In trying to understand an enigmatic country like Colombia, the most accessible aspect for me was its music. Composed by history and orchestrated by a blending of cultures I hope you enjoy this auditory trip to Cartagena de Indias and beyond.
We ought to start with the most Colombian music which is Cumbia. The Spanish came to the New World with their fandangos and flamenco. They created a port on the Caribbean coast, put cannons and forts all around it and called it Cartagena de Indias. It became the viceregal capital of South America. And with all the gold they stole from the Indians they bought slaves to work on the haciendas. Lots of slaves. For some cool footage of Cartagena and a history of cumbia in Spanish I recomment this video for a feel for the birthplace of cumbia.
It's believed cumbia gets its name from a Guinean musical form called cumbe. It evolved into a courtship dance with colorful costumes. The women would perform arm motions holding their large skirts [polleras], while the men had their own motions with a large handkerchief, hat or candle, as seen in the previous video.
Closely associated with cumbia is porro. Many consider this a form of cumbia. Others claim it has a different source, possibly a Yoruban form from a different part of Africa. Either way both have been entwined in the culture and frequently perfomed by the same artists. Porro can be considered the rural counterpart of cumbia. Whereas cumbia originated in Cartagena, porros took root in the adjoining savannah region. I was exposed in my visit to Sinelejo during the Viente d' Enero festival. The story of that trip however merits a separate post.
Before getting into some samples, it would be right to acknowledge the band leader who popularized both forms in the 40's and 50s, Lucho Bermudez Here you can see his band featured on the earliest programming of Colombian television It's a shame there isn't more of his work out there on YouTube.
For some traditional cumbia check out Pollera Colorado [Red Skirt]. This video has some nice stills of folkloric costumes. Sonora Dinamita is credited with a cumbia revival in the 60s and 70s and also popularizing cumbia in Mexico. Here's a good selection: La Suavecita, the tongue-in-cheek Capullo y Sorullo and...ah just watch them all!
Here's a more modern cumbia from the Cali salsa band Grupo Niche. A current Colombia artist who still draws on cumbia traditions is Juanes
Probably the most famous porro was Ay Cosita Linda!, composed by Pacho Galan, a contemporary of Lucho Bermudez. Porros is festival music. In La Sabana these festivals often host a poor man's answer to the flamboyant bull fights of the big cities, the correleja. Instead of a toreador in fancy tights, you have a host of drunken farmhands and hooligans in the ring. Then they turn the maddened bull loose. Again, a story for another post. But up in the stands is a military style band, heavy on the brass playing porros. The louder boozier and more out of key, the better. In this "roots" style, no band compares to Los Correleros de Majagual. Another of these feast celebrations is immortalized in Festival en Guarare. Also worthy of note is La Burrita [whose video is inappropriate in so many ways]and this porro whose title I can't remember
In the second and final part of the series we'll consider the vallenato of Santa Marta and the particular Colombian salsa that reigns on both coasts in Cali and Barranquilla.