The Shape of Cumbia to Come

Neo Macondoism or Colombian Avant Garde?

You probably already heard of Lido Pimienta. Her 2020 album Miss Colombia received praise from critics in North America and Europe. On the one hand, her image is indeed quite eye-catching, flamboyant, a bit over-the-top, and borderline kitsch. The music balances between synth-cumbia à la Bomba Stereo with “tropical” musical elements such as gaitas and tamboras,[1] and art pop à la Björk, with a grandiloquent production crafted in detail, lush and refined, full of dynamic range and complex textures. On the other hand, the lyrics highlight the political problematics of a country that lives in contradiction with the imaginaries evoked by the festive rhythms of the Caribbean Coast, which, in contrast to the music, provides a gloomy and melancholic tone. In doing so, she places an imaginary of Cumbia as sophisticated Tropicalia for the Global North that signals, not the start but rather the culmination of a lengthy process of exploration and reinterpretation of cumbia and Caribbean music that has been taking place in Colombia for the past 30 years.

The notoriety that Cumbia attained in the last years begs the question: Is this current trend a form of cultural appropriation, exploitation and exoticism, a new form of “Macondoism” i.e., the romantization and glorification of Caribbean culture? Or is this a completely new proposal, the ultimate utopic form of post and trans modernism that blurs the lines between pop and high culture, kitsch, and good taste, the global north and the south, the global and the local. Is this the new shape of Cumbia to come? And if so, where does it actually come from?

Macondoismo: Caribbean as Colombian Identity

Macondoism denotes the idealized imaginary of Latin America that was imposed to writers and intellectuals of the region by the markets of the Global North, a sort of literary litany that satisfies the demands for exotism and folklorism. Its name derives from Macondo, the fictional village in the Caribbean region where Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Cien Años de Soledad (1967) takes place. Macondismo standardizes the image of Latin America as a place of violent innocence, destined to the unavoidable fate of underdevelopment, civil war, and tropical mysticism.

At around the time of the successful publication of Cien Años, Vallenato established in the Colombian imaginary as the music of the Caribbean. One of Vallenato’s main features comes from the Spanish Juglar tradition of storytelling and improvised poetry, thus its association with literature is quite natural.

García Márquez, as a reporting journalist of the first editions of the Festival Vallenato in the 60s, was one of the figures that helped construct the myth of Vallenato as the most representative genre of Caribbean music in Colombia. García Márquez describes Cien años desoledad as a “450-page vallenato”. Ana María Ochoa suggests that the discourse of vallenato is the extension of the discourse of macondoism to the musical realm, in that it reinforces the idea of Colombia as a unified culture of Caribbean mysticism.[2]

The growing acceptance and popularity of vallenato culminated with the appearance of Carlos Vives, who presented to the world the wonders or Caribbean Colombia by watering it down with pop production and romantic lyrics. The constructed narrative tells how in the 1990s Carlos Vives, a “white” (i.e., high-class) singer and actor from the Caribbean coast, made vallenato popular by mixing it with rock and pop and made it accessible to the Bogotanos.

This is portrayed as an unprecedented achievement, given that the upper class of cold hearted Andinean bogotanos was more than allergic to tropical sounds, regarding them as rural, low class, cheap and unsophisticated. Although the success of Vives could be seen as unexpected and even revolutionary, it does not represent the triumph of a subculture, but quite the opposite, it is the success of the rebranding of a folk music by the recording industry. This is what Janet L. Sturman calls tecno macondoism[3]: Vallenato reinvented itself from a rural music to a sophisticated genre through hi-fi technologies and over-production in the recording studio, thus conquering the whole country gaining international visibility. Carolina Santamaría[4] accurately points out that the emergence of Vives could be framed under the ideologies of “World” music that were in vogue in the 1980s and 1990s.

Others have noted that the acceptance of vallenato and other Caribbean musics by the upper classes of the Andinean region also corresponded to an ideological shift in the imaginary Colombian identity. Under the second to last Colombian constitution of 1886, the centralist government controlled the rest of the country’s diverse regions under the pretext of mestizaje: the idea of Colombia as a nation without racial segregation, unified tradition of Spanish Catholicism and the utopia of a mixed-race homogeneity. Conversely the more progressist constitution of 1991, understands Colombia as “pluriethnical and multicultural” — a place where the diversity of indigenous, Afro-Colombian and rural cultures was essential for the construction of Colombian identity.  As music of the periphery, Vives’s vallenato was able to conquer the rest of Colombia supported by the dogma of multiculturalism, rather than of meztisaje. Accordingly, the increasing interest in cumbia as a purer form of Caribbean culture can also be seen as a consequence of this ideological shift[5].

What is Cumbia then?

Cumbia[6] is a musical genre from the Caribbean savannah of Colombian Atlantic coast that seems to have been a product of the colonial period (18th century) whereas vallenato is a more recent genre that appeared in early Republic (19th century). Since the first literary references to cumbia, the genre has evolved into different subgenres and instrumentations. Juan Sebastián Ochoa recognizes four main genres of cumbia; cumbia de gaita, cumbia de millo, cumbia de acordeón and cumbia de salón[7]. Most of these forms of Cumbia have certain mutual musical characteristics: moderate tempo, binary meter and subdivision and syncopated accents.

The cumbia de millo, often regarded as the primal cumbia, includes in its traditional instrumentation different drums and percussion (tambora, alegre, llamador, guacharaca or maracón) of African descent, while the wind instruments — flauta demillo and later, gaitas — come from the indigenous tribes of the Sierra Nevada, the Koguis.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the so-called cumbia de salon developed under figures such as Lucho Bermúdez and Pacho Galán. Taking the Big Band format of Swing Jazz as an example, the clarinet takes over the flauta de millo and the gaitasas main protagonist.

Around the same time, Andrés Landero introduced accordion to the instrumentation of cumbia and created a new genre that blurred its differences with vallenato, to the point that cumbia and vallenato are sometimes used interchangeably and are also used as umbrella terms for Colombian Caribbean music, which includes other genres such as Porro, Gaita, Fandango, Mapalé, Bullerengue, Merecumbé.

The popularity of cumbia de acordeón and cumbia de salon was recognized internationally and other countries such as Mexico, Perú and Argentina developed their own genres of cumbia, in every case assimilated by working-class people.

During the 1960s and 70s the record label Discos Fuentes popularized a genre of cumbia that mixed the accordion with cheap synthesizers and low-cost production, nicknamed chucu-chucu or raspa, for the incessant presence of the guiro.

The genre was mainly marketed and produced in Medellín and rotated heavily on radio stations, although never really gained attention or visibility in the mainstream Colombian media, since it was regarded, in the same way as vallenato, as low class and unsophisticated. However, chucu-chucu became the sort of tropical music that was omnipresent in public transportation, private security booths, neighborhood kiosks, and Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties.The ubiquity of tropical music had a significant impact on a generation of musicians that used it as material for their new creations. Most of the avant-garde experiments of new music in Colombia in past 30 years capitalized on the plasticity and adaptability of Cumbia — already demonstrated by the previously mentioned variety of genres and mixtures that emerged during the 20th century.

Art Music in Colombia

During most of the twentieth century Colombian art music was preoccupied with the question of national identity. As in many other countries outside of Europe and North America this meant a focus on indigenism: a “rescue” or a re-imagination of sonorities based on the indigenous native cultures present in the territories since pre-colonial times. Some recognized composers include Guillermo Uribe Holguin and Antonio Maria Valencia.

This contrasted in general with the nineteenth century tradition of aestheticizing saloon Andinean dances, such as Bambucos, Pasillos, and Guabinas, that were identified as the most representative music of Colombian meztisaje.

Jacqueline Nova is considered the pioneer of electroacoustic music and the first composer to explore the language of French and the German schools of music. She was one of the Alumni of the now defunct program in Electroacoustic music at the Torcuato de Tella in Buenos Aires, that formed a school of electroacoustic composers in Latin America in the 1970s. Her works also explored Colombian identity forms of indigenism, but with a touch of post-war avant-garde, as seen in Cantos de la Creación de la Tierra.

Other composers that adopted a more conservative yet modernist musical language include Blas Emilio Atehortúa, Francisco Zumaqué, Guillermo Rendón García.

The Conservatory at the National University of Bogotá was funded at the beginning of the 20th century modeled after the Paris Conservatory. It reminded the sole higher music education institution in Colombia for most of the century. Not until the 1980s alternatives started to emerge, mostly based on the US-American models of musical education. Guillermo Gaviria founded the music program at the Universidad Javeriana and Manuel Cubides at the Universidad de los Andes. Smaller and regional institutions started music programs as well.

Although slightly more modern, this academization was based on the supremacy of European culture, favoring the teaching of Common Practice Period music, and preparing the students in classical music instruments and ensembles. Likewise, their compositional practices relied on models of the American school. Juan Antonio Cuellar, Rodolfo Acosta, Diego Vega, Harold Vázquez Castañeda belong to a generation of composers educated in the US, whose demanding contemporary language was met with resistance from the freshly formed generation of performers that were still educated in the more classical repertoire and were aiming to aquire positions in orchestras or circle back to teaching in institutions, rather than engaging with contemporary repertoire. Therefore, some of the composers of the new century ended up looking for more adventurous experiences in conservatories of Europe and North America, establishing themselves in their local scenes: Lucrecia Dalt, Alexandra Cárdenas, Violeta Cruz, Natalia Domínguez Rangel, or Alba Lucia Triana, to name a few.

Currently, some initiatives are gaining visibility in the Contemporary music scene of Bogotá and other big cities, focusing on the performance and divulgation of contemporary repertoire. For example, the musicians of the Círculo de Compositores de Música Contemporanea, led by Rodolfo Acosta, perform contemporary music in its more traditional sense, while the Ensamble Als Eco performs minimalist music of the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen or Simeon ten Holt.

Despite its struggles, the institutionalization of musical education broadened the horizons of academic and experimental music. In 2001, the Javeriana University started offering a jazz program, where some of its students incorporated a performer-composer mentality in their musical practice. On the one hand, by enjoying relatively more freedom to explore other forms of popular music and incorporate it in their repertoire, jazz students started to question the identity of “Colombian Jazz” and experimented with ways in which US American Jazz language could be merged with Colombian rhythms. On the other hand, the imposition of post war jazz language into academia gave “the jazz” a taste of elitism, which never really resonated with the essence of Tropical Caribbean music, and only presented jazz as another agent of colonization, as an umbrella term for all folk music.

Cumbia Tropicanibal, Tropicalia Bogotana, RoloET

Involved in this simmering musical melting pot, a group of students of the Universidad Javeriana found new alternatives to the demands from western standards (both classical and jazz), the overmarketed product of world music, (embodied by Vives), and the traditional folklorist and purist ideas of Colombian music primarily found in the state-funded Academia Superior de Artes de Bogotá. Their first and most emblematic act, the short-lived Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato, was a project that glued together the sounds of vallenato and Caribbean music with thrash metal, hardcore punk, atonality, serialism and noise.

The lineup included, among others, Eblis Álvarez and Mario Galeano, the leading figures of a series of subsequent projects, such as Ondatropica, Frente Cumbiero, Los Pirañas, Meridian Brothers and Romperayo that Luis Fernando Valencia labeled the Rolo Electro Tropidelia or RoloET.[8] Rolo is slang for people born in the Bogotá area, and refers to a new genre of tropical music that originated from the music academy in Bogotá. It incorporates noise, free-improvisation, and electronic “psychedelic” sounds. Similar projects emerged in parallel and in conjunction with the teachers and students of the jazz program of the Javeriana University, such as Primero mi Tía, Asdruval, Mula, El Ombligo, Suricato. This established a foundation for musical experimentation within academia, that although based in the “academic jazz” program, sought to go beyond its established and imposed paradigms. The musicians started their own labels, La Distritofónica and Festina Lente, and the venue Matik-Matik became the place for showcasing their musical experiments.

Other early examples of a new Tropicalia outside of academia include Bloque de Busqueda (the band behind Carlos Vives, that proposed something a bit more daring) and Sidestepper;

Curupira, an offspring from the new trends of Colombian music that detached from the more traditionalist side, was dubbed Nuevas Musicas Colombianas.

Parallel to Vives’ re-marketing of Vallenato and the academic interests in Colombian traditional music, a new form of tropical techno, also started to gain attention in underground circles in Bogotá. Bands like Bomba Estéreo, Systema Solar, and the projects of Quantic (including Ondatrópica, in conjunction with Galeano) was heard and played in several underground bars and venues in the Colombian capital.

Cumbia Siglo XXI

The most recent release of Meridian Brothers: Cumbia Siglo XXI (2020) is a conceptually ambitious album that ultimately seeks to establish (ironically or not) the new paradigm of the cumbia to come. The production has a lo-fi taste, preserving the impression of a band performing live, the electronic sounds are raw, and the production is minimal, as on prior albums. Their compositional strategy incorporates electronic instruments into the established local traditions of tropical music, making it eerie abstract and surreal, rather than inserting discrete elements of tropical music to the paradigms of global electronic dance music. The aural pallet is not substantially different from prior albums, but the structure as conceptual album is more prominent than in previous releases. Throughout the album, Álvarez takes calls attention to Colombia’s fragmented political discourse by embodying a variety of personalities declaiming non-sensical lyrics. Much like Lido Pimienta, the general mood is festive but somewhat gloomy, but while her criticism of Colombian society is made explicit in the touching lyrics, Meridians Brothers presents a technotropidystopia through satire and nihilism.

Ricardo Arias has pointed out the ways in which places located in “the periphery of the west” face challenges when it comes to the creation of media art that relies heavily on technological advances, suggesting that the aesthetics of the Global South are inherently marked by technological absences.[9] With their deliberate use of open-source software programming and unconventional sound design, Meridian Brothers capitalizes in such limitations, making them part of their unique DIY aesthetic. The idea of utilizing their limited resources to create music and thus rejecting the use of studio production techniques for commercial gain and novelty awe distinguished Meridian Brothers (and their surrounding projects) from the other Tropicalia acts of the Colombian capital such as Bomba Estéreo.

Something similar can be seen in in Frente Cumbiero’s album with Mad Professor (2010), the recording studios were effectively used as musical instruments in themselves, rather than just the means to produce and compose. Using western avant-gardism as a reference, electronic sounds are incorporated into music by adopting systems, open-source software, guitar pedals, vintage devices and modular synthesizers which oppose the linear hegemony of established contemporary music production workflows. This effectively situates them in the realm of contemporary art music while at the same time avoiding any of the practices characteristic of “Tecno-Macondism.”

The biggest achievement of the RoloET is not the successful coalescence of different currents that situates the genre in the forefront of the international music scene, both as pop as well as academic music. Its biggest achievement is the big leap that it took to arrive there: it jumped from an education based on American models that saw serialism as the pillar of compositional aesthetic and landed in a postmodern, new conceptual approach to music making, without falling in the fallacy of separating between pop music and academic music. In other words, Álvarez, Galeano and Ojeda used popular music as the main material for their art musical compositions. Some of these attitudes somewhat resemble ideas of making “Music with Music”: RoloET emerges from methodological research of musical archives of Caribbean music in the form of LP digging, deconstructing and re-presenting it and inserting a socio-political commentary.

Nevertheless, the RoloET is in essence an exclusive, demanding, and selective movement of middle class Rolos that have appropriated the music of the Colombian rural and lower classes and subsequently incorporated them in their musical language in order to create an avant-garde, and high culture version of this popular music. Likewise, Galeano has coined the term Tropicanibalism for his practice of anarcheological digging that feed back into the composition and realization of this new genre, thus “nourishing from itself”: A rather conceptual claim for a popular genre of music. Furthermore, during the last decade their several projects gained wider visibility in high culture institutions around the world.

For example, Chupame el Dedo (Suck my finger), a project that emerged as a commission from the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, or chamber music commissions by Kronos Quartet to Galeano, where he introduces Tropical rhythms to the format while exploring melodic patterns of cumbia. Or the JACK Quartet’s commission to Álvarez for their concert in Bogotá in 2015. The broadening of their artistic endeavors motivates their mise en scene and complementary aesthetics, as one can see for example in the Meridian Brothers Concert at the Teatro Colón performance.

And yet in this circling around between low and high art, authenticity and performativity, underlies a genuine proposal. On the one hand Meridian Brothers very bluntly places a mirror in front of the Colombian spectator and induces them to think how this music, that the Rolo hipster used to mock in its infancy, has become cool because they themselves are now interested in it. The RoloET nihilism is opposed by Lido Pimienta’s act of novel sincerity, that among the campiness, stands out from the Rolo Tropicalia. Even though both RoloET and Lido Pimienta are at first sight presenting a form or cultural appropriation, or rather, class appropriation, they are evading the schemes of appropriation. As indie underground and avant-garde acts, they avoid participating in the music industry complex that supported the stardom of figures like Vives. Rather, they are bringing visibility to musics and cultural practices that have received little attention within Colombia and around the world.

Conclusion. The shape of cumbia to come.

While I have been focusing on a very particular genre or movement of the experimental new music scene of Colombia, I want to make clear that this is not the only one. There are also a few developments in sound art: initiatives led by the Museo de Arte Moderno en Medellin, that could be named the Colombian capital of Sound Art, supported by the increased interest in media arts, particularly driven by the DIY and open-source movement. The composers being educated in Colombia have also dragged attention to other forms of traditional music in their own work. This, partially an influence of the mediatic discourse on identity politics exported from the United States, have led younger generations to search for a musical identity. Now that cumbia and tropical music is accepted in the international sphere, there is the opportunity to look at it with other eyes.

If we see (tecno) macondoism as a form to romanticize the Colombian Caribbean as idyllic paradise, we see that the interest in Cumbia from the musical scene developed not because of macondoism, but despite of it. While Carlos Vives and vallenato represent a simplistic regional and class struggle, Cumbia represents the comprehensive embodiment of our postmodern and post capitalist world. García Márquez and Vives praise the utopias of better pasts (Macondo and La Tierra de Olvido), while Lido Pimienta and Meridian Brothers seem to sing to the despair of uncertain futures, of electronic dystopias and infected traditions, while being critical of internal and global dynamics of Colombian politics. Something that indeed opposes binaries of old and new, electronic, and acoustic, rural cosmopolitan, local global. Colombian Experimental music has found in Cumbia (both as a defined genre, and as an umbrella term for Caribbean Colombian music) a genre to develop a truly avant-garde and unique language that avoids previously imposed clichés, while at the same time sounding uniquely Colombian.

This german translation of the text was originally published in Positionen issue #128, august 2021

[1]           More in L. Convers & J. Ochoa, Gaiteros y Tamboreros, Bogotá, Editorial de la Pontificia Universidad Javeriana 2007

[2]           Ana Maria Ochoa, “García Márquez, Macondismo, and the Soundscapes of Vallenato.”, Popular Music 24 (2) 2005, S. 207–222

[3]           Janet L. Sturman, (2003), “Technology and Identity in Colombian Popular Music: Tecno-macondismo in Carlos Vives’s Approach to Vallenato”, in Music and Technoculture, ed. R.T.A. Lysloffand L.C. Gay, Jr. 153–81. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

[4]                      Carolina Santamaría-Delgado, “La ‘Nueva Música Colombiana’: La redefinición de lonacional en épocas de la world music.”, in El artista:revista de investigaciones en música y artes plásticas 4, 2007, S. 6–24

[5]                      More detailed explanations can be found in Valencia 2017, Santamaria 2007, Ana Maria Ochoa, “García Márquez, Macondismo, and the Soundscapes of Vallenato.”, Popular Music 24 (2) 2005, S. 207-222 and Travesías por la tierra del olvido: modernidad y colombianidad en la música de Carlos Vives y La Provincia, Bogotá, Editorial Pontificia Universidad Javeriana 2014

[6]                      J.S. Ochoa 2017 and Dario Blanco Arboleda, La cumbia comomatriz sonora de Latinoamérica. Identidad y cultura continental. Medellín: Editorial Universidad de Antioquia 2018

[7]              Juan Sebastián Ochoa, “La cumbia en Colombia: invenciónde una tradición”, in Revista Musical Chilena 70(226) 2017, S. 31–52

[8]           Luis Fernando Valencia Rueda, The Alien Musical Brotherhood of The Colombian Andean Plateau: Sound Worlds, Musical Rhetoric, And Musical Meaning In Bogota’s Experimental Tropical Psychedelia (1998–2014), PhD Princeton University 2017

[9]           Arias Ricardo, “From the Margins of the Periphery: Music and Technology at the Outskirts of the West: A Personal View”, Leonardo Music Journal(8) 1998, S. 49-54

Nico Daleman
Nico Daleman is a Colombian-born sound artist and musicologist living in Berlin. Among his many projects, which include data sonification, 3D spatial sound for compositions and installations, he currently hosts the monthly show The Rest is Music on Cashmere Radio.