Cumbia music is a culturally rich musical tradition from Colombia. (Images via Instagram and Soundcloud)

Unheard Genres: Cumbia music

This week, we dive into Cumbia music as part of SK Pop's 'Unheard Genres' series.

Salsa, tango and mambo are familiar words to most. They refer to a signature dance, usually accompanied by an equally recognizable soundscape. Cumbia music is an equally fascinating yet relatively unexplored Latin-American folkloric tradition in Colombia.


As per famed musicologist Franco Fabri, a genre can most easily be defined as:

"A set of musical events (real or possible) whose course is governed by a definite set of socially accepted rules."

Thus, a shared set of conventions or 'style' defines a genre of music. Cumbia is fascinating in that respect because every country that has a version of this genre performs their spin on it.


The genre's origins are another interesting facet. It is claimed to have originated from indigenous Latin-American cultures and African immigrants who settled in the Southern American continent. The oldest reliable history of the genre chronicles its existence and importance during Colombia's independence struggle.

Origins and flavors aside, Cumbia is a fascinating genre. It results from a long and intense confluence of American-Indian, African, and to a lesser extent, Spanish cultures, which occurred during the Conquest.


Cumbia music: Hallmarks, origins, milestones, and gateways



While Cumbia music has a range of styles, it is known for having heavy percussion and a signature double beat. The percussion has traditionally been achieved via a maraca or drum, and a flute carries the melody.


The earliest recorded historical accounts of the genre originated from works about the Colombian War of Independence. Many accounts, primarily by Europeans, have described the traditional dances performed by the indigenous populace for courtship, custom and celebration. The origins and etymology of the genre is hotly debated.

Traditional cumbia music uses a variety of drums—including the tambor alegre and llamador (single-headed drums), and tambora (double-headed drum)—as well as a flute called a gaita, maracas, and a gauche, which is a tube filled with seeds.

It uses a rhythmic pattern called the clave, common in Afro-Caribbean musical styles—such as reggaeton and reggae—and is a triple-pulse or duple-pulse. It was also almost always instrumental and had no lyrics, only traditional cumbia dances as an accompaniment.


Over time, instruments like accordions, new drums, guitars, and horn instruments have become incorporated into the genre. Modern cumbia often uses the Latin alegre style with offbeat rhythms and improvisation. Lyrics and vocals have begun to feature in the music as well, in Spanish, African languages, and otherwise.


La Cumbia Soledeña, a distinguished traditional cumbia music group, has the honor of being the first cumbia group to have a recorded date of inception. It was founded on April 16, 1877.

Originating in and around the Bolivian department of Colombia, Cumbia music spread across the remainder of the Americas. Every region adapted the genre to their liking.

Mexico adapted it to the "big band" setup, while Peru added synthetic sounds and surf-style guitars. The first cumbia song professionally recorded was the Cumbia Cienaguera by Luis Carlos Meyer.


Initially frowned upon as working-class populist music, Cumbia eventually found popularity in every sector of society due to its infectious rhythm.

The musicilogist Guillermo Abadía Morales states:

"Cumbia explains the origin in the zambo conjugation of musical air by the fusion of the melancholy indigenous gaita flute or caña de millo, i.e., Tolo or Kuisí, of Kuna or Kogi ethnic groups, respectively, and the cheerful and impetuous resonance from the African drums. The ethnographic council has been symbolized in the different dancing roles that correspond to each sex."

Thus, through overt cultural attraction and a captivating dance to accompany it, the genre became Colombia's cultural pride.

The country has a number of cumbia festivals, such as:

  • Festival Nacional de la Cumbia "José Barros": celebrated yearly in El Banco, Magdalena. Declared a cultural heritage of the Nation by the Congress of Colombia in 2013.
  • Festival Nacional de la Cumbiamba: that is celebrated yearly in Cereté, Córdoba.
  • Sirenato de la Cumbia: celebrated yearly in Puerto Colombia, Atlántico.
  • Festival de Cumbia Autóctona del Caribe Colombiano: celebrated yearly in Barranquilla.
  • Festival de Bailadores de Cumbia: celebrated yearly in Barranquilla.


Cumbia music has a wide variety of subgenres such as Chicha, Cumbia rebajada, Cumbia sonidera and Cumbia norteña. Additionally, the artist's interpretation takes precedence over the song. Thus, the best way to find music to introduce oneself to the genre would be via a number of influential artists.

La Sonora Dinamita: Formed in the 1960s, this Colombian band became a pioneer in the genre's popularity. The ever-morphing group features female lead vocalists, including Vilma Díaz, who became known as La Diva de La Cumbia, and Mélida Yará.


Luis Carlos Meyer Castandet: Luis is credited with bringing cumbia to Mexico and making the genre popular with songs like La Historia and La Cumbia Cienaguera.


Los Ángeles Azules: This boundary-pushing Mexican cumbia group plays cumbia sonidera, a form of cumbia that incorporates synthesizers and electronic music styles. They have become a global phenomenon, with many of their songs, such as Nunca Es Suficiente, garnering over a billion views on YouTube.


Aniceto Molina Aguirre: The Colombian musician has had a career longer than four decades, with immortal songs such as La Cumbia Sampuesana to his name.


Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto: This folkloric group began playing cumbia-style music in the 1940s. They are considered one of the few bands who have preserved the customary roots of cumbia.


All-in-all, the more one delves into the traditions, history and subgenres of the rich legacy of cumbia music, the more one will find. The groovy melodies and foot-tapping percussions of cumbia are a treat for any musical ear.

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Edited by
Srijan Sen
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