#14 movement
Frederik Caselitz

A Soundtrack for Latin America

The genre cumbia is not as well-known around the world as salsa or reggaeton. Yet it is considered the more authentic music.

Latin America has always been associated with its high musical output. People listen and dance to merengue, salsa, and tango all over the world. This is also more recently the case for the much newer style reggaeton. Marketing by big record labels is one of the factors behind these global successes. In the shadow of all this commercially successful music, another genre, cumbia, has evolved into a soundtrack for the masses. With the exception of Brazil, every Latin American country has its own cumbia scene – with huge differences in style depending on the respective national circumstances. While dancing to cumbia is a national tradition in Columbia and Mexico, and even the president of the country joins in, in Argentina or Bolivia it is strongly associated with the poorer classes. Cumbia has recently been reinvented as electronic dance music and inspired a lot of global hype. Its association with the Latin American masses might be the root of its popularity, since it is perceived by many as the most authentic Latin American style of music.

The first accounts of cumbia date all the way back to the 19th century. On the east coast of Colombia, traditional dances were accompanied by a special type of music. In multicultural Colombia, African drums were combined with traditional indigenous instruments, resulting the explosive mix that is still the basis for cumbia music today. Its rhythm is similar to salsa music, but the main difference is Cumbia's variety of styles that have developed in the countries of Latin America over the course of the last century. Also unlike salsa, cumbia is linked to various countries and highly popular among the poor masses.

Not all cumbia is the same

Cumbia is a genre that has melded with local cultures and adapted itself to its various situations. From the 1950s on, cumbia was influenced by rock and roll from the United States and electric guitars often replaced more traditional instruments. Musicians like Colombian Lucho Bermudez made the genre extremely popular, resulting in the “golden age of cumbia.” Migrants from Colombia made the music extremely popular in Mexico, especially in the city of Monterrey.

While in the Andes cumbia is still viewed as the music of the poor and uneducated, in Mexico and Columbia it is treated as cultural heritage.

Local sound systems would blast cumbia records, though they played them more slowly so that the lyrics were easier to understand. In just the last two decades, cumbia has been combined with other subcultures such as reggae, rap, and punk. While in the Andes cumbia is still viewed as the music of the poor and uneducated, in Mexico and Columbia it is treated as cultural heritage. Accordingly it is not possible to talk about cumbia in the singular. There are 15 different types of cumbia in Mexico alone. In Peru for example its most common variety is called chicha, and mixes psychedelic rock with the harmonies typical of traditional Andean music.

The political message of cumbia

In popular culture, cumbia has always dealt with the typical topics of amor y desamor - being in love or not being loved. Its popularity has not gone unnoticed by presidents, who have seen cumbia as an opportunity to demonstrate their solidarity with the masses. The most prominent example has been the election campaigns of dictator Alberto Fujimori in Peru, where singers like Rossi War and Ruth Carina orchestrated a soundtrack for the repressive government.

This type of cumbia tells stories from the poor areas of Buenos Aires called the villas. Violence, drug trafficking, police brutality, and sexism are recurring topics…

At the same time, a part of cumbia culture has always been rooted in resistance to social injustice and oppressive governments. When Argentina was hit by the devastating financial crisis, cumbia villera became popular. This type of cumbia tells stories from the poor areas of Buenos Aires called the villas. Violence, drug trafficking, police brutality, and sexism are recurring topics of cumbia villera, closely resembling subject matters that can be found in gangsta rap in the United States or Europe. Singers of villera act like underdogs who have survived the hard life in the villas. For sociologist Maristella Svampa, villera's inherent sexism is rooted in the loss of power most men in the villas feel confronted with. Often their role as provider for the family is thrown into question when they are hit by unemployment. At the same time, the role of women is growing increasingly powerful since they are employed more often and play a more relevant role in political organizations and in everyday life. This is where we encounter the violent side of cumbia. In 2001 when a lot of lives were ruined by the economic collapse of Argentina, villera was the urban soundtrack of protest and revolt.

A new subculture

While the sexism and machismo of cumbia is often criticized, the genre also offers enough space for artists to question these stereotypes. Kumbia Queers is one of the most popular bands that plays “cumbia punk” and they break with the stereotype of the beautiful but silent girl that generally persists in cumbia music. In “Chica de Calendario”, the Queers sing as if they were car mechanics in love with a girl on a calendar.

“I lack a meter of height and a defined body, so that they call my music culture” (Amandititita)

Similarly, Mexican artist Amandititita likes to assume roles from everyday life when she sings her cumbia. She becomes a female bus driver in Mexico City or the housekeeper of a rich Mexican family. By telling everyday stories, Amandititita criticises the hypocrisy that exists in Mexican society. “They do not pay social security for me, but do charity events” Amandititita sings when taking on the persona of an underpaid maid.
Even though Mexico is a nation of Mestizos where only a very small percentage of the population is actually white, on TV most actors and singers are white and blonde. Amandititita sees this as a reason to protest. “I lack a meter of height and a defined body, so that they call my music culture,” the small, darkly tanned woman chants.

Global hype

Over the past decade, cumbia was reinvented as urban dance music and caused a global hype. Disc jockeys mixed the traditional cumbia with electronic baselines, modern synthesizers and often even with rap and a strong drum beat. The most renowned DJs like Toy Selectah from Mexico or Argentinian El Hijo de la Cumbia tour the world and local cumbia scenes have grown from Paris and Berlin to New York.

The global success of cumbia is often accredited to the image of cumbia as a more authentic Latin American music that gives voice to marginalized groups as well.

These DJs generally support a critical attitude and aim to highlight their countries’ problems. Famous Mexican producer Mexican Institute of Sound named his last record “Policitó”. Most lyrics on the CD deal with the victims of the drug war and the corruption Mexicans face today. The global success of cumbia is often accredited to the image of cumbia as a more authentic Latin American music that gives voice to marginalized groups as well.
For their newest project, Toy Selectah and Mexican Institute of Sound have teamed up as “Compass” and invited a total of 90 artists from all over the world to sing or rap over their modern reinterpretation of cumbia. The featured artists included international stars like Boy George, Toots and the Maytals, and Gogol Bordello. The cumbia hype is entering a new stage, turning the music into global pop culture and mixing it with influences from various genres. But this is one of the reasons the music has stayed relevant for such a long time – its ability to involve new styles and interpretations without losing its character.

More Information

More detailed interviews and articles on the mentioned groups can be found in the German publication ila:

Photo: “Mexican institute of sound” by Pascale Cholette
2011 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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