For Will Holland, aka Quantic, Colombian cumbia music has gradually become the driving force in his life. The Worcestershire-born DJ and musician first started out on the London breaks scene, but soon took his passion for hip-hop’s roots in R&B, funk and soul to America, where he became a fully-fledged crate-digger, unearthing brilliant vintage 45′s from the bottomless pit of unsold records from the ’60s.
After three albums leading his own jazzy Quantic Soul Orchestra, plus a collaborative record with the singer, Spanky Wilson, Will’s itinerary gradually shifted towards Central America; first to Panama, then to Colombia, where he has resided for the past five years. It was the local traditional music, cumbia, which drew him in. Based around an indefatigable “shuck-shucka-shuck” rhythm, and the accordion (the so-called “sailor’s piano”), its earliest recorded tunes, from the late ’40s on, remain timelessly vibrant and alluring.
Holland’s love for this elegant party music has driven him to assemble 55 vintage tracks on The Original Sound of Cumbia — a fabulous sampling, more than half of which he unearthed on crumbling old 78s in deserted second-hand stores and far-flung cantinas around Colombia. In its irresistible grooves the listener may hear, as have high-profile fans such as the Clash’s Joe Strummer before them, echoes of New Orleans R&B basslines, or Mexican mariachi trumpets, or even North African tribal voicing. They cannot fail, however, to be seduced by its rich, unique sound.
How did cumbia become a passion for you?
I was travelling around, and lived for a bit in Puerto Rico, in San Juan, producing music there. I was always looking for records, as any good record addict does — whatever country he’s in, it doesn’t matter. When I got to Colombia, I came across a record called Cumbia en Dor Menor by [El Salvador's] Lito Barrientos, which was actually recorded in MedellÃn in Colombia, which set the ball rolling. I ended up moving to Colombia for six months to record, and about five years later I’m still there.
There’s got to be a woman involved, right?
Yeah! [Laughs] When is there not? But I’ve spent a lot of time on this. I’ve driven round Colombia a lot by car, on my own and with friends, looking for music, and checking things out. It’s not like I just met a record collector in BogotÃ¡, whilst on a trip there, and compiled it from his knowledge. It has all been avidly researched. I’ve spent more time and money probably than I should’ve. It is a big passion of mine.
In your liner notes, you mention that your search for old cumbia 78s around the country led to you “drinking tinto coffee and rum for England (and Colombia!).” Is there a hedonistic aspect to cumbia? Is it essentially party/dance music?
Oh, God, yes! I’m attempting bi-nationality at the moment. I’ve also been learning accordion, so, coupled with looking for the records, it’s been playing music, and also going up to a lot of party places, and dancing to it. You can’t really go to Baranquilla carnival, say, and listen to cumbia, trumpeta and all the different kinds of music they play there, and not ‘get involved’ — not have Arguardiente pressed on you aggressively. It’s the local fire water. It’s part of the experience.
Some other Latin music, like Brazilian samba, has a headlong craziness to it, with huge armies of clattering drummers, lots of noise and commotion. Cumbia, by contrast, has a certain poise, or suaveness, about it…
There’s certainly some strains you can come across, like maybe fandango, which are more like that samba thing, but cumbia is just like you say. I think it has more in common with mento, calypso, that kind of thing. And of course some stuff does sound very close to ska and rocksteady. I think it’s unlikely there was any direct relationship with Jamaica, but it’s just the feel. People regard it as a lilting, mysterious style. A lot of the subjects are mermaids, and fishing. It’s all quite romantic, not in a love way — it’s romantic and poetic. There’s a lot of playing off of the exotic, a bit like mambo and rumba, where it’s like [cheesy Hispanic voice] “the black mambo,” or “el negrito.” It’s very much talking about the exotic black and indigenous people from the North coast.
Yes, I spotted that on “Cumbia Negra” by Jaime Simanco…
Right! Well, he’s a black singer. I think the roots of cumbia come from the unknown, indigenous influence. It evokes a kind of imagery that’s quite exotic, even for Colombians — especially as it was a music that became quite popular in the interior. So it was like, “The costenos [people from the coast], and their exotic sound of cumbia,” rather than it being factually on something historical.
One of the theories is that there was a king from this certain part of West Africa, and he used to have parties called cumbia-something, so it translated from there. Then there are other theories that there was a certain day, just like in New Orleans, when Africans were allowed to play their drums. In Cartagena, there was a day when races were allowed to mix and play drums, so that’s also meant to be the roots of cumbia.
I’m no historian. I just like records. Once you get to that stuff, I’m like, “Oh God, who cares? Let’s just put some on.” It’s still good, and you can still dance to it.
On some tracks, like “Descarga en Cumbia” by Banda Bajera de San Pelayo, the brass seems to play just one note all the way through, this insistently repeated riff. Do people trance out to cumbia?
That definitely shows up the roots of it being from Afro-indigenous heritage. The thing is, cumbia is just like dub or reggae in that it’s developed now into so many different forms. Many Colombians don’t even really realize that it’s originally Colombian, because it’s spread so much to Peru and Venezuela and Panama and Mexico — it’s everywhere now. Which is great.
If you play cumbia in Mexico, apparently, they’ll dance to it in a completely different way. They have a whole different discipline of dance. In Colombia, it’s still a respected folk dance. If you put it on, people will immediately pretend to hold a candle. There’s a certain format, which involves candles, and certain different dresses.
For Colombians, it’s within the DNA. They could be into anything in music — heavy metal or whatever — but if you put on a cumbia, they’ll go absolutely crazy. It’s nationally a DNA thing that they have to dance to it. Even people who I didn’t think could dance, and I’ve never seen dancing, they’ll be at a wedding, and there’ll be a cumbia playing suddenly, and they have to dance.
As a vinyl junkie with a background in British dance music, was it all partly about an infatuation with unearthing early 78s?
It’s a dangerous thing when you start getting into 78s, because the thing is, people assume you’re just into 78s. People go, “Here’s a 78!,” but it could be Frank Sinatra. You’re like, “Well, yes, but it’s not what I’m looking for.” It’s like being a traveler, and people assuming you’re into planes. It’s like, “No, it just gets me to the location.” 78s are things that just get you to the music.
I’m not particularly fond of 78s as a format. It just so happens that they’ve managed to harbor the music for the last 60 years, and keep it intact, so we can listen to it all these years after it was recorded in a remote part of Northern Colombia, which is pretty amazing in my view.
Was it a big leap from what you were doing before — compiling rare funk, corraling the Quantic Soul Orchestra, etc?
I’m just really into music, man. If I had a chance to move to Ghana tomorrow, I’d try it. Getting into Afro-American music, which is pretty much what the U.K. has been obsessed with for the last 50 years or so, you start to realize all the similarities in South American music. If you look at R&B and stuff from the Southern States — I started getting into Cajun, and Zydeco, which is, like, black accordion players — well, there’s no difference. It’s all part of the same post-colonial tale — the wonderful musical fall-out from all that colonial mess, the Creole mixture.
There’s a big parallel with the music of the Southern States, because cumbia essentially spread along the Magdalena river, just as blues from the Delta region spread along the Mississippi…
Cumbia is very much a river sound. A lot of the culture that comes into cities like Baranquilla and Cartagena comes from people who are from beside the Magdalena. I was reading The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax, and it was quite a similar thing, how a lot of the initial folk talent in the cities, came from working in the fields, or fishing.
Your compilation tells the story of cumbia, “as told by the phonograph — 1948-79.” What is the narrative, exactly?
CD1 is pretty much what it sounded like before the invasion of the radio waves from Cuba and whatnot. Basically, it’s what Colombians were doing before they were exposed to salsa. In that time period, the 78s era, it was quite closed, as far as other music coming in. CD2 is when the first external influences are just beginning to show. For most of it, you can really hear that it’s pre-radio invasion, and certainly pre-MP3 invasion.
Also, it’s centered mainly on small unknown labels that came and went. It’s more the obscurities of cumbia, rather than, say, if Fuentes, or RCA Victor, told the story. That would be much more a regal-sounding thing, probably more classic-y. This is more the leftfield side, and maybe the rootsier side of the cumbia story, rather than the glistening, over-produced one.
Can you flag up the regional variations in sound or rhythm through specific tracks on there?
From MedellÃn, which is where the recording was going on, you have Gildardo Montoya. His song, “Fabiola,” is quite a different sound — more robotic in a way; still really heavy and fluid, but it’s just closer to dance music as we know it. The rhythm is quite marked. Then you’ve got Los Alegres del Valle, which is my favourite group on the record. They’re actually from the Valle del Cauca, which is where you find Cali, where I’ve been living. Their name means “The Happies from the Valley.” Their song, “Somario,” is pretty much my all-time favorite, because it’s a very different sound, quite rural, with a different swing to it, from Southern Colombia. Stuff from San Jacinto has a very different sound as well, which is the sound that Joe Strummer was really into — people like Andres Landero — a very specific sound, quite related to gaita, which is the cane-flute, indigenous thing.
The accordion is a central instrument in cumbia, often referred to as the “sailor’s piano,” or even, more recently, the “chest synthesizer.” How did you end up learning it yourself?
Well, I played guitar in the Quantic Soul Orchestra. For me, music-making goes hand-in-hand with the record collecting. If you listen to almost any record from Colombia from the ’50s and ’60s, it is all pretty much accordion-led. Which is ace — I love it! It’s such a great instrument. If you go to any country, they claim it as their own. In the Dominican Republic — “No, the accordion’s from here!” In Ireland…
How does cumbia deploy it, compared to other musics?
I would say it’s a lot more emphasis on rhythm. Obviously the disciplines of Latin-American percussion would impel you to play a lot more rhythmic stuff, to tie in with what’s already going on rhythmically. One thing I still can’t understand with a lot of these recordings is, how they even heard themselves, because if you’ve ever played with three or four drummers in a room, it’s kind of loud.
The stuff you’re recording there now, is it cumbia in the old style? How has it evolved up to the present day?
Yeah, old style. Nowadays Colombia is known as a salsa country, or at least for Cali, their version of it. People like [Cali giants] Grupo Niche are the big names. But there’s a roots cumbia resurgence, especially in Bogota at the moment. You have bands like Frente Cumbiero, and Systema Solar, who are reinventing cumbia, and keeping it strictly roots, either by sampling stuff, or replaying it, or finding the original guys to replay it, and adding beats and stuff.
I’m just about to embark on a collaboration, which is wholly funded by the British Council, with Mario Galeano, whose band is Frente Cumbiero. I’ve also been working a lot with Anibal Velasquez, who’s on the compilation. It’s hard to find people from that generation these days. Anival was young back then, so he’s only 72, 73 now, and he’s still in good nick.