Friday, 9 January 2009


As promised, next up is a further discussion into the history of Colombian music. In all honesty, I have never been that into Salsa. Having been brought up on a slew of Grupo Niche, Gilberto Santarosa, and Juan Luis Guerra releases (which incidentally have some of THE most jokes album covers in the history of music), I have never been able to get into them in the way my hirsute father would wish.

I have to give props to Niche for their unequivocal attitude to banging out tune after tune after tune, and a certain kudos to Juan Luis, for the sheer catchiness of some of his better numbers. However, when I listen to them now, I can't help thinking how glad I am that I have reacted against the incessant trumpet flares, the constant declarations of bollock-squeezing eternal love, and the HI-NRG rhythms that whip you up into a libidinous Latino frenzy. Cumbia however is a totally different proposition.

Like Champeta, cumbia developed amongst the slave community of North Western Colombia, but unlike its chaotic cousin, it was far less insular and more inclusive of the Western musical heritage as most of it was played on Western instruments such as the flute and guitar. Nonetheless, like Champeta, it was a predominantly lower class musical form, and in my opinion is one of THE dopest musical traditions anywhere in the world.

It adopts a slinky 4/4 beat that is coupled with a nasty syncopated rhythm that hints at its shared Carribean background with Jamaica's most famous musical export. Traditionally, singing is kept to a minimum (if only more Latin American artists would take note), and the dub heavy sound treads a delicate path between maxed-out reefer mind fug, and the more uproarious sophistication of Cuban Big Band.

As you might have noticed, the accordion features pretty heavily. Colombia's most famous accordion sound is that of vallenato, most famously represented by that universally acclaimed douchebag, Carlos Vives. Do NOT get the two confused. One is possibly the finest indigenous musical form ever created, the other is dogshit.

However, it seems a few people have found out about Colombia's best kept secret, because cumbia is making waves at the moment. Both Diplo's MAD DECENT podcast and the XLR8R podcast (the latter being one of if not the best ones available on the internet - download now) have been repping the sound, particularly on behalf of a crew from Buenos Aires called Zizek. Named after the Slovenian post-Marxist philosopher, they have been reinterpreting cumbia for a 21st century audience and critically speaking, reaping the rewards. Having checked out a couple of their mixes, I have to say I am quite impressed. When Dubstep first exploded, I couldn't help thinking how similar it sounded to the traditional cumbias I knew and loved (although with the sub-bass cranked up to cataclysmic levels), especially some of the more Eastern influenced, flutey tunes coming from Skream, and it seems Zizek have also noticed the link, cranking up the bass and adding reverb and other such distortions to bring the sound more in line with what is en vogue at the moment.

However, I can't help feeling that the new cumbia mash ups, so obviously created for the Buenos Aires cognoscenti, have lost some of the original haunting, almost baroque majesty that you find in those traditional ditties, used both as courtship dances, and as a tacit show of defiance against Spanish rule (much like Capoeira was against Portuguese rule in Bahia). If you want to know more, I RECOMMEND you buy Cumbia Y Porros De Siempre. I bought it in Colombia, and I can't find it on the internet, but if you do ever come across it, it remains an essential purchase.

PS. You may also want to know that THE dance music hit of 2007, Samim's Heater, was taken from a cumbia, in this case La Cumbia Cineaguera. La Cienaga is a semi-salinated body of water just outside the town of Cienaga that has some of the coolest mangrove swamps in the world. That yellow line which mindlessly seems to separate the sea from the sea is probably the most dangerous road in the world and really has to be seen to be believed. All this and only 30 mins away from MY home town of Santa Marta!

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