When the drum sounds the call for a party
and fantasy, boundless joy surges in the soul of all dwellers
of the banks of the lower Magdalena River -- the same joy felt
by every Colombian, whether at home or abroad, at hearing the
exquisite music of a cumbia, the musical air that made
Colombia known to the world well before any other of our
country’s indigenous airs.
The cumbia is one of the most representative melodic
expressions of Colombia. In it, three cultures come together –
the black African, indigenous and European. The black culture
contributed the rhythm of the drums, the indigenous culture,
the flute, a fundamental element in the melody (corn flute and
gaita) and the European (invaders) contributed only some
variations in the melodies, the choreography and the costumes
of the dancers.
The origin of the cumbia can be traced to the era of
slavery and is derived from the black word “cumbe” which meant
dance. Other derivations were the “caracumbe”, a choreographed
game that achieved its zenith in Antioquia when the blacks
worked the mines, the “paracumbe”, a dance that has
disappeared and “ cumbancha”, that in Cuba means carousal or
revelry. But, it is indisputable that the cumbia was born of
the cultural fusion of the black and indigenous peoples.
The location of the cumbia’s birth is a subject for
discussion for many students of folklore. According to the
maestro Jose Barros, the cumbia was born in the indigenous
country of the Pocabuys in the region of El Banco, Magdalena;
others postulate that the cumbia had to be born in Cienaga
(Magdalena) or in Soledad (Atlantico). The only thing known
for sure is that it was around the settlements of blacks
brought to our country as slaves.
Let's dance a rumba! Photo: "Resistencia"
The Panamanian writer, Narciso Garay, who describes dances
and celebrations in his work “Traditions and Songs of Panama”
speaks of the ancestral tradition of the cumbia and evidence
of it in Panama, to the point of making it seem like the
cumbia was born in that country. They forget Panama belonged
to Colombia until the beginning of the twentieth century.
In Mexico, as in several Latin American countries, the
Colombian cumbia has enjoyed enormous acceptance. Many musical
groups have recorded cumbias. But those compositions and
interpretations are far removed from the original musical
melody. Besides, the instruments used are not the right ones,
so instead of paying tribute to the cumbia, they diminish
The typical instruments in the interpretion of the cumbia
are from two basic groups: percussion and wind.
The percussion group consists of a Tambora (double-strung
drum) that produces the bass sound, Tambor alegre
(middle-sized drum) that carries the rhythmic beat, Llamador
(small drum) that is beat in counter-time, Maracas (hollow
gourds filled with capacho seeds), and Guache (a metal
cylinder filled with capacho seeds or pebbles from the
Guerrilla's champ of FARC-EP: Photo: "Resistencia"
Of the wind instruments used in the original
interpretation, it is the flutes that predominate. The female
gaita (long, vertical flute with a head made of beeswax,
vegetable carbon and a turkey feather) has five orifices and
carries the melody. The male gaita is fashioned the same way,
but has only one orifice and is used for the bass. The corn
flute is small, made of a maize or sorghum stalk, has six
orifices with a reed and is played transversally.
In the beginning, the cumbia was instrumental only; the
addition of lyrics and vocals came later. For a long time it
was the dominant music of the Atlantic coast where not only
the cumbia is composed and sung, but where typical airs such
as the bullerengue, mapale and porro are found. The cumbia is
an air interpreted in a minor tone, and only the blacks
participated in it initially. Later the mestizos took the
tradition for their own.
There are many ways of interpreting the cumbia, obviously
depending on the instruments used. Many orchestras have
produced majestic interpretations of it, with spectacular
arrangements, using high quality instruments and voices beyond
reproach, but a particularly important role is played by the
use of the clarinet and drums, which also proves to be
interesting for this beautiful melody’s diffusion abroad.
Young fighters dance during a New-Years Eve party at their camp. Photo: Jason P.Howe, 2002
Some groups that play vallenatos, another Colombian song,
have also interpreted the cumbia and used other instruments to
do it, but without losing the original sound. The
interpretation of the cumbia cienaguera by the late master,
Luis Enrique Martinez, stands out, as do those of many other
artists, especially those of the vallenatos sabaneros, that
is, those from Cordoba and Bolivar, who are masters of the
masters of this type of music.
But no interpretation is comparable to one heard in its raw
and original form performed by empirical experts using
unsophisticated instruments, like the flute players of the
departments of Bolivar, Cordoba, Sucre, Atlantico and
Magdalena in the northern coast of the country where great
composers have been born, among them, without taking anything
away from the rest, we must acknowledge the prominence of the
master Jose Barros.
Also worth mentioning are the contributions of Jaime
Bernardo, a musician who has accompanied the guerrilla
songwriters Julian Conrado and Christian Perez in their
recorded works of the FARC-People’s Army, in beautiful
versions of guerrilla cumbias with social content, that
recognize our combatants’ valor and capacity for struggle and
call on the people to organize to achieve peace with social
justice, as well as express the joy of the fariana (pertaining
to revolutionary armed forces –ed.) struggle.