After that point, the music quickly makes it way to Mexico.

L’Hoeste says there were many different channels through which cumbia moved north to Mexico.

“In general, it’s two cultures that have always had very close contact.”

Colombian cumbia groups would come to Mexico to tour and record their music. Because of this close connection, L’Hoeste says Mexican cumbia is actually one of the oldest varieties.

The genre has gone through all sorts of changes and iterations, in Mexico, Colombia and all throughout Latin America. There are many different instrumentations and styles – all featuring that danceable cumbia rhythm.

El Paso DJ and musicologist Manny Rivera has worked dance floors on the US-Mexico border for decades.

“I’ve been a DJ playing music for people live at a party or club since 1970.”

And no matter if he’s at a club, wedding or quinciñera, he says the type of music that gets people dancing most is cumbia.

“Cumbia is the queen of the Latin dance in El Paso.”

Rivera plays lots of Mexican and Tejano cumbias, especially ones by Sonora Skandolo. They’re one of the top cumbia bands playing in El Paso today. They’ve been around for nearly two decades and aren’t just popular along the border – they’re actually a really big deal in Latin America.

Check out the group in Argentina just a few years ago:

However, there’s one group who brought cumbia to another level in terms of mainstream appeal. And they weren’t from Colombia or Mexico – they were from Lake Jackson, Texas.

Selena Quintanilla and Los Dinos sang Mexican cumbias that incorporated Tejano, pop and other genres.

“She had a strong band, strong material, strong artist, strong singer. How could she fail?” says Rivera.

From Chile to Chicago, Selena’s music made waves on both sides of the border and beyond. Of course, her legacy as the queen of cumbia was crystallized by her untimely death in 1995.

Selena’s music breathed new life into the tradition of cumbia in the ’80s and ’90s. Which brings us to today:

The El Paso band Frontera Bugalú (Border Bugalú) mixes tropical and norteño cumbia styles, creating a fresh take on cumbia from the border. Influenced by many cumbia, punk and Mexican artists, including Rigo Tovar, the band has created their own unique sound.

“I studied more the Colombian accordionists, and I made my way back to Texas,” says the band’s co-founder Kiko Rodriguez.

“It is a different style, for sure. The type of sounds, the electronic sound from the ’70s… We’re trying to mesh them or remember them in a way, while we’re trying to create something new,” says Rodriguez.

With members from both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, the band plays venues on both sides of the border, singing about social issues affecting the two communities.

“We take another tradition from the Soneros from the past. A lot of these really really famous Latino songs… for example, one of the most famous is about slavery and he’s remembering his past as a slave. It’s a part of the music’s history, as well, to speak and to tell the truth,” says Rodriguez.

Their song “Jornalero”, for example, touches on the stories of undocumented workers. People who risk their lives to cross the border, in search of a better life. Despite its social commentary the music, overall, is meant to be fun. No matter how serious the subject matter, the most important part of the cumbia tradition is this: It makes you want to get on your feet and dance.

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