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Cumbia!: Scenes of a Migrant Latin American Music Genre

Cumbia!: Scenes of a Migrant Latin American Music Genre

by Héctor Fernández L'Hoeste

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Cumbia is a musical form that originated in northern Colombia and then spread throughout Latin America and wherever Latin Americans travel and settle. It has become one of the most popular musical genre in the Americas. Its popularity is largely due to its stylistic flexibility. Cumbia absorbs and mixes with the local musical styles it encounters. Known for its


Cumbia is a musical form that originated in northern Colombia and then spread throughout Latin America and wherever Latin Americans travel and settle. It has become one of the most popular musical genre in the Americas. Its popularity is largely due to its stylistic flexibility. Cumbia absorbs and mixes with the local musical styles it encounters. Known for its appeal to workers, the music takes on different styles and meanings from place to place, and even, as the contributors to this collection show, from person to person. Cumbia is a different music among the working classes of northern Mexico, Latin American immigrants in New York City, Andean migrants to Lima, and upper-class Colombians, who now see the music that they once disdained as a source of national prestige. The contributors to this collection look at particular manifestations of cumbia through their disciplinary lenses of musicology, sociology, history, anthropology, linguistics, and literary criticism. Taken together, their essays highlight how intersecting forms of identity—such as nation, region, class, race, ethnicity, and gender—are negotiated through interaction with the music.

. Cristian Alarcón, Jorge Arévalo Mateus, Leonardo D'Amico, Héctor Fernández L'Hoeste, Alejandro L. Madrid, Kathryn Metz, José Juan Olvera Gudiño, Cathy Ragland, Pablo Semán, Joshua Tucker, Matthew J. Van Hoose, Pablo Vila

Editorial Reviews

Journal of Popular Culture - Sven Kube
“[T]he volume underscores cumbia’s potential as a subject of academic inquiry and should inspire scholarship with a more integrative perspective. [The book] is a laudable effort to establish an understudied Latin American popular music in Anglophone academic discourse.”
From the Publisher
"Cumbia has mattered, matters, and will most likely continue to matter for the multitudes who create it, listen and dance to it, and debate it almost as a way of life. This collection is both a sonic roadmap and testimony to the imagination of people across the Americas as they make some sense of their many worlds through music."—Jairo Moreno, author of Musical Representations, Subjects, and Objects

"This is a significant, comprehensive, and timely collection of essays. As the essays demonstrate, cumbia is probably the most widespread rhythm in the Americas. Yet, until now, its travels and transformations have not received systematic attention, taking into account the complexities of the genre's roots in northern coastal Colombia and its subsequent routes into Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and the United States. Cumbia! fills a crucial gap in the literature on Latin/o American popular music."—George Yúdice, author of The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era

Choice - K. W. Mukuna
“The clear, simple language makes the essays accessible, and contributors are to be commended for their excellent presentations...Highly recommended.”
Hispanic American Historical Review - Helena Simonett
"Together [the essays] introduce the reader to a broad range of Latin American musical practices that claim their roots in a specific regional genre but mean different things in different places. Cumbia! is essential reading for anyone interested in popular music studies, music and migration, globalization, and communication."
Notes - Carlos Pena
"The 'scenes' of this anthology range widely in a geographical sense and in the way that each writer approaches cumbia. Héctor Fernández l’Hoeste and Pablo Vila have assembled a collection of thoughtful essays and presented them in a logical sequence reflecting the outward migration of cumbia from its origins."

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Scenes of a Migrant Latin American Music Genre


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8223-5433-8



Cumbia Music in Colombia

Origins, Transformations, and Evolution of a Coastal Music Genre

Costeño Music and Its Sociocultural Context

The Caribbean coastal region of Colombia is called the Costa, and its inhabitants are referred to as costeños. The música costeña (coastal music) is a product of tri-ethnic syncretic cultural traditions including Amerindian, Spanish, and African elements (List 1980b, 1983), a merging that begins with the colonial period and continues into the republican period on the Caribbean Coast. Traditional music from the Colombian Caribbean coast expresses its tri-ethnic costeño identity in various vocal styles and musical forms and through its type of instruments and the way they are played. In this chapter I describe the aspects and circumstances under which cumbia, a coastal musical genre and dance form of peasant origins characterized by an African-derived style, has spread from its local origins in the valley of the Magdalena River to acquire a Colombian national identity, becoming in a few years a transnational musical phenomenon.

Through its heterogeneity, coastal ethno-organology reflects the different ethnic and cultural contributions that shape costeño culture. Instrumental ensembles are the product of this process of hybridization. They usually combine instruments of indigenous origin, such as the gaita (vertical duct flute) and the maraca (rattle); African origin, such as the tambor alegre and the llamador, single-headed drums of different sizes, the tambora (double-headed drum), the caña de millo (a millet-cane transverse clarinet), the marímbula (a large wooden-box lamellaphone), and the marimba de napa (musical bow); and European origin, such as the accordion and the wind instruments of the brass bands.

Most of the ritmos (as the musical genres for dancing are called) of Colombia's Atlantic coastal region—such as tambora, bullerengue, chandé, mapalé, cumbia, porro, puya, fandango—show some "Africanisms" present in their musical structure:

The basic concept operative in most cases is the underlying reiterated cycle of pulses or time-span.... African influence is therefore to be found in the complex framework built above this foundation, involving pervasive offbeat phrasing, overlapping of call and response patterns, specific uses of the hemiola, and the employment of both disjunct and irregular cycles in the realization of the underlying time-span. These traits plus the density of rhythmic structure displayed in the performances of percussion ensembles relate costeño music to that of sub-Saharan Africa. (List 1980a: 16-17)

There are various occasions during the year when music is traditionally performed: during Catholic festivities, such as Christmas and Easter, on patron saints days, and at carnivals and folk festivals (e.g., Festival Nacional de la Cumbia at El Banco, Festival de Gaita in San Jacinto, Festival de la Tambora in Tamalameque, Festival del Porro in San Pelayo, and Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata in Valledupar).

On the Caribbean coast, musical groups, or conjuntos (small instrumental sets with four to five elements), represent a further metamorphosis or evolution of the earlier tambora, which, spread among the black communities along the Magdalena River, stands as an archetype. The tambora ensemble consists of percussion and vocals only, including a conical drum with a single head (currulao), a cylindrical drum with a double head (tambora), and chant in the form of a call-and-response pattern performed by a male or female solo singer alternating with a chorus of women (cantadoras) and accompanied by the palmoteo (hand-clapping) or beating of the tablitas or palmetas (wooden paddles) of a chorus of women singing the refrain (Carbó Ronderos 2003). Its repertoire includes the bailes cantados (sung dances) — such as bullerengue, tambora, chandé, berroche, guacherna—and songs in call-and-response form (with a solo singer and chorus), accompanied by drums and handclap.

As an expression of Afro-Colombian music culture, tamboras are quite common in the region considered the birthplace of cumbia, the Mompox area. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, many palenques, villages formed by fugitive slaves (cimarrones) during the colonial period, sprang up in this area. In fact, from the organological point of view, the line-up of coastal conjuntos consists of drums that make up the tambora, to which the transverse clarinet, the caña de millo (cane of millet), or two vertical flutes (gaitas) were added, giving birth, respectively, to the conjuntos of cañamilleros and gaiteros. Throughout this instrumental development, there was a loss of the chorus of female singers (cantadoras) and, obviously, of the refrain sung by them (in some cases, sung by the same musicians). When the tune is sung, the vocal element appears in a call-and-response form and, consequently, the musicians in the group carry out the choral answer.

Origins, Dissemination, Instruments, and Forms of Cumbia

As a music and dance genre, cumbia is most representative of coastal oral traditional culture. It is the artistic and cultural product of the rural and artisan classes, who reveal a tricultural Afro-Indo-Hispanic heritage, although the African component is dominant. In traditional costeño music culture, the term cumbia has a variety of connotations: it refers at the same time to a rhythm, a musical genre, and a dance.

As music and dance, cumbia originates in the upper part of the Magdalena River, in the zone called the Mompox Depression, which is located at the confluence of the Magdalena and Cauca Rivers, between the cities of Mompox and Plato (Fals Borda 1986b: 132), and its epicenter is located at the nearby city of El Banco, where the Festival de la Cumbia has taken place since 1970. Later, the port city of Barranquilla, located at the mouth of the Magdalena River, became the center of dissemination of cumbia. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Barranquilla has hosted the yearly Carnaval, to which traditional music and dance ensembles come from all over the Caribbean coast and the valley of the Magdalena River to perform at the desfile (parade) called Batalla de Flores (Battle of Flowers), along with comparsas (dance ensembles) (Friedemann 1985).

The etymology of the term cumbia is controversial. According to the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, "kumba is a very popular toponymic and tribal denomination in Africa, from the north of Guinea to the Congo." He adds, "The same root is evident among the Kalabari, who use the term ekombi for 'a certain dance of women,' also called tukhube" (1985: 183). The historian Carlos Esteban Deive (1974: 19) contends that the term cumbancha comes from nkumba, the word for navel. Nicolás Del Castillo Mathieu (1982: 221) suggests instead that the terms cumbia and cumbiamba probably derive from Kikongo ngoma, nkumbi, which signifies "drum." T. K. Biaya (1993: 204) claims that the name cyombela, which refers to the percussionist Luba-Kasai from the Congo, comes from komba (ngoma), meaning "beat on the drum." On the island of Annobon (Equatorial Guinea), the term cumbé indicates a square drum with legs, used to complement a dance with the same name. The drum is proper of Jamaica, where maroons called it gombay or goombah (Roberts 1926), and it arrived in Annobon during the nineteenth century through Freetown immigrants in Sierra Leone, which is where Jamaican maroons were taken, forming the Krio group (Creole in Sierra Leone; Horton 1999; De Aranzadi 2009).

Cumbé was also the name given to the towns founded by fugitive slaves in Venezuela (called palenques in Colombia and quilombos in Brazil) during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (De Granda 1970: 452; Bermúdez 1992: 61–62). The same name also turns up in the catalogue for Mexican string instruments, the tablatura de vihuela from 1740, where, among many dances listed from the colonial period, there is an entry for cumbees o cantos negros with the subtitle cantos en idioma guinea (Stevenson 1971: 162).

The hypothesis on the origin of cumbia as a ritual initiation dance from Central Africa, based on etymological similarities, is also quite appealing: (a) In the upper region of Zaire, an initiation ceremony called kikumbi takes place, which includes dances comparable to the Brazilian batuque of Kongo origin (Mukuna 1979); (b) Likumbi is the name of the shelter that houses a male initiation rite (jando) of the Makonde of northeastern Mozambique (Ndege 2007); (c) Nkumbi is the initiation ritual of the Mbo of the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Towles 1993); (d) In the female initiation rites of the Tsonga, fertility songs are sung and the khomba dance is performed with the purpose of encouraging women's fertility (Johnston 1974).

Nevertheless Colombian cumbia bears no ritual connotation at all and, according to existing written and oral sources, does not appear to have had any in the past either. At present, just as in the past, the traditional occasions when cumbia surfaces are mainly folk festivals, carnivals (the Carnaval de Barranquilla, for example), and holidays of the Catholic liturgical calendar (e.g., the celebration of the Virgin of Candelaria by the hill of La Popa in Cartagena de Indias during November).

According to historical sources, cumbia does not seem very old; its origin does not appear to go back to the colonial era, but rather to the republican period. The first documented written comments on cumbia date back to the end of the nineteenth century, in the newspaper El Porvenir from Cartagena de Indias. On March 2, 1879, there is reference to the cumbiamba performed during the festival for the Virgin of Candelaria:

At night you hear the cumbiamba, a popular dance whose music consists of a flauta de millo and a drum that produced a monotonous, but rhythmic sound. It is danced in a circle, and the man makes bizarre and graceful movements to the sound of the drum, while the woman holds a bundle of burning candles on her head, covered by a pretty handkerchief, which catches fire at the end, when the candles go out; that is the splendor of the dance.

From the choreographic perspective, cumbia is a Spanish-like court dance that is characterized by a lover's duel, in which movements simulate a game of repulsion and attraction between two dancers (the cumbiamberos). A couple dancing in a counterclockwise circle around a group of musicians performs it. As it is usually performed at night, the woman carries a bundle of lit candles that she uses to push away the man, who pursues her by circling her with open arms. With the other hand, the woman holds the tip of her long skirt (pollera), and in a standing position, swings her hips and takes small steps, all while trying to remain untouched by her partner. The man dances around the woman with a hat (the traditional sombrero vueltiao, a staple of the Colombian Caribbean) in his hand, which he tries to place on her head as a symbol of amorous conquest.

In terms of musical performance, in its most conventional variety, Colombian cumbia is exclusively instrumental (Escalante 1964; D. Zapata 1967; List 1980b). The traditional caña de millo ensemble (or cumbiamba) is made up of the caña de millo (the transverse idioglottic clarinet), the tambor alegre (a conical drum with only one drumhead), the tambor llamador (a conical drum with one drumhead), the tambora (a cylindrical drum with two drumheads) and the guache (tubular rattle).

The caña de millo (also known as millo, pito, or pito atravesao) is not really a flute (Abadía 1983, 1991) but a transverse idioglottic clarinet, originally made of millet, nowadays often made from a palm called lata (Bactris guineensis). It consists of a short cane with four finger holes and a tongue cut in one end to act as a reed, which is fitted with a small thread that catches between the teeth in order to adjust the sound and produce the vibrato. The technique involves the inhalation and exhalation of air through the reed. The resulting sound is sharp and nasal-like.

The origin of this instrument is contentious. According to the Africanist perspective of the foremost ethnomusicologist George List,

There is no evidence that the clarinet existed in South America in the pre-Colombian period. There are no archaeological findings of clarinets, no reproductions of clarinets on artifacts, and no references to such an instrument in early historical literature.... To my knowledge, a transverse idioglottic clarinet, that is, a clarinet held horizontally with the reed cut from the same body, and remaining attached to the tube of cane, is found in the Western Hemisphere only in the Atlantic coastal region of Colombia. Apparently, not the Indians, but the Spanish-speaking people from the plains are the only ones who play it. (1983: 61)

In Africa, the transverse idioglottic clarinet with a simple reed is found in the Sahel belt area, where pastoral nomadic populations use it (since it is the same area where millet is grown). According to List (1983), the caña de millo is a modified version of the bobiyel played by the Fulbe (Fulani) of Burkina Faso, of the bounkam of the Bissa of Burkina Faso, and also of the kamko of the Kasera-Nakari in the north of Ghana. Thus "the source of the caña de millo is Africa and the clarinets like the bobiyel, the bounkam, and the kamko are its progenitors" (65). These African examples are transverse clarinets made from a stalk of millet cane, with the reed cut from the side of the cane. The performance is based on the emission of sound while inhaling and exhaling without interruption. It should be noted that there are also surprising similarities with the transverse libo clarinet of the Hausa of Chad. This latter instrument also comes from the same type of millet cane and is also equipped with a small string that, when played, adjusts the sounds that are produced. According to the hypothesis regarding the indigenous origin of the caña de millo (Abadía 1973, 1983, 1991; Bermúdez 1985), the Wayúu Indians from the Guajira Peninsula in northernmost Colombia use a very similar instrument, the transverse idioglottic clarinet called massi and wotorroyoi. However, it is possible that the Wayúu (also known as Guajiros) adopted these instruments recently from Afro-Colombian musical culture.

The tambor alegre (or tambor hembra, "female drum") is a conical drum, with a drumhead made of goat skin, and is made of the wood of the banco blanco (Gyrocarpus americana). Its tension system in the shape of a v is made of wooden wedges and pieces of string from the fique plant (Furcraea andina). The llamador (or tambor macho, "male drum") is the same as the tambor alegre in form, material, and system of tension, but its dimensions are smaller. The tambor alegre has the role of "cheering up," "improvising," or varying around a predefined rhythmic base, while the llamador performs a constant, unvaried isochronous pulsation on the offbeat.

The tambor alegre and the tambor llamador are single-headed drums with a "wedge-hoop" tension system that displays notable structural similarities with some African drums, such as the sangbei from the Susu and Mende peoples in Sierra Leone (List 1983), and with certain Afro-Venezuelan drums (chimbangueles), Afro-Panamanian drums (pujador, llamador, and repicador), and Afro-Brazilian drums (atabaques). All of these types of drums are very similar to the sacred enkomo drums of the secret society of Abakuá or Ñañigos (Cuba), which makes up part of the Carabalí.

Excerpted from CUMBIA! by HÃeCTOR FERNÃ?NDEZ L'HOESTE. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Héctor Fernández L'Hoeste is Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino/a Studies at Georgia State University. He is coeditor, with Deborah Pacini Hernandez and Eric Zolov, of Rockin' Las Américas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latin/o America.

Pablo Vila is Professor of Sociology at Temple University. He is coauthor, with Pablo Semán, of Troubling Gender: Youth and Cumbia in Argentina's Music Scene.

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