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The Cumbia originated in Colombia's Caribbean coastal region, from the musical and cultural fusion of Native Colombians, slaves brought from Africa, and the Spanish during colonial times in the old country of Pocabuy, which is located in Colombia's Momposina Depression.
Cumbia began as a courtship dance practiced among the African population, which was later mixed with European instruments and musical characteristics. Cumbia is very popular in the Andean region and the Southern Cone, and it's still more popular than the salsa in many parts of these regions.
It is mainly asserted that cumbia's basic beat evolved from Guinean cumbé music. However, this basic beat can be found in music of Yoruba (in the rhythm associated with the god Obatala), and in other musical traditions across West Africa. Cumbia started in the Caribbean coast of South America, in what is now the northern coast of Colombia, mainly in or around the Momposina Depression during the period of Spanish colonization. Spain used its ports to import African slaves, who tried to preserve their musical traditions and also turned the drumming and dances into a courtship ritual. Cumbia was mainly performed with just drums and claves.
The slaves were later influenced by the sounds of New World instruments from the Kogui and Kuna tribes, who lived between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Montes de María in Colombia. Millo flutes, Gaita flutes, and the guacharaca (an instrument similar to the güiro) were instruments borrowed from these New World tribes. The interaction between Africans and Natives of the New World under the Spanish caste system created a mixture from which the gaitero (cumbia interpreter) appeared, with a defined identity by the 1800s. (These gaiteros are not the same as the Venezuelan Zulian gaiteros.) The European guitars were added later through Spanish influence. According to legend, the accordion was added after a German cargo ship carrying the instruments sank as a of accordions washed ashore on the northwest coast of Colombia. However, it's more likely that German immigrants brought the instrument to Barranquilla in the 19th century, and it was later adopted by the local population.
In Panama, the processes that shaped the culture and idiosyncrasies of the Colombian Caribbean through the three aspects (Hispanic, black and Indian) from the Spanish colonial period until today, also occurred in the isthmus. Research in the field talks about their appearance in the Colonial era. In the evenings, Creole families would gather to recite poetry and perform music typical of Spain and other parts of Europe. Other nights, they would bring their slaves to play their traditional drums and dances. Among the favorite African dances was El Punto. It consisted of intrinsic and abdominal movements and an African woman dancing alone. Another dance was the Cumbia. For this one, the couples advanced to the center of the room, both men and women, and gradually formed a circle of couples. The dance step of the man was a kind of leap backwards as the woman slid forward carrying a lighted candle in her hand holding a colored handkerchief.
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The slave courtship rite, which featured dance prominently, was traditionally performed with music played by pairs of men and women and with male and female dancers. Women playfully waved their long skirts while holding a candle, and men danced behind the women with one hand behind their back and the other hand either holding a hat, putting it on, or taking it off. Male dancers also carried a red handkerchief which they either wrapped around their necks, waved in circles in the air, or held out for the women to hold. Until the mid-20th century, Cumbia was considered to be an inappropriate dance performed primarily by the lower social classes.
The basic rhythm structure is 2/4. Due to its origins, both African and New World Native influences can be felt in Cumbia.
In Colombia, Cumbia is played with a rhythm structure of 2/4 and 2/2.
In Mexico, it is played with a rhythm structure of 2/2.
In Panama, it is played with a rhythm structure of 2/4 and 6/8.
Traditional instruments used in Cumbia:
The tambora is a bass drum, played in the very first Cumbia rhythms before the accordion entered the Cumbia scene. It is rarely seen today as most of the percussion instruments of traditional Cumbia have been replaced by the more versatile conga, güira, claves, and timbales, etc. Now, Colombian and Panamanian tamboras are generally only seen at folkloric presentations.
During the mid-20th century, Colombian musicians such as Pacho Galán and Lucho Bermúdez created a more refined form of Cumbia that became very popular throughout Colombia and the rest of Latin America. This period is known as "The Golden Age of Cumbia".
Due to the diversity of Latin America, Colombian Cumbia has undergone major changes as it mixed with the regional music styles of several countries (especially in Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru). There are several distinct variations of the music:
Peruvian cumbia, particularly from 1960s to mid-1990s, is generally known as "Chicha", although this definition is quite problematic as both Peruvian cumbia and Chicha currently co-exist and influence each other (good examples include Agua Marina's popular cover of Los Eco's "Paloma Ajena" and Grupo Nectar's cover of Guinda's "Cerveza, Ron y Guinda"). Peruvian cumbia started in the 1960s with groups such as Los Destellos, and later with Juaneco Y Su Combo, Los Mirlos, Los Shapis, Cuarteto Continental, Los Diablos Rojos, Pintura Roja, Chacalon y la Nueva Crema and Grupo Nectar. Some musical groups that play Peruvian cumbia today are: Agua Marina, Armonia 10, Sociedad Privada, Hermanos Yaipen, C. de Guadalupe, Marisol, Corazon Serrano and Grupo 5. These groups would be classified as Cumbia but often take songs and techniques from Chicha and Huayno (Andean Music) in their stylings or as songs (see Armonia 10's "Quise Morir"). Grupo Fantasma was a Peruvian-Mexican cumbia group. Andean Cumbia, is a style that combines Andean music and cumbia. This style has even become popular in Mexico, as some groups like Grupo Saya claim to be Cumbia andina mexicana, Mexican Andean Cumbia.
In Argentina, due to its identity crisis, there is a social divide that is exemplified by the cumbia villera phenomenon that represents and resonates with the poor and marginalized dwellers of villas miseria, (shanty towns, and slums). Pablo Lescano, ex-member of Amar Azul and founder of Flor Piedra and Damas Gratis is known to be the creator of the cumbia villera "sound". However, a lighter form of cumbia enjoyed widespread popularity in Argentina during the 1990s (see Argentine cumbia). Antonio Rios (ex-Grupo Sombras, ex-Malagata) is a good representative of the Argentinian cumbia from the 1990s. The emergence of cumbia as a massively popular form of music in Argentina came perhaps with the release of Tarjetita de Invitacion by Adrian y Los Dados Negros (from Jujuy, northern Argentina) in 1988 which was certified platinum, a first back then for a cumbia act.
Nowadays, Cumbia is gaining new attention as the result of an emergence of acts formed by younger musicians usually labelled as "La Nueva Cumbia Chilena" (The new Chilean Cumbia), including bands such as Chico Trujillo, Banda Conmocion, Juana Fe, Sonora Barón, Sonora de Llegar, Chorizo Salvaje, Sonora Tomo como Rey, Villa Cariño, Sepamoya, Guachupe among others. These new bands offer some of the classic tones and sounds of Chilean cumbia blended with Rock or other folk Latin American styles. La Noche and Americo are also very popular acts, although they perform a more traditional style of Chilean cumbia, to some extent related to the style that dominated during the 90s. Actually, Américo's repertoire mostly consists of north Peruvian cumbia songs, popular all over Perú long before Americo sang them. He does this legally and all parts are aware of this and agree to it.
The Chilean cumbia style is called "sound" and continues to be the most popular cumbia style in the northern part of the country (from XV region of Arica and Parinacota to V Region of Valparaíso and some regions of Southern Chile). Its better-known exponents are: Amerika'n Sound, Alegria, Amanecer and Pazkual y su Alegria, although into the late 90s and early 2000s there were dozens of groups that died with the style's crisis in mid-2005.
A resilient cumbia style from the early 1990s is Chilean 'technocumbia', sometimes known as "Sound". It is a style partially based on the Peruvian, Bolivian and Mexican cumbia with some Andean styles, although it has his own identity based on a faster beat and different arrangements.
"Chanchona" is a neoligism to describe a musical band that follows a cumbia rhythm and uses instruments such as the accordion, electric bass, conga, güira, and the occasional keyboard. This genre is popularized by artists such as La Chanchona de Tito Mira and La Chanchona de Arcadio. Chanchona sometimes also features a marimba, made famous in the genre by Fidel Funes.
Digital Cumbia or "nu-cumbia" refers to a global movement of electronic music producers such as Toy Selectah, Copia Doble Systema, Frikstailers, Cumbia Dub Club (CDC), Bomba Estereo, and El Hijo de la Cumbia who mix Cumbia traditional rhythms and samples with electronic music styles. The style varies greatly, incorporating influences from genres such as Dancehall, Hip-Hop, Moombahton and Electronica. Notable labels include Generation Bass, ZZK Records, Mad Decent, Terror Negro Records, Bersa Discos and UrbanWorld Records.