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Pop Music | Latin Pulse

Cumbias Get Long-Overdue Respect on CD

February 04, 2001|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar

Long before she separated from her husband and moved to Bogota to take care of her two granddaughters, Sandra Alayon-Stanton's grandmother lived in the Colombian countryside. She worked hard on her domineering husband's farm, where her chores included cooking for all the laborers in the estate.

When she came to Bogota, the grandmother brought her music with her.

"While she did the laundry, ironed the clothes or taught my sister and I how to cook, she would play Radio Santa Fe," remembers Alayon-Stanton, co-owner of the London-based World Music Network record label. "It was a radio station that played what we call musica antigua. The old stuff. Mainly a lot of cumbias."

The grandmother died when Alayon-Stanton was 12, but the woman's favorite music had a lasting impression on the young woman. She would find herself walking into restaurants and humming cumbias she didn't realize she remembered.

Now Alayon-Stanton has paid tribute to her grandmother's legacy by producing a superb compilation album titled "The Rough Guide to Cumbia."

The collection is an introduction to one of the richest--and most underrated--styles to come out of Latin America.

Cumbia is a dance and a music form that combines Andean Indian, European and African influences, flowing from the interaction in the 16th century of the indigenous people, Spanish colonists and African slaves. Musically, it relies on syncopation to create a bouncy, ever-shifting effect, with a main drum pattern emphasizing the off beat.

Lyrically, cumbia expresses the philosophical outlook of Latin American country peoples. These are tales filled with double-entendres, reflections on the ironies of life, and praise for the home country.

Because it relies on the same rhythm, and because it lacks the urban sophistication of other tropical formats such as salsa and Latin jazz, cumbia is often dismissed by sophisticated listeners as music for hicks.

"We call it 'kon-kin-kon' music, because that's what the rhythm sounds like all the time," says one high-profile salsa musician. "It's country music, unrefined and in dire need of some modern harmonies."

Alayon-Stanton theorizes that the snubbing of cumbia is connected to the fact that it is an age-old tradition.

"If cumbia had been invented two years ago, everyone would be dancing it today," she says. "Even when I was growing up in Colombia, if you wanted to play cumbias at a party, you could only have them at the end of the evening. For people to dance, you had to play salsa hits by artists like Oscar D'Leon or Cuco Valoy."

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At the same time, however, cumbia is enjoyed by millions of fans all over the Americas. From Mexico to Argentina, every Latin country has made this Colombian form its own, adopting it and adding to it a variety of influences.

"The Rough Guide" is a memorable collection of tuneful little gems, overflowing with flavor and zest for life. The melodies are sticky and sinuous, and the orchestrations, full of cheap electronic keyboards, have a strange, straight-to-the-point elegance. The lyrics celebrate the little things that make men's sorrows go away, like a cup of coffee in the morning, the company of friends or the sight of a pretty woman.

Some cumbias transcend the genre's simplicity, recounting epic tales of mythological grandeur. The standard "La Piragua," for instance, which "The Rough Guide" presents in a version by '60s group Los Black Stars, tells of the intrepid Guillermo Cubillo, alone in a small canoe, braving a storm and followed by an army of stars that adorns his piragua, or canoe, with light and legend.

Other cumbias celebrate Colombia, its traditional holidays and cumbia itself. And there's always humor. "La Banda Borracha" depicts a popular group whose furious leader discovers that all the musicians have merrily gotten drunk.

Cumbia was born on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, and originally was limited to vocals and percussion. It was later enriched by keyboards and brass. In the 1940s, it was embraced by Colombia's urban upper classes, and later absorbed the influence of New York mambo and Cuban salsa.

Some of the seminal artists showcased in "The Rough Guide" are Lucho Bermudez, who single-handedly took cumbia from the countryside to the big city, and Leonor Gonzalez, a thunderous yet soothingly tender singer known as "the Big Black Lady from Colombia."

Alayon-Stanton's selections are culled from the archives of Sonolux, the second-most important record label in Colombia. She was unable to secure material from the seminal Discos Fuentes label.

"I spent some time at the company's archives, and pretty much wanted to bring a tent and camp there for a couple of months," she says with a laugh. "But Fuentes is already licensing its material to other compilations, so they didn't support ours."

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