Cumbia: A Latin Genre Percolating Once More

Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.There’s a scene in The Future is Unwritten, the documentary on former Clash frontman Joe Strummer, where he holds up a cassette tape with the name “Andrés Landero” scrawled across it. He kisses it and proclaims Landero “The King.” A generation of Colombians would agree. The accordionist took cumbia, an indigenous, centuries-old folk form, and brought it to the attention of the world (and the UK punk legend), touring through Mexico and Europe in the 70s and 80s. You can hear Landero on the recently released compilation, The Original Sound of Cumbia: The History of Colombian Cumbia & Porro as told by the phonograph 1948-1979, where even among 55 musical tracks, his sound is clarion. Playful, dissonant, spry and raw, in just under three minutes Andrés Landero weaves around the battery of hand percussion to concoct a hypnotic track.

“When I first heard cumbia, it seemed so familiar and close to the music I was already listening to: kompa from Haiti, ska from Jamaica, the gypsy bands of Eastern Europe,” says British-born DJ/ producer Will Holland, who under the moniker of Quantic labored over Original Sound of Cumbia (released December 5) compilation for well over four years, both in London and from his new homebase in Cali, Colombia. “Cumbia seemed to encompass all of this as well as have its own unique qualities.”

"Cumbia hasn’t suddenly become hip; cumbia was always hip."

A musical mutant form that dates back to courting rituals at the end of the seventeenth century, cumbia combines West African drums and ritual with native instrumentation, and it remained a vital music not just in its native Colombia but in neighboring countries as well. Its propulsive double beat (accentuated by scraped and shaken hand percussion) has become ubiquitous through most of Central America, stretching down through Argentina and Chile. Master musicians like Landero, Catalino Parra, and Chico Cervantes reinvigorated the form in the middle of the 20th century, and cumbia has remained pliant well into the 21st century.

Cumbia turns up often in the adventurous DJ sets of world-renown DJs like Brooklyn’s DJ/rupture and Scotland’s Optimo, in both its rustic and sleeker, more modern incarnation. “I was struck at first by the rhythm of cumbia, which is irresistible, hypnotic and relentless,” writes Optimo’s JD Twitch via email. “It reminded me of a lot of techno rhythms but played live on completely different instrumentation.” San Francisco’s Bersa Discos constantly presses up new cumbia tracks from the likes of Brooklyn’s Uproot Andy, Sonido del Principe in the Netherlands, and Mexico’s Toy Selectah. And there was also an astounding collaboration between Colombia’s Frente Cumbiero and dub master Mad Professor, entitled Frente Cumbiero Meets Mad Professor, released earlier this year, exploring the spaced-out aspect of the cumbia sound.

And JD Twitch released two volumes of edits of old cumbia tracks on the Japanese Let’s Get Lost label in the past year, making dancefloor-friendly tracks out of drum-drunk, leftfield Latin versions of “Stayin’ Alive” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” If such standard wedding fare seems overplayed, these versions will make you feel otherwise. “My taste in cumbia skewed towards the more freaked out, psychedelic, odd cover versions,” says Twitch. “But a lot of the older, original cumbia recordings are currently blowing me away. And actually, Quantic’s recent compilation has been a revelation.”

Truth. The vintage, percolating, rough-cut tunes compiled by Quantic on his exhaustive cumbia overview thrills, disorients, and invigorates. At nearly three-hours’ runtime, there’s simply too many highlights to unpack here, but songs like “Tracionera” by Banda 2da de Laguneta Córdoba and “Descarga en Cumbia” by Banda Bajera de San Pelayo sound like a drunken Salvation Army bands stumbling through your living room: raucous, clamorous, and glorious all at once. And is that a parrot squawking on Jaime Simanca y sus Fandangueros’ “Cumbia Candela?”

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With the renewed interest in cumbia from its northern neighbors, none of these devotees feel the music will fade as the next trend surfaces. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s certainly not a passing fad,” says Twitch. “I think cumbia is a music I’ll never tire off and will always continue to explore as it is endlessly rewarding.” Holland feels similarly: “Cumbia hasn’t suddenly become hip; cumbia was always hip.” He is also reluctant to be seen as representative of the music: “It’s like sampling James Brown and saying you're an expert in funk. No offense to those DJs you mentioned -- and that’s with myself included -- but we’re relatively late to the party. The true innovators: Landero, Parra, Cervantes, these guys are the real deal. The rest of us are just filtering this music and getting it heard.”

Will 'Quantic' Holland's compilation of cumbia, Original Sound of Cumbia, is out now. Listen to the entire album at Soundway.