Feb 01

From the Archives – A Brief Introduction to Colombian Music: From Champeta to Cumbia

El Joe with Fanny Flowers

Being a Friday, and if you’re lucky enough to be in Colombia, you’re just about to be immersed in a veritable ocean of music. So here’s a handy guide from our vaults to help you work out exactly what kind of music you’re likely to hear over the weekend.

One of the things you can’t fail to notice on a Colombia vacation is the country’s love of music. It’s not just the fact that music is ubiquitous, but that everyone seems to know every word and sing or dance at every opportunity, including taxi drivers, bus drivers, people in pubs and even just people on the street.

Another thing you’re bound to notice is that this music isn’t stuff you’ve heard before. That’s because in Colombia people are fiercely proud of their musical heritage, and it plays an important part in the national identity. It’s one of the few countries I’ve been to where the most popular music is almost exclusively home grown.

So, in order to prepare anyone coming here for the musical onslaught that is Colombia, here’s an introduction to the most popular and traditional genres, and the ones you’re most likely to hear.



The spectacularly named Willie Colon and Ruben Blades.
The spectacularly named Willie Colon and Ruben Blades.

Salsa doesn’t originate from Colombia, but it’s found a loving home here. Originating primarily in New York, Puerto Rico and Cuba (it is derived from a Cuban genre called son), it’s a genre that is inherently tied to dance and, as such, is difficult to avoid in Colombian clubs. Musically the music relies heavily on percussion, with piano and horns also playing a major part. There is clear African influence in the music, most evident in the frequent employment of the call and response vocals.

The capitals for salsa in Colombia are Cali and Barranquilla.

Suggested Artists

Joe Arroyo (Colombia)
La 33 (Colombia)
Willie Colón (United States)
Hector Lavoe (United States)
Ruben Blades (Panama)
Fruko y Sus Tesos (Colombia)



Diomedes Diaz says cheese!
Diomedes Diaz says cheese!

Vallenato is pure Colombia. Popularized in the city of Valledupar, in the Caribbean region of Colombia, it started with farmers blending Spanish and West African traditions by going from town to town delivering news between families via the use of song. In this form Vallenato was played with very basic instruments, but since then the accordian has become a defining characteristic of the genre.

You mainly hear Vallenato on the Caribbean Coast, but expect a great deal everywhere you go. It might not be immediately endearing, but once you see how much the locals love it you’ll be quick to grab an Aguardiente and sing along.

Suggested Artists

Diomedes Diaz (Colombia)
Carlos Vives (Colombia)
Los Diablitos de Vallenato (Colombia)
Los Hermanos Zuleta (Colombia)
Jorge Celedon (Colombia)
Otto Serge (Colombia)



Toto la Momposina enjoying her Cumbia.

Cumbia, like Vallenato, is one of Colombia’s most important genres of music. Again like Vallenato, it originates from the Caribbean region of the country. Its African roots are immediately obvious in the heavy use of percussion and the vocal style. The music began as a courtship dance practiced by the African slave population, but later mixed with European influence to arrive at the sound we hear today.

Cumbia is popular in the Andean regions of Colombia, as well as coastal areas.

Suggested Artists

Toto La Momposina (Colombia)
Pacho Galan (Colombia)
Lucho Bermúdez (Colombia)
Bomba Estereo (Colombia)



A typically modest Reggaeton artist.
A typically modest Reggaeton artist.

While some Colombians may tell you they hate Reggaeton, it’s likely you’ll see that same person happily dancing to it in a club. Reggaeton isn’t the most musically ambitious or deep music, but has an infectious beat and, more often than not, catchy choruses.

While Reggaeton didn’t originate in Colombia, it is by far the most popular genre on the dancefloors of Bogota. The origins of the genre are disputed, but it’s generally considered that, drawing on hip-hop, dancehall and reggae, artists such as Shabba Ranks and El General got the ball rolling, while Daddy Yankee brought it to the world’s attention with his track ‘Gasolina’.

Suggested Artists

Don Omar (Puerto Rico)
J. Alvarez (Puerto Rico)
J. Balvin (Colombia)
Daddy Yankee (Puerto Rico)
El General (Panama)



Sergio Vargas - Merengue Star.
Sergio Vargas – Merengue Star.

Merengue is a musical genre created in the Dominican Republic by the artist Ñico Lora. It is popular all over Colombia, and a frequent feature on dancefloors. Merengue is a fast, energetic style of music, and probably the easiest to dance to for foreigners. Musically and lyrically it is often very light-hearted, and therefore the perfect opportunity to flex your moves.

Suggested Artists

Wilfrido Vargas (Dominican Republic)
Sergio Vargas (Dominican Republic)
Juan Luis Guerra (Dominican Republic)
Elvis Crespo (Puerto Rico)
Rikarena (Colombia, Venezuela, Dominican Republic)



A happening Porro crowd.
A happening Porro crowd.

Porro allegedly began in pre-Colombian times on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, with indigenous groups dancing and singing to African rhythms. What is certain is that it is a joyful, party-ready style of music closely aligned with Cumbia.

Porro is very popular on Colombia’s Atlantic Coast, as well as the Cordoba region. While it’s not as popular as some other genres in places such as Bogota and Medellin, it can still be heard in traditional bars.

Suggested Artists

Juan Piña (Colombia)
Billos Caracas Boys (Venezuela)
La Sonora Cordobesa (Colombia)
Pedro Laza y sus Pelayeros (Colombia)



El Sayayin
El Sayayin – standing in defence of Champeta.

Originating (again) on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Champeta is a style of music almost unchanged from its African roots. Though elements of rap and reggaeton can be heard in modern Champeta, it’s more common for those genres to borrow from Champeta.

The vocal stylings of the genre and the percussive elements are heavily influenced by African music. The sound relies on a strong snare drum and intricate guitar-work. Champeta is heard on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Colombia.

Suggested Artists

Charles King (Colombia)
Elio Boom (Colombia)
Mister Black (Colombia)
El Sayayin (Colombia)


If you’re interested in hearing more about Colombia’s modern musicians, check out the following posts:

5 New Colombian Artists You Have to Hear 

Bomba Estereo

Top 10 Songs by Colombian Artists in 2011


5 thoughts on “From the Archives – A Brief Introduction to Colombian Music: From Champeta to Cumbia

  1. andres on

    In Medellín and I guess in Cali or any other city with nicer weather than BOG, you go to any barrio and enjoy some “guaros”=aguardiente shots at the front door of any friend´s house sitting at the sidewalk or even having a ” typical asado” = BBQ and listening to the whole LAtin american soundtracks as we colombians had been borrowed songs and rhythms from:
    Old Tangos from Argentina = just to sing! while aguardiente works on ur head! must of us we can´t dance that!
    Colombian Porros- cumbia-vallenatos, champetas, colombian salsa and reggaeton also The Billos cARACAS BOYS!! yeap from our neighbor Venezuela!
    then merengue from Dominican Republic, Salsa from PR and Cuban Son!
    at the end of the “night” early morning when we are all drunk comes up the closing “rumba” songs, The mexican Rancheras!!Thats when we all singing aloud and from the deepest of our chest and think we belong to a Mariachis band!! Lol…. then party is over when “La Policia” comes to let neighbors sleep in peace!!! NOTICE: only happens in december or during flowers festival in august in MED! otherwise would be crazy live in a barrio! Lol


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *