How cumbia has shaped music across Latin America : Code Switch Whether you're from Ushuaia or East Los Angeles, you've likely heard cumbia blaring from a stereo. From our play friends at NPR's Alt.Latino, Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras talk about their common love of the musical backbone of Latin America.

Cumbia: The musical backbone of Latin America

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What's good, y'all? You are listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

Today, we are bringing you something to move and groove to to get your little two-step on. Well, I mean, I guess, actually, in this case, it's your four-step because this is a conversation about cumbia. And it comes from our play cousins at Alt.Latino, and it's all about the history behind this very danceable music genre. It's a dope conversation, but I don't want to give too much away, so I'm going to just let them take it from here.



JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: From NPR Music, this is Alt.Latino. I'm Jasmine Garsd.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: And I'm Felix Contreras.


CONTRERAS: That is the sound of my youth.

GARSD: No, that's the sound of my youth.

CONTRERAS: It's the sound of my youth.

GARSD: Well, it's a testament to how enduring cumbia music has been throughout Latin America - that that's the sound of your youth in California, and 70 years later...



CONTRERAS: I don't think so.

GARSD: ...It's the sound of my youth in Argentina.

CONTRERAS: You know, it's the sound of my parents' music. It's the sound - it's, like, 1960s cumbia from Mexico. That's what this is. This is "Cumbia Del Sol." And this particular song was, like, at every house party, every wedding. Any time there were more than three Chicanos that got together, this song came on.

GARSD: This is cumbia music. Cumbia is the musical backbone of Latin America. It doesn't matter where you go. I mean, in the U.S., everyone knows about salsa, merengue, maybe bachata. Forget about that.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

GARSD: Everywhere you go in Latin America, from Tierra del Fuego, the tip of Argentina - probably, you know, in the North Pole, some Mexicans (laughter).

CONTRERAS: Some Chicano snowmen in the North Pole.

GARSD: They dance cumbia.

CONTRERAS: And today we're going to talk about why that is - why cumbia is really the first pan-Latin Party music.

GARSD: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: And our guide today is Eduardo Diaz, who's the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center here in Washington, D.C. Eduardo, welcome.

EDUARDO DIAZ: Thank you very much for having me, Felix and Jasmine. Thank you so much.

CONTRERAS: And we want to talk a little bit more about the Latino Center and your connection to it. We're going to talk about that later. We want to hear more of this "Cumbia Del Sol," and then we're going to talk about where this music comes from and how it got to Mexico and Argentina and Sacramento and everywhere else.

GARSD: And how it endured through the generations.


CARMEN RIVERO Y SU CONJUNTO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Eduardo, that song in particular brings back a lot of memories, like I said, 'cause it's just - it was just everywhere when I was growing up.

DIAZ: Well, that song by Carmen Rivero comes out in 1964, and "Cumbia Del Sol" is one of four or five hits that became very pervasive - "La Cartagenera," "Cumbia De La Media Noche..."

CONTRERAS: Oh, I like that tune.

DIAZ: "La Pollera Colora," which is probably of equal, you know...

GARSD: The red skirt.

DIAZ: Yeah. And then, you know, "Que Te Vas De Ronda," which is kind of a - you know, a tribute to Agustin Lara, the great Mexican composer. So when she cuts that album in '64, it really starts the ball rolling and begins the process of the conquest of the cumbia in Latin America...

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

DIAZ: ...Wherever Mexicans are, for sure. But then, of course, you know, we know all about the way in which cumbia has proliferated all over the place.

GARSD: Well, so you're saying cumbia started in Mexico? 'Cause I've heard a lot of versions, including that it started in Colombia, in Peru.

DIAZ: No, the cumbia starts in Colombia. The cumbia is original music from (speaking Spanish), or the coastal regions of Colombia. And it begins with a small band that's composed of two flutes called gaitas. And so what you have is the tambora, which is a two-headed drum played with a stick, and you have the tambor alegre, the seguidor, maracas. That is the beginning of the cumbia. Then it becomes orchestrated, and we heard a perfect example of that at the introduction of the show, which is Carmen Rivero.

CONTRERAS: Let's go back a little bit and talk about the origins of it. When we were talking about this beforehand, you had something that really shocked me about the little two-step. Tell us about how that step originated.

DIAZ: The cumbia - its origination is African, and we know that the slaves were shackled. And so for them to be able to dance this music, their leg motion - the motion of their feet was limited by the shackles. So that's why you have, in the original cumbia, this sort of side-step with the one foot. And then the right foot, if you move the left foot first, catches up with it. But you don't move very far. That's why, when you're seeing the original cumbia, the men are barely moving their feet. It's a real short shuffle step. The reason it's a short shuffle step - and the same way with the women - is because they couldn't move any further. (Speaking Spanish) - they had the shackles on their feet.

CONTRERAS: I was able to find, thanks to the Smithsonian - Smithsonian Folkways records - we're going to hear some roots cumbia. This is from a group called Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto. They're from Colombia. This is a track called "Fuego De Cumbia."

DIAZ: Oh, my God, that's a great one.


LOS GAITEROS DE SAN JACINTO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: And what we're going to listen for is what Eduardo was talking about - the drums, the chanting and the gaitas - you can hear it all on this track, right?


LOS GAITEROS DE SAN JACINTO: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: Eduardo, cumbia eventually moved from Colombia all across Latin America - north and south - but my understanding is it had a really strong impact in Mexico. Is that right?

DIAZ: Cumbia in Mexico goes back to the 1940s. So that's where you start seeing sort of the more orchestrated form of cumbia. But it's - when it goes to Mexico, then it collides with what is there called musica tropical. So you have the collision, if you will, of cumbia with Cuban music - son montuno, (speaking Spanish), danzon. And then you have the introduction of horns, saxes, clarinets, trumpets. You have the introduction of the conga, the timbal and other forms of percussion that did not exist in the original cumbia.

CONTRERAS: And it all coincided with, like you said, 1940s - the Epoca de Oro from Mexico, with the film, the music. All of that stuff collided, like you said. And then in the '50s and the '60s, back in Colombia, there was a label - Jasmine, remember, when we were in Colombia, we went to the record label Discos Fuentes?


CONTRERAS: And we went to their original building and saw a lot of their original recording equipment. Discos Fuentes was the label in - for cumbia in Colombia in the '50s and the '60s. And we're going to play a track that I found. This is something called "Rito Esclavo," and it's by an artist by the name of Pedro Laza.


DIAZ: You know, what's interesting about this is he's still got the tambora. That's not a timbal.


DIAZ: That's a tambora.


DIAZ: Clarinet.


DIAZ: Then you have the horns.


DIAZ: Big band sound.


DIAZ: Yeah.


PEDRO LAZA Y SUS PLAYEROS: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: We're going to hear more from this great conversation. But first, we got to take a short break.

DEMBY: Gene - just Gene. CODE SWITCH. And we're back with Alt.Latino, talking about the history of cumbia. Cumbia comes from Colombia, and it's taken a journey all around the world.


GARSD: Earlier, we were talking about the development of cumbia in Mexico in the '40s and in the '50s.

CONTRERAS: From that era is basically our parents. We're more or less the same age, and that's our parents' era music. That's what they grew up listening to. That was their hip sound. That's what they were cool with. And then we get it down to the baby boomer generation, and it gets filtered down. And, you know, no one really did anything in the mass culture with cumbia until Los Lobos.

DIAZ: And Selena.

CONTRERAS: Selena later. But - and I brought in a track from Los Lobos so you can hear the way they do it, 'cause they've been incorporating cumbia into their concerts. You know, they're celebrating their 40th anniversary, so from the beginning - from when I first started seeing them. They do it on record just a little bit, and it was hard to find a recorded version of them doing cumbia, but I did find one from their album called "Good Morning Aztlan." This was called "Maria Christina."


LOS LOBOS: One, two, one, two, three.

(Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: You know, we've talked about this on the show - about how, for Chicanos in the Southwest during the '70s, the - to be more progressive was to listen to the - to Fania, to listen to salsa, to listen to Afro Caribbean. Conjunto and cumbia really wasn't...

GARSD: It was, like, your...

CONTRERAS: ...Part of the deal.

GARSD: ...Parents' music.

CONTRERAS: Exactly. It was kind of square. It was kind of hokey. These guys - they just reinvented it for us in a lot of ways. We all knew the music. I played "Cumbia Del Sol" in high - in - since high school I've been playing that song. And they reinvented cumbia. And they do it in a way that's a little bit of the tradition, but in their own stamp.

DIAZ: Right. There's a lot of - there's a very heavy bass in there.

GARSD: But there's almost like a ska bounce.

DIAZ: There is because, like, remember, reggae becomes popular - reggaeton later. Cumbia is such - stylistically, it is structured in a way that it is absorbed very easily. It is - it's a very malleable genre. And so it receives and gives at the same time. So it can receive reggae. It can receive reggaeton. It can receive, you know, musica tropical or guaracha easily. It can receive the Andean sound. So the pentatonic scale of, let's say, Andean music - no problem. Chicha comes up. Chicha is born.

GARSD: I'm glad you brought up chicha...

CONTRERAS: Speaking of chicha.

GARSD: ...Because I love chicha music. And I love the story about how chicha music is born. You know, with a lot of the oil companies...

DIAZ: Right.

GARSD: ...In Peru, and you had all these workers going in and basically, you know, towns were popping up...

DIAZ: In the '60s.

GARSD: ...In the '60s just because of these oil companies.

DIAZ: That's correct.

GARSD: And then you have these people kind of mingling...

DIAZ: In the Amazon, by the way.

GARSD: ...In the Amazon. So you have these people in the Amazons, in these towns, very working-class people mixing with Americans. And so it's kind of this style that merges cumbia with surf rock and psychedelia because it's also the '60s.

DIAZ: Right.

CONTRERAS: I can't imagine.

GARSD: What a trip. And you're in the Amazons.

DIAZ: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: It's a one of the - this is one of those musical stones that you uncover, and it's like, oh, my God. It's like, how - you would - you couldn't even make this up in fiction. But in fact, it exists. And I did bring in a chicha track. This is from that great label that we love in Spain, Vampisoul.


CONTRERAS: They do such a great job of documenting all kinds of different styles and genres. And they put out not just one, but two volumes of chicha. And this is a track called "Cumbia Para Un Viejito."

GARSD: "Cumbia For An Old Man."


GARSD: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: I played it for Eduardo and I.


DIAZ: Thank you.


CONTRERAS: So what you're hearing is that very definitive '60s-style guitar, almost tinny with a lot of reverb, you know, kind of like - kind of high sound before all the big crunchy guitars came in. And you're still hearing, Eduardo, that triplet with the lead on - this one (imitating percussion instrument). And the conga part is unbelievably simple but grooves like crazy.

DIAZ: (Imitating bass instrument).

CONTRERAS: It's, like, just two beats. But it's just...

GARSD: So just imagine listening to this in an oil company town in the Amazons in the '60s.

DIAZ: Right. But it's interesting to see the emergence of the electric lead and rhythm guitars, the organ, the synthesizers - everything becomes electric. And the percussive element almost becomes very rudimentary here, very rudimentary. But it's got a groove, like you say.


CONTRERAS: OK, so we're going to finish the show with a couple of things. The first thing we're going to do is something I heard this summer at the Latin Alternative Music Conference. We were sitting there talking to people, greeting people, and I heard a melody that was familiar, but then it turned into a cumbia. And for those of people who are familiar with pop music will understand. This is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, cumbia-sized (ph) by a guy named Fito Olivares.

DIAZ: Fito Olivares - wow.

CONTRERAS: This is "Thrift Shop."


MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS FEATURING FITO OLIVARES: (Singing) I'm going to pop some tags, only got $20 in my pocket...

CONTRERAS: It starts like the original.


CONTRERAS: But listen, it - there's a little transition that just kills. It just knocked me out the first time I heard it.


CONTRERAS: Isn't it - I love this.

DIAZ: That sax line gave it away.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. It's a perfect cumbia song - that little alto saxophone part.

DIAZ: It's got that sonidero baseline too - huge. It's very deep.

CONTRERAS: I like this.

GARSD: I love it.

CONTRERAS: Isn't it great?

GARSD: Me encanta, me encanta.


MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS FEATURING FITO OLIVARES: (Rapping) What you know about rocking a wolf on your noggin? What you knowing about wearing a fur fox skin? I'm digging, I'm digging. I'm searching right through that luggage. One man's trash - that's another man's come-up. It was 99 cents.

CONTRERAS: Another track that I want to play was to show how pervasive - how much of an influence cumbia is on all forms of music. This is from a 1978 album by the jazz bassist Charles Mingus, and the album's called "Cumbia And Jazz Fusion." And when you listen to the track, you're going to be able to hear horns replicating the gaitas and the traditional Colombian style. And then there's a transition where it becomes a jazz big band.


DIAZ: Wow. That's Charles Mingus?

CONTRERAS: This is Charles Mingus.

DIAZ: Wow. Wow.

CONTRERAS: You never heard this one?


CONTRERAS: It's 28 minutes long.

DIAZ: God.

GARSD: (Laughter) What?

CONTRERAS: No, 'cause it's just this long meditation on cumbia from a jazz perspective.

GARSD: It's beautiful.


CONTRERAS: So then they go into the big band swing thing...


CONTRERAS: ...Which is not so shocking because a lot of those musica tropical orchestras were huge like this - multiple trumpets, multiple saxes, piano.


DIAZ: Wow.

CONTRERAS: Like I said, this is a 28-minute song. We're not going to play the whole thing...

GARSD: I love it.

CONTRERAS: ...But I wanted to give you an idea of what it sounds like.

DIAZ: Amazing.

CONTRERAS: Charlie Mingus was way ahead of his time.

DIAZ: I did not know that. I do not know that song.


CONTRERAS: And to close out the show, we're going to play something that you brought in that I really, really loved. And it's called "Screwmbia." So tell us about it, Jasmine.

GARSD: I don't know. I discovered this just goofing around online. And basically, what he does is he chops and screws cumbia, and he makes it really slow and syrupy and thick. And I just think he's doing something very interesting and kind of fusing those hip-hop elements. This is Royal Highness, and this is "Screwmbia."


ROYAL HIGHNESS: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: You've given us so much history of cumbia. Are there any new artists that you're just thrilled by?



DIAZ: No, I'm really not. I'm not really thrilled. I mean, this is very interesting music. And it actually - it's slowed down in the way that's actually going backwards - you know what I mean? - in time.

GARSD: Right.

DIAZ: Because it's almost like a gaita. It's very slow. Like, we heard Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto. It's at that pace. I love it. I mean, it's - from a dance perspective, it goes back to the original cumbia step.


ROYAL HIGHNESS: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Eduardo, thank you so much for coming in and sharing your knowledge with us and listening to all these cumbia tracks. When we talked ahead of time, we did talk about doing it over beers. But it didn't work out this time, but maybe sometime in the future.


CONTRERAS: Because cumbia goes with beer, man.

GARSD: No, why not?

CONTRERAS: It just does.

GARSD: Why not?

CONTRERAS: Oh, why didn't we have it here? Because our boss is sitting across the glass here in the studio with us at NPR.

GARSD: Oh, she wouldn't have minded.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

DIAZ: I would violate NPR policies and protocols.

It's been my pleasure to be here. I love talking about music, especially cumbia.

CONTRERAS: Eduardo Diaz is the executive director of the Smithsonian Latino Center here in Washington, D.C. Again, thanks for coming.

DIAZ: Appreciate it. Pleasure to be here.

CONTRERAS: Remember, you can hear all of these songs in their entirety on our website at

GARSD: Don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter, where the conversation never ends, and tell us what cumbias you listen to - old, new, who's innovating, who are the classics for you - just let us know.

CONTRERAS: And don't forget to check out our stream 24/7, Alt.Latino Radio, at I'm Felix Contreras.

GARSD: And I'm Jasmine Garsd. This has been Alt.Latino.


ROYAL HIGHNESS: (Singing in Spanish).

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