A cumbia muscian playing the Millo flute (source)

Cumbia has its origins in Africa.

During the 17th and 18th century African slave populations of Colombia’s Caribbean coastal towns lived, worked and died alongside the indigenous Amerindian’s, a population similarity exploited by the colonial powers of Europe.

Out of this society cumbia emerged as social and courtship dance, taking its name from the Guinean dance “cumbè”. On certain holidays and special occasions these people would gather to dance cumbia, accompanied by African drumming and singing. The basis of all cumbia is this percussion, to which native Amerindian flutes and shakers were added as the music developed.

This fusion of African and Indian elements created gaiteromusic, which is the traditional folkloric form of cumbia whose sounds can still be heard today in places like the town of San Basilico de Palenque, a walled city founded by escaped slaves as a refugee from the colonial forces. The name comes from the large native Amerindian flute, the gaita. More information & pictures (left) about this form of cumbia including sound samples can be found here, and a 30 second sample can be found in the second track on the Sounds page.

While the cumbia dance developed and stayed very much true to its roots, reflecting the deep cultural basis from which it came, the music, born of a hybrid of two cultures, continued (and continues) to be influenced by outside forces. According to legend, a German shipwreck that washed up onshore is the origins of the accordion sounds which are emblematic of folkloric cumbia and vallenato (another form of popular Colombian folk music).

Spanish and European influences permeated cumbia, blending guitar, lute and orchestral arrangements. In the 1920’s Colombian dance bands began playing cumbia and adding horns, brass and other orchestra instruments. From the small roots of one drum, a shaker and a flute, cumbia bands became veritable ensembles and in the 1930’s when Colombian bandleaders toured New York, the bands had become so large that they could not afford to send all their musicians and were forced to use Puerto Rican groups to perform. (picture source)

This song is a very famous and well known cumbia in the big band style called "La Pollera Colora". You can hear the drums and shakers laying down the rhythm, then the European brass and reed instruments come over the top. The pictures show traditional folkloric dress and dancers. This song is a virtual cultural institution in Colombia.

While cumbia spread across the boarders to Latin America and beyond, at the same time it continued to incorporate more modern instruments including synthesizers and programmed beats. In its travels across time and space cumbia has also spawned numerous genes like cumbia villera. This genre and Pervucian Chicha music are discussed in the Case Studies section of this site.

Interestingly, outside of Colombia, cumbia music has been traditionally associated with the lower/working classes of society, especially in Argentina, where it has merged with the countries class and political issues such as race, poverty, and immigration.

Zizek Urban Cumbia club (source)

In the 21st century with communications technologies increasing the speed of human cultural interaction, the mutations and permeations of cumbia, already adept at spreading its infectious beat, have only increased and its cultural presence has been felt in mainstream publications, especially in the USA with its large Hispanic population. Cumbia’s presence on the internet and blogosphere has exploded since 2005 and it has been one of the main genre’s sampled with boarder crossing DJ’s in the global club music scene.