Cumbia. Photo: '''Resistencia'

Cumbia. Photo: "Resistencia"

The Cumbia and Slavery

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''

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 it.

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 river).

Guerrilla's champ of FARC-EP: Photo''Resistencia''

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

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.

Zamba ''Che''. Photo: ''''

Zamba ''Che''. Photo: ""
Melody of Zamba ''Che''.
Other songs about the Guerrillero Heroic, and also songs of FARC-EP.

Translation on English by:  

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