by Julius Martinez
When my father left Colombia for the United States in the 1960s, he brought only a few possessions. Among them was a collection of well-worn LP records, mostly cumbia and vallenato music, by artists like Alfredo Gutierrez, Lisandro Meza, and others on the seminal Colombian label Discos Fuentes.
Soon after arriving in New York City, my father got a job at the World’s Fair, where he met my mother, herself a recent immigrant from Germany. Although they barely spoke the same language, they fell in love and married within a few months.
My sister and I were born of this somewhat unlikely union. Like many immigrants, my parents did everything they could to ensure that we assimilated smoothly. Growing up in Colorado, we spoke English at home, ate hot dogs, and bought our Toughskins jeans at Sears. But at our house, my father’s records provided the soundtrack for our childhood. While we were watching Sesame Street and laughing at our papi’s smooth dance moves, we were also absorbing the sounds of our heritage. Through cumbia, our Colombian roots found a way in.
Emerging from humble origins on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the 17th century, cumbia has proven to be an exceptional shape-shifter, traveling across class and geography to arrive not only in my family’s living room, but also nearly every country in South and Central America as well as Mexico.
In a 2013 essay, Norteño Borderlands Cumbia Circuitry, Yaqui-Chicana scholar Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez writes, “Cumbia came not from the elite ruling or middle class, but from the poor and marginalized Indigenous and black sectors.” Although there is some debate about the precise origin of cumbia, the music derives from African, Spanish, and indigenous Colombian roots.
According to Broyles-Gonzales, cumbia mostly traveled beyond Colombia by new recording technologies and radio, in an era that predated human mass migration. Almost every Latin American country has its own cumbia variant. In recent years, a Peruvian cumbia called “chicha” was popularized in Tucson via the band Chicha Dust, now called XIXA. Even Tejano superstar Selena was a cumbiambera.
My father’s arrival in New York City in the 1960s roughly coincided with cumbia’s first appearance in the U.S.-Mexico border region, where the music would evolve in diverse ways.
As Broyles-Gonzalez describes, “Within the U.S.-Mexico norteño borderlands, Cumbia has thrived and multiplied into Cumbia-rap, tecno Cumbia, Cumbia rock, Cumbia Tejana, and the waila Cumbia of the Tohono O’odham tribe of Arizona-Sonora, the Yaqui tribal Cumbia, not to mention Cumbia’s presence within various other tribal groups.”
With its sinuous, rasping rhythm, the sound of cumbia is unmistakable. “Even if you don’t know, you know,” says Tucson-based poet and DJ, Logan Phillips, aka DJ Dirtyverbs, who has been producing cumbia dance parties in Tucson since 2011.
Phillips was born and raised in Southern Arizona, 14 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of his early musical input came through a powerful radio antenna that he built in his bedroom, which pulled in stations from all over Mexico. He first encountered cumbia while studying in Queretaro, Mexico in 2003, where he heard it “blasting from seemingly every bus on the street.” A pirated CD compilation bought at the mercado was all it took to hook him, he says.
Phillips soon came to appreciate cumbia’s deep regional connections. “The more I dug for records, the more styles I encountered, more countries and subcultures. Cumbia became a way of understanding how the Latin American world fit together,” he says.
The components of cumbia, which combine indigenous melody (originally played on flutes) and Spanish lyrics with African rhythms and call-and-response song structure, are “very much a part of what has made Las Americas what they are,” Phillips says.
“Part of what a DJ does is cultural work,” Phillips says. He recently organized the 2018 El Tambó Fest, billed as the first-ever cumbia summit of the borderlands. The two-night event will showcase cumbia bands and DJs from Arizona, Texas, New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico, along with a panel discussion where artists will share histories and ideas about cumbia.
While honoring cumbia’s signature melodies and rhythms, the festival celebrates “all these ancestral rhythms being carried forward by young producers,” says Phillips. That means new, exciting expressions of the traditional, especially as more women and LGBTQ DJs have fought their way to the front of the national scene.
Wherever cumbia lands, it incorporates local elements. In the 1960s, for example, a radically slowed-down form of cumbia called rebajada emerged in Monterrey, Mexico. According to one version of the story, an overheated turntable transformed the normally upbeat cumbia into a darker, syrupy version of itself.
Monterrey is also where Adrian Rodriguez, band leader and accordionist for the Tijuana-based band La Diabla, first heard cumbia in the late 1990s. He was on a retreat with his brother and their church youth group when they encountered the Colombianos subculture, which borrows its style from 1980s Los Angeles gang culture—oversized t-shirts, plaid button-downs, and extremely baggy pants. Unique hairstyles, with ancient and modern elements, take the look to another level.
These Mexican kids were all listening to Colombian cumbia and vallenato, Rodriguez says, mostly engaging each other through music and dance, not violence.
Taken by what he saw and heard, Rodriguez and his brother brought the music back to Tijuana, where they already played in an alternative-rock band.
Since no cumbia scene existed, Rodriguez said, they had to get creative to develop an audience. So they’d play rock during the first half of their shows and then return to the stage wearing masks and play a cumbia set in disguise.
Today, the band still performs with masks. Their raw, stripped-down sound fuses the punk-rock DIY ethos of Tijuana and elements of Southern California gangsta rap with the instrumentation, scales, and song structure of the classical Colombian cumbia masters.
This mashup of styles, Rodriguez says, is emblematic of the band’s members, who come from San Diego and Tijuana. Their audiences also live on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The music”, Rodriguez says, “erases that border.”
Indeed, cumbia seems to pay no mind to international boundaries. The Tohono O’odham of Arizona and Sonora have been playing cumbia for generations, alongside traditional waila music and the popular conjunto.
The band Native Creed, which performs regularly on the Tohono O’odham Nation, plays an all instrumental cumbia, incorporating saxophones, keyboards, and electric guitar.
Band leader and percussionist Rich Lopez grew up listening to cumbia played by both O’odham and Mexican bands. He says that while Native Creed plays polka, mazurka, two-step, huapango, and other styles, cumbia is by far the most popular.
While Lopez has “seen it all” when it comes to dancing at their shows, a common element is the slow collective circle of dancers on the floor.
This is how cumbia is typically danced throughout Mexico and the United States, writes Broyles-Gonzalez. “The circle is foremost…There is an immense power of dance created by all of those bodies circling counterclockwise together around a common axis and to a common Cumbia music.”
Broyles-Gonzalez also notes that unlike other norteño dance forms, cumbia offers a kind of freedom because no partner is required. “Groups of women are traditionally seen getting up and dancing together. More recently among borderlands working-class youth, Cumbia sometimes involves young men dancing in pairs (a huge innovation) in all-male circles,” she writes.
Although my sister and I were sometimes embarrassed by my dad’s dancing, it left no doubt that he felt the music deeply. We might have been too shy to join in when he grabbed my mom for a spin around the kitchen, but we liked it too. It was part of who we were.
Like my family’s story, the story of cumbia is one of migration and adaptation. Although my dad is no longer with us, I’m sure he would appreciate the evolution of the music he loved so much, and I think he would be proud to see what it has become.
With an inherited faith in the American dream, Julius Martinez lives and writes in Arizona. When he’s not exploring wild places, he’s probably eating tacos and trying to learn smooth cumbia dance moves.
- Broyles-Gonzalez, Yolanda. “Norteño Borderlands Cumbia Circuitry: Selena Quintanilla and Celso Piña.” In The Shade of the Saguaro/La sombra del saguaro. Edited by Gaetano Prampolini and Annamaria Pinazzi. Florence: Firenze University Press, 2013.