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Colombian Culture: Music

Melodic and multi-rhythmic, Colombia’s musical genres evoke and integrate a multitude of traditions: indigenous, Spanish, African and North American. There was music in Colombia, of course, before the arrival of Spanish conquerors, and the haunting pan flute melodies of Andean cultures echoes in the more contemporary bambuco, also known as the “music in the interior.” Integrating European waltzes—which set it apart from the more purely indigenous music in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia—it is notable for its melancholy mood. Long popular, it peaked with the public in the 1920s and 1930s. Pasillo, guabina and torbellino are similar blends of folk and European music.


The Spanish brought not only their tunes, both ecclesiastical and secular, but also stringed instruments such as the guitar, violin, cello and bass. Through slavery, they also brought over an African population whose music added a strong element of rhythm.


Hence, Colombia’s music evolved in accordance with geography and demography. Much of Colombia’s musical genres originated on the Caribbean coast which was the main disembarkation point for imported African slaves. Cumbia, along with vallenato, is Colombia’s signature contribution to world music and is a variation of African Guinea’s own cumbe, from which this genre gets its name.


Heavy on percussion, cumbia originally consisted of a vocals and a polyrhythmic combination of drum and wooden stick (known as claves) beats. It is accompaniedby a style of dance purportedly associated with the iron shackles worn by the slaves themselves. Over time wind, keyboard and string instruments along with more Europeanized melodies were incorporated.


However, it was not until the 1940s when cumbia was legitimized by urban and middle-class Colombians. One cumbia song, the “Cumbia Cienaguera,” is known as Colombia’s unofficial national anthem. Notable cumbiastars include Los Teen Agers, Los Graduados and Los Corraleros de Majagual.


Vallenato also developed in Colombia’s Caribbean region, but in the valleys which gave the genre its name. A popular legend attributes its beginnings to a musician by the name of Francisco el Hombre who defeated Satan in a contest of musical skills. More probably, it is a derivation of cumbia which spread through the region by traveling, musically skilled farmers for whom music was both a sole source of entertainment and means of bringing news to other areas. Its key instruments guacharaca (a gourd rasped with a stick), caja (box) drum and accordion. Guitars, bass and other instruments have been added over time.


Another variation of cumbia is porro, which originated in such towns as Sucre and Córdoba. It blends the “big band” sound of military brass ensembles. Champeta, popular in Cartagena and elsewhere on the Atlantic coast, is noteworthy because it has remained close to its African roots, though it has been influenced by such other Caribbean music as reggae, mento and calypso. Salsa may have begun in Cuba, but starting in Cali, it became Colombian genre in its own right.


Currulao, which originated on Colombia’s Pacific coast, is also close to its African origins. This musical genre uses marimbas, bass drums and guasas, which are like maracas, but tubular.


Joropo is style of music popular along the Colombian-Venezuelan border. It is strong on harp and improvisational lyrics. Joropo blends folk, European and African influences.


North American rock, pop, funk, soul and rap have all had a tremendous impact during the last few decades. One of the most famous musicians to emerge is “Hips Don’t Lie” phenomenon Shakira. Another is Juanes, one of the most popular singer-songwriters in all of Latin America. Both these artists have won numerous Grammy awards. ChoQuibTown, a hip hop group from the Pacific Chocó, won a Latin Grammy in 2010.


Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Colombia: Shakira, Colombian Culture: Comedy, Colombian Culture: Art, Cumbia, Colombian Culture: An Introduction, Colombian Culture: Museums, Colombian Culture: Theater, Colombian Culture: Literature, Colombian Culture: Dance and Colombian Culture: Cinema.

By Ricardo Segreda
Growing up in New York, Rick Segreda used to cut out of high school in order to hang out at the Museum of Modern Art and catch foreign-language...
27 Sep 2011

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