Today, cumbia is one of the most popular and widespread genres in Latin America. Its roots are in Colombia, but cumbia is a blend of music and cultural traditions from indigenous Colombians, Africans, and Europeans, particularly the Spanish. It first began near the ports and coastal settlements where Spanish traders and descendents of African slaves settled.
Traditionally, the music had a basic 2/4 or 2/2 rhythm and drums and other percussion borrowed from African traditions. It incorporated native Colombian flutes playing the melody, plus costumes and melodic variations from European traditions. The three drums common to traditional cumbia are: tambora (for deep bass rhythms), tambor alegre or mid-drum (used for backup rhythm), and lamador (also providing backbeat).
Three flutes are used in traditional cumbia. The melody is played on the five-hole gaita hembra, or female flute. A gaita macho, or male flute, with one hole provides rhythmic and harmonic support. These two gaitas have a mouthpiece of hardened beeswax and use a turkey feather to blow air through them. The third flute, the flauta de millo, is a four- to six-hole flute made of millo cane that helps carry the melody. Classical cumbia was completely instrumental and never accompanied by singing.
The genre’s dance movements also have roots in various cultures. The costumes come from Spanish traditions. Women wear long, colorful skirts, flowered headdresses, earrings, and lots of makeup. Men wear white shirts and pants, and don red bandannas and a sombrero. Movements borrow elements of both European and African traditions. The men dance with one hand behind their back, putting on and taking off their hats. The red bandanna is either worn around the neck or waved. Women playfully wave their skirts and are lured toward the men and then away, as if showing disinterest.
As Colombia’s vibrant music industry grew cumbia evolved and blended with other styles, both traditional and commercial. During the ’60s and ’70s, “the golden age of cumbia,” the music became popular around the world. Colombian musicians like Pacho Galán and Lucho Bermúdez created a “refined” cumbia.
Latin American countries adopted its forms and rhythms, blended it with their traditional genres and created variations: cumbia Peruanan, cumbia Argentin, cumbia Chilena, cumbia Mexicana, technocumbia, and many others. The music is played today on a wider range of instruments including conga, güira, claves, timbales, accordion, clarinet, horns, guitar, and more.