Music for all: Traditional music and dance reflect the country’s cultural mix


Among the numerous cultural attractions that Colombia has to offer, music is possibly the most representative. A long list of dances and musical styles are part of Colombian heritage and remain, to this day, central to its culture. The Andean nation enjoys a diverse repertoire of music styles, rhythms and dances, which have their peculiarities in each region. These dances come from diverse backgrounds, as the country has been influenced by centuries of migration and colonisation, absorbing and mixing European, African, Indian, Andean, and even Persian cultural influences. This exotic blend is evident in Colombia’s exceptional musical mix. Colombia has more than 30 typical dances and rhythms, making it an important music exporter to Latin America and the world. Some of Colombia’s traditional styles include mapalé (originally African), fandango, merengue, bullerengue, chandé, berroche and champeta, among many others. Nonetheless, three dances stand out for their popularity and resonance in today: cumbia, vallenato and, although originally Cuban, the extremely celebrated salsa.

CUMBIA, COLOMBIAN FOLK: Cumbia is among the most popular dances in the country’s Caribbean region along the northern coast, and it is perhaps the style of Colombian music that enjoys the most international recognition. This genre, which emerged when Colombia was a Spanish colony, is a combination of indigenous melodies and African rhythms. Although it was originally danced at festivals in Cartagena, cumbia soon spread to other places along the Caribbean coast and became common in the regions of the Magdalena River and northern Antioquia. This dance represents a man courting a woman; dancers move in circles around a central point occupied by the musicians – a trait indicative of the influence of indigenous and African tribes that dance around a bonfire. During the dance, women glide with short steps while their hips follow the rhythm of the drums. Men lift their right foot heel and keep their left foot on the ground. Men have more freedom to move, allowing them to show off in front of the women they are courting. Women typically wear a red plaid skirt and go barefoot. They also wear a headscarf and hold a candle, which serves as an instrument to frighten the men who are courting them. Men are also barefoot and wear a white shirt and rolled-up pants. Typically, men wear a sombrero vueltiao, an artisanal hat that was originally developed by the Zenú tribe in northern Colombia with palm leaves and is a cultural symbol of the Andean nation today. The national cumbia festival is held annually in the city of El Banco, in the department of Magdalena, during the month of August. A number of Colombian musical legends perform this style of music, such as Joe Arroyo, José Barros and Pacho Galán.

VALLENATO, THE RHYTHM OF THE PEOPLE: Vallenato music, like cumbia, was born on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, specifically in the city of Valledupar, the capital of the department of Cesar. Vallenato has in fact been heavily influenced by cumbia itself. While cumbia has remained an iconic traditional dance, vallenato has achieved great popularity both domestically and internationally. Vallenato music comes from what estate workers used to sing on dairy farms while guiding the livestock. Vallenato lyrics, usually romantic, were originally folk stories that were converted into songs.

True vallenato needs only three instruments to be played: two percussion instruments (the box and the originally African guacharaca) and an accordion, which plays the melody. The presence of the accordion is indicative of European influence. The increased popularity of this genre has seen the inclusion of other instruments, including guitars, flutes and bagpipes. Today’s internationally famous vallenato singers, such as Juan Fernando Fonseca and Carlos Vives, incorporate bass and drums into their songs, bringing traditional vallenato closer to current pop-rock rhythms (actually known as vallenato-pop). Although this commercial version of vallenato has contributed to the genre’s international fame, traditional vallenato is still very popular domestically. The most famous Vallenato festival is held in Valledupar, the city where it originated, during the last week of April every year.

SALSA TO EXPORT: While Cuba is the birthplace of salsa, this style was key to the development of a music scene in places like Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and even New York. In fact, during the past 50 years, Colombia has been responsible for maintaining this genre. It was in the late 1960s when Colombian people first began to identify with salsa, a mixture of Cuban, Caribbean and African influences, and the offspring of Afro-Cuban jazz. Salsa, which is danced to the rhythm of the son cubano, is played with Cuban percussion instruments, including timbales, bongos, a güiro (a gourd with notches that is rubbed with a stick), a cowbell, two maracas and a conga. Piano, bass, trumpets, saxophones, trombones, a flute and a violin accompany the percussion. The term salsa, which in Spanish refers to a sauce or dressing for food, identifies this musical style with taste and joy. Cuban musician Cheo Marquetti introduced this term after returning from Mexico, where he had enjoyed the variety of hot sauces used in Mexican cuisine. Salsa became a symbol of identity in cities with a strong African presence, like Barranquilla, Cali, Cartagena and Buenaventura. Colombia has produced a number of talented salsa musicians and dancers that it has exported to the world salsa scene. This includes bands such as Fruko y sus Tesos from Medell n, Cali’s Grupo Niche and Los Titanes from Barranquilla, as well as artists like Joe Madrid, Diego Galé and Jorge Gaviria, among an endless list of masters.

Although Cali has often been named the capital of salsa, the contribution of Caribbean cities – especially Cartagena and Barranquilla – to the development of this musical style is undeniable. Today, besides being part of Colombian popular culture, salsa is enjoyed and danced in the country’s most famous nightclubs. Additionally, there are also several well-known local salsa festivals, the most popular being the World Salsa Festival, which is held in Cali every August.

MUSIC FOR ALL: Almost every city in the country has its own festival, for cumbia, champeta, salsa or vallenato. In addition to local fairs that take place in every region – predominantly in the months of January, August and December – there are a number of folk music festivals. Neiva, the capital of the department of Huila, is home to the annual Folkloric Festival, an event that lasts almost one month and starts the third week of June. At Neiva, locals and foreigners enjoy music, folk dances, barbecues and local spirits. Cali hosts the Petronio Álvarez Pacific Music Festival in August. Numerous musicians come to Cali to compete and perform AfroColombian music styles, which are predominant in the Pacific region of the country. In addition, Colombia has several renowned carnivals. Bogotá commemorates its foundation with the Carnival of Bogotá on August 5 and 6. Medellín holds the Myths and Legends parade on December 7. The most popular event of the year is the Carnival of Barranquilla, which is held every February.

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