All Things Cumbia

The raw, soulful, ubiquitous sound of cumbia is one that we Angelenos should all be familiar with. Born in the barrios of Colombia in the 1950s, the origins of the cumbia can be traced back even further to the 17th century colonial slave trade from West Africa. The word cumbé in Guinean refers to a specific rhythm and/or a communal, ritual courtship dance. This hybrid style of music and dance is a true mix of African polyrhythms, indigenous gaitas or long flutes, and Spanish lyrics.

Although cumbia spread like wildfire throughout Colombia in the 1950-60s, it passed out of favor by the 1970s, due to various social and economic factors. However, by this time, the seeds had already been sown in neighboring countries like Panama, Venezuela, Cuba, and Peru, traveling as far south as Argentina and Chile, while making its way up north to Mexico.

My guest for this week’s show is a good friend and KPFK’s Global Village radio producer and host, Betto Arcos, who has curated the upcoming Los Angeles Cumbia Festival, which is set to take place next Saturday, February 28. He stops by Rhythm Planet to share his expertise about this vibrant, sensual Latin style of music and dance and to talk about the festival.

Today, cumbia is the most popular dance style throughout all of the Americas, continually evolving as a rich blend of different cultural and musical influences. Handpicked for the LA Cumbia Festival by Betto, this new generation of local, homegrown artists showcases the broad range of cumbia’s uniquely urban sound, from the more traditional sounds of Cartagena, Colombia, to Peruvian chicha (named for the corn-based liquor), a musical style associated with ayahuasca healing rituals that developed in the Amazon that draws heavily from psychedelic rock and the surf guitar sounds of Southern California.

Compared to the music and dance of salsa, I always think of the analogy of Motown to Memphis Soul: salsa, like Motown, sounds produced and more technical; while the Memphis Soul of Al Green or Anne Peebles tends to be more raw, sexy, and soulful.

Featured Artists of the LA Cumbia Festival include:

Eduardo Martinez hails from Cartagena, Colombia, where he learned the traditional cumbia rhythms as a young boy. He has since been working with top groups such as singers Totó la Momposina, Petrona Martinez, and Chelito de Castro. Currently a Master Artist of the Alliance for the California Traditional Arts, Martinez will root us in the original cumbia music form, pulling from the African, Spanish, and indigenous influences.

La Chamba is colloquial Spanish for ‘work’—a name this band touts as a proud expression of its LA working class roots.’ Forged through a shared love for Peruvian chicha music with its deep Amazonian groove and psychedelic feel, along with its personal and social messages, La Chamba recalls Peru’s musical golden age of the 1960–70s. La Chamba will be joined onstage by the legendary chicha guitarist, José Luis Carballo.

Viento Callejero means ‘a street breeze.’ This popular, LA-based indie cumbia outfit reinvents the classic cumbia standards of the legendary Colombian folkloric music composer and arranger, Lucho Bermúdez. By combining cumbia’s rhythmic and melodic pulses with elements of merengue, reggae, dancehall, funk, and rock, this trio create their own fresh new, rootsy, urban sound that will surely get you in the groove!

Buyepongo literally translates to mean ‘to cause a ruckus,’ which is exactly what these guys do. With the guaracha and drum at the core of their colorful, vibrant sound, Buyepongo takes its cues from the traditional roots music of Colombia, Haiti, Belize, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, fusing together merengue, punta, and cumbia with the sounds of our own local LA music culture: undeground hip hop, reggae, jazz, and funk.

The Los Angeles Cumbia Festival is part of the inaugural Aratani World Series of wonderful concerts presented as a co-production of the World Festival of Sacred Music and the Japanese American Community Cultural Center (JACCC). The celebration kicks off at 4 PM live DJs and food trucks in the JACCC Plaza, as well as a pre-performance conversation about cumbia with Betto Arcos himself. For tickets and further details about next Saturday’s LA Cumbia Festival, please click here.

Rhythm Planet Playlist: 02/20/15

  1. Eduardo Martinez y su Palo Cuero / “Cumbia – Puya Nega” / Eduardo Martinez y su Palo Cuero / Independent
  2. La Chamba / “Araña” / Araña EP / Independent
  3. Viento Callejero (feat. Hector Guerra) / “Arroz con Coco” / Viento Callejero/ Independent
  4. Buyepongo / “Maestros” / Maestros Cumbia House Mix / Independent





Tom Schnabel