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October 22, 2009

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Afro-Colombian mating ritual now a global music, dance sensation

ON a brick plaza in this walled port of Cartagena where slave ships once dumped human cargo, a young black man cries out a Spanish verse over the beating of his tambor drum.

With two whacks on the stretched animal skin, the musicians flanking him let loose a percussive hailstorm that settles into a cumbia, a dance reverently performed by young Afro-Colombians.

A musical mating ritual that came about in Colombia's colonial era, it begins with a line of barefoot women in period dress, baskets balancing on their heads, sashaying toward male partners.

Now the folk rhythm has fused with such post-modern styles as electronica and hip-hop into a musical sensation in dance clubs all over the world. African drums, native wind instruments and maracas are often replaced by guitar, bass and deejays, whose audiences favor Day-Glo sneakers and strobe lights to the more colonial attire.

Until just a few years ago, "cumbia digital" or "nu-cumbia" was only mentioned on obscure music blogs. In July, it was a hit at the Latin American Music Conference in New York, where it was declared the latest global dance craze.

At the annual showcase for alternative Latin artists, among groups creating a major buzz around the new cumbia, was Bomba Estereo, a Bogota-based band that creates electronic dance music. Another was ZZK, a collective of Argentine deejays whose sound scapes replace traditional instruments such as cane flutes and tambors with electronics, while retaining the music's identifying 4-4 rhythm.

Mexico and Argentina were the first countries to adopt cumbia decades ago. Today, a new generation in those countries is taking what was considered a backwater style and giving it a cosmopolitan spin. This summer, Bersa Discos released an EP by Mexican deejay Toy Selectah, which fuses cumbia with electronica in such a frantic way that it almost sounds like a Mario Bros video game set in Tijuana.

Cumbia origins

An hour by bus from Cartagena, at the mouth of the Magdalena River, is Barranquilla. The cargo ships that have long called at its harbor enriched the city with immigrants: Its Italian, Chinese and Lebanese restaurants are rarely matched elsewhere in Colombia.

The region's diversity dates back centuries, when African slaves brought to Colombia to cut sugar cane and harvest bananas and tobacco shared their imported beats with local Creoles.

The story of cumbia's origin is imbued with legends and debates. It is said, for example, that the dance steps are short paces back and forth because that was as long as shackles would allow enslaved dancers to go.

But one thing is for sure.

"Cumbia is the folkloric representation of the Caribbean region," explains Pedro Beltran, the 79-year-old frontman of La Cumbia Moderna de Soledad, a 50-year-old Colombian musical institution.

"The percussion part we inherited from the slaves, or from Africa," he says. "But the flute, or the gaita, is pure Colombian, from this region," he adds, referring to the cane-made wind instrument that projects a powerful clarinet-like sound.

What defines the cumbia - and makes it so easily malleable - is its beat, a loping call and response between the drums. That beat is readily blended, as Beltran's work shows, with whatever else might come along, be it the accordion-driven vallenato, or the merecumbe, a fusion of the merengue and cumbia.

Forty years ago, Beltran was among the first to add a horn section and electric bass to a cumbia ensemble, hence the Moderna in his orchestra's name. He enriched his repertoire with foreign sounds that seduced him - the disco of Rod Stewart or the Afro-beat of the Nigerian-born Fela Kuti.

Sexy music

In his time, nu-cumbia meant Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" reinterpreted on gaitas and tambores.

The cover became one of Beltran's biggest hits, a song you can hear all along Colombia's Caribbean coast, where speakers piled outside cinder block homes on Saturday afternoons blast salsa, dance hall, vallenato and champeta, the local dance music fusion.

"You can dialogue with any type of music and maintain the local swing," says Walter Hernandez, better known as DJ Indigo, as he fingers through floor-to-ceiling cases of vinyl at Discolombia, a record shop and veritable music library in Barranquilla, headphones sneaking out of his shirt collar.

Indigo, 34, whiles his hours among its dusty stacks when he's not spinning at Barranquilla nightclubs or performing in his electro-Caribbean band, Systema Solar. Using samples from Indigo's vast vinyl collection of musicians such as Beltran and Toto la Momposina, Systema Solar adds contemporary elements: electronics, scratching and rapping.

In Discolombia's back room, he points to a corner pile of records topped by a sleeve depicting a group of men in polo shirts posing on a soccer field. It's Abelardo Carbono's group, which put a cumbia spin on American disco and funk to make uniquely Colombian covers of songs like Donna Summers' "I Feel Love" and the BeeGees' "Staying Alive."

A more contemporary spin on the core Caribbean beat comes from Bomba Estereo, the Bogota psychedelic cumbia combo that just wound up a 12-date US tour. Its bassist-producer, Simon Mejia, was astounded at how quickly US audiences took to the band's music. At a Brooklyn, New York, gig, he said, fans already knew the lyrics to some songs.


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