Various Artists, The Original Sound of Cumbia (The History of Colombian Cumbia & Porro As Told By The Phonograph 1948-79 compiled by Quantic)

Chris Nickson

By Chris Nickson

on 12.05.11 in Reviews

Somewhere in the last decade, cumbia reached out from Colombia and went global, providing powerhouse beats for the dancefloor (think Toy Selectah or El Hijo de la Cumba) and for rock bands (such as Chile’s Chico Trujillo). But 60 years ago, when it first appeared on disc, it was nothing more than a raw rhythm (and dance) that was only known around the country’s Caribbean coast, a sound that had originated with local Indians and black slaves. The story of how it grew over the next three decades is the tale of this exhaustive 55-track compilation.

An exhaustive compilation of how cumbia grew over three decades

Those first recordings show a music that was rough and ready, the Colombian equivalent of early Delta blues, still with the rural dirt on its feet, but full of passionate energy in performances from bands like Los Alegres del Valle. Their “Samaria” is pushed along by the accordion and the layers of polyrhythms, played with a fierceness that’s almost desperation. They know this is their big chance and they’re grabbing it with both hands. In their case, it worked; the band still plays and records. Celia Estremor strips the music down even further, doing away with the accordion, leaving just voice and percussion on “El Secuestro,” removing all the layers to leave the cumbia as naked as it must have been 100 years ago.

Just like the blues, cumbia slowly migrated to the big city — most particularly Bogota, where it was dressed up in any number of ways. The small makeshift ensemble was replaced by the trained big band, the dungarees by sharp suits and shiny shoes. Cumbia became more sophisticated and jazzed-up. New instruments were added — piano, horns and more. The new rhythm offered an excuse to go wild, as with Ruffo Garrido’s “El Pájaro Prieto,” with its wild, unbridled wild clarinet playing that would have had Benny Goodman cheering. As well as the nightclubs, cumbia became a favourite of the afterhours jam sessions. On “Descarga En Cumbia,” it’s turned into delightful, delirious piece that sounds as if a New Orleans brass band had lost its way and ended up in the Colombian capital, sitting in with local musicians over a one-chord jam. Cumbia was fresh, it was their own, and its possibilities were limitless. From its very humble beginnings cumbia quickly became the sound of Colombia. And yet, for all that, it never lost its rural popularity; way up in the Andes it remained a vital part of the culture, something the closing track, “El Niño Llora,” shows all too poignantly. It’s a majestic labour of love — and scholarship — charting the rise of the sound that rocked Colombia and now moves the world.