The story of how a particular beat went from moving the hips of African slaves newly arrived on Colombian soil courting the local indigenous ladies, to the collective hips of a continent is a fascinating, if fairly contested, one. Cumbia, the two-step dance said to have originated in chained legs on the Colombian Caribbean coast, has slowly spread its infectious beat all over the Americas, taking on a myriad of radically different forms in places as different as Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and Texas. Anywhere you go in Latin America, you’ll find steamy dance floors reverberating to the same basic beat in a rich profusion of interpretations. And it all began in Colombia.
Way back in the day, before Cumbia started conquering the world, that distinctive 2/4 beat was just one kind of music the bands up around Cartagena way would set their audiences into day-long dancing frenzies with. Other beats would include porro, merengue, and mapalé; all recognised today as very different styles. Cumbia first started to be seen as its own genre when elements from jazz big bands from abroad started to make themselves felt, resulting in the cumbia big bands of the 1950s – something that would appeal to the fancy folks in bigger cities like Medellin and Bogota:
Once cumbia made it to the new recording studios in Medellin in the form of, smaller, more marketable ensembles playing drastically simplified rhythms, this infectious beat finally made its way to Mexico, where it was lapped up greedily. Andean countries, such as our own JL’s Peru, and, later, Argentina, were to follow, as Latin America started paying attention to this very costeño institution.
With such a variety of forms, and moving such a variety of different hips, the question, why, begs itself. One reason, as we have explored before, is that Colombian costeños rule. The other, and related, reason, is that, at its very basis, Cumbia is so simple and malleable that it can absorb so many different kinds of influences from different environments, so that it can be expressed as Chicha in Peru, Villera from the working-class barrios of Argentina, new forms like electro cumbia that are taking Colombia and the rest of the world by storm, or even rather…hmmm… interesting… television series like Cumbia Ninja. Even more …errr… interesting than Vallenato Tai Chi.
Even though the idea of a “pure cumbia” really was an invention of mid-last-century, the spirit of those first gaiteros, with their heady mix of African, Indigenous, and Spanish culture, still lives on strongly today. It doesn’t hurt that one of the world’s greatest singers, Toto La Momposina, is such a devoted missionary of the genre. With such a wide variety of forms, both traditional and modern, it’s fairly safe to assume that Colombia’s own cumbia will be moving hips for plenty more years to come.
*Featured image from Fox’s Cumbia Ninja.